AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
Why no posthumous VC for naval hero Robert Rankin?
, February 15, 2014
The recent announcement that HMAS Yarra (II) is to receive a “unit citation” for its final battle against overwhelming odds on February 5, 1942, will anger and disgust those who see this as a pitifully inadequate recognition of the heroism of its captain, Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin.
Yarra, a sloop armed with three 4-inch guns, was the sole escort of a small convoy trying to escape from Singapore to Australia.
Fifteen months before, on November 5, 1940, in the North Atlantic, the British armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay, commanded by Captain Edward Fegen, and armed with old and worn 6-inch guns, had been the sole escort of a convoy of 37 ships attacked by the German heavy cruiser (or pocket-battleship), Admiral Scheer, heavily armoured and armed with six 11-inch guns.
Robert Rankin as commander
of HMAS Yarra in 1942.
(Photo courtesy of
the Australian War Memorial).
Captain Fegen ordered the convoy to scatter, then his ship laid a smokescreen and, despite the overwhelming odds against it, charged the Admiral Scheer in order to draw its fire. The Jervis Bay was sunk with four-fifths of its crew, including Captain Fegen, who, with one arm blown off by a shell-burst, had ordered an ensign to be nailed to the mast after the flag halliards had been shot away. He was last seen, with the central control gone, directing independent fire from whatever guns were still functioning.
Survivors recalled the hissing sound as the ship — still fighting — sank and as water closed over the red-hot gun-barrels.
Nearly all the convoy escaped. The Jervis Bay had bought them half an hour, and now night was falling.
Captain Fegen was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The Admiral Scheer’s captain, Theodor Krancke, observed as his ship swept past the floating wreckage where the Jervis Bay had been, “God knows, those men have put themselves in their country’s debt today.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in his victory broadcast in 1945, “I think of names like Fegen VC, and bitterness against the Irish dies in my heart.”
The captain of the Polish steamer Puck, the smallest ship in the 1940 convoy, declared, “The fresh example of British valour on the high seas is sufficient to give renewed confidence in the British Navy and in British victory. On behalf of my crew, I would like to say how much we commiserate with the relatives and friends of the courageous crew of the Jervis Bay, who lost their lives in this historic action, but who may be proud of the role they have played in the fight for freedom.”
The HMAS Yarra (II), leading her convoy in the desperate flight southward from Singapore, was overtaken by a Japanese heavy-cruiser squadron armed with 8-inch guns, and a destroyer flotilla. The smallest of these would have been an overmatch for Yarra.
Captain Rankin could have abandoned the convoy and attempted to make his own escape in the tropic rain-squalls. He could conceivably have surrendered, but that was something the Navy’s traditions did not allow for. Like Fegen in Jervis Bay, but facing even more hopeless odds, he ordered the convoy to scatter and laid a smokescreen. Then he engaged the enemy.
Ninety shells screamed over the Yarra until she was hit by an 8-inch salvo. Rankin was probably killed when an 8-inch shell burst on the bridge. The Yarra sank, leaving only a handful of survivors in the water, several of whom perished after days in the open sea, until the last of them were picked up by a Dutch submarine.
Representations have been made over the years to have Rankin awarded a posthumous VC, as Fegen was in very similar circumstances. These have been met with a blank refusal. Various reasons have been put forward for not bestowing the award, such as the fact there was no surviving officer to make the recommendation, and that too much time has passed. Rankin has had a Collins-class submarine named after him. If he is good enough for this, why is he not good enough for a VC?
The award of a “unit citation” reveals that the reasons for not honouring Rankin do not stand up. If officers witnessing an act of gallantry are necessary for a VC, why are they apparently not necessary for a “unit citation”? The same applies to the reason offered that too much time has elapsed. If time does not affect a “unit citation”, why should it affect a VC? It is true that Yarra failed in this impossible battle, but failure does not diminish courage.
No one doubts that the Yarra’s crew as a whole behaved with the greatest gallantry, and a unit citation for the rest of the crew might well be appropriate; but the decision to engage the enemy was not theirs. It was the high and lonely responsibility of the captain, and it should be recognised as such, not by a collective decoration shared with the most newly-joined stoker. It suggests, in fact, that Rankin is regarded as having done nothing to distinguish him from any other member of the ship’s company.
The persistent refusal to award Rankin an appropriate decoration is a slap in the face to the memory of one of Australia’s greatest heroes. Set against the transcendent heroism of Rankin’s action, a mere unit citation is a picayune award, with no rationale, and which cannot be justified.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.