- Swinden, Greg
- WWI operations, History - Between the wars, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Cerberus (Shore Establishment), HMAS Australia I
- June 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Frederick Campbell Darley was born at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, NSW on 12 February 1886, the eldest child of Cecil West Darley (Public Works Engineer) and Constance Leila Annette Darley (nee Campbell). He was educated privately in Sydney and, on 15 May 1901, commenced training as a cadet at Britannia Royal Naval College (Dartmouth) under the Colonial Naval Cadet Scheme.
Darley graduated from the Naval College in November 1902 and joined the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Mars (Home Fleet) for further training. He was promoted to Midshipman on 15 November 1902 having been awarded two months ‘Time Gained’ for good academic results at the Naval College. After 11 months service in Mars he transferred to pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Duncan (Mediterranean Fleet) in October 1903. His annual report in 1904 described him as a useful and practical officer.
Midshipman Darley joined the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Caesar (Home Fleet) in December 1905 before promotion to Sub-Lieutenant on 15 January 1906. In February he commenced his professional training courses in Seamanship, Pilotage, Gunnery, Navigation parts 1 & 2 and Torpedoes. He received a £10 book prize for gaining six First Class Certificates for this training. In June 1906 Darley joined the armoured cruiser HMS Sutlej (North America and West Indies Station). He was promoted to Lieutenant on 15 January 1907, aged 20.
In August 1907, Lieutenant Darley was appointed to the protected cruiser HMS Pyramus serving on the Australia Station. The Royal Australian Navy had not yet been created and the Commonwealth Naval Forces were a ramshackle collection of old vessels inherited from the colonies at Federation in 1901. The defence of Australia, at this stage, rested clearly with the Royal Navy Squadron based at Sydney; and which often ventured out to the far flung portions of the British Empire in the Pacific.
That said, life on the Australia Station was quite pleasant and it was often termed the ‘Social Station’. There was also ample time for Darley to reacquaint himself with his family. During his two years in Pyramus the ship carried out the normal run of peacetime exercises and visited a number of Australian and New Zealand ports on ‘showing the flag’ cruises. His reports described him as a very good officer being skilful at mechanical and other drawing. Very zealous, especially in gunnery work which he takes a keen interest. A good rifle shot and possesses good physical qualities as well as sound judgement for his years.’
In mid-1909 Lieutenant Darley returned to England and joined the gunnery training ship HMS Revenge (another pre-dreadnought battleship) based at Portsmouth. This was the first step in the next phase of his career as a gunnery specialist. His February 1910 report stated: Good knowledge of French and good at mechanical drawing. Able and zealous officer with good physique. Recommended for Lieutenant (Gunnery).
Following service in Revengehe commenced training at the Royal Navy’s Gunnery School, HMS Excellent, based at Whale Island (Portsmouth) on 6 August 1910. Training at Whale Island was intensive and demanding as gunnery was considered the premier skill within the Royal Navy at that time. Again Darley did well in his training and was described as able and zealous.
On completing the Gunnery Course Lieutenant Darley was sent to Chatham Naval Barracks (HMS Pembroke) in September 1911 as ‘additional for Gunnery Duties’. He was involved in the training of junior gunnery ratings and also represented the Navy at the Bisley rifle shooting competition in 1912. In early October 1912 he returned to Excellent to assist with gunnery trials for the newly commissioned battle-cruiser HMS New Zealand. Darley undertook these duties with his normal skilful and zealous attitude and as a result was selected, in late October 1912, to assist with the commissioning of the new Royal Australian Navy (RAN) battle-cruiser Australia.
He was lent to HMA London Depoton 26 January 1913 and thus began a long period of service with the RAN. The battle cruiser Australia had been ordered by the Australian Government in 1910 and built at the shipyard of John Brown and Company Limited at Clydebank, Glasgow. She was commissioned on 21 June 1913 as HMAS Australia and soon sailed for Australia; arriving in Sydney on 4 October 1913 with a formal entry of the Australian Fleet Unit.
This also signified the transfer of the naval defence of Australia from Britain to the Australian Government. In early 1914 the commanding officer of Australia, Captain Stephen Radcliffe, RN described Darley as showing great zeal and ability and Rear Admiral Patey, commanding the fleet, agreed entirely. During early 1914 the Australian Fleet operated off the east coast conducting training exercises and port visits to show off the new warships to the Australian public.
On 4 August 1914, however, following weeks of political machinations, the First World War commenced. Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary and the next day Australia also declared war on the Central Powers. War had been expected and the Australian Fleet was already at sea and was sent to conduct operations against German colonies in the South Pacific. The German East Asian Squadron, normally based at Tsingtau in China, was also at sea.
Australia escorted the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to capture German Samoa and then supported the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in its capture of German New Guinea. Due to Australia’s 12–inch guns the German East Asian Squadron avoided Australian and New Guinea waters and steamed eastwards across the Pacific. Australia was sent in pursuit but failed to catch up with the German warships before all but one were sunk at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914.
After the requisite eight years as a Lieutenant, Darley was automatically promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 1 January 1915, and also on this day, Australia entered the South Atlantic. On 5 January 1915 she intercepted and captured the German liner Eleanore Woermann north of the Falklands and soon after the battle cruisers’ 12–inch guns helped sink the vessel when it was decided not to take her as a prize. These shells were to be some of the few hostile shots of the war for Australia.
On 28 January 1915 Australia arrived in England and was soon attached to the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron based at Rosyth, Scotland. From here she made regular forays into the North Sea conducting convoy escort duties and searches for the elusive German Navy. The next three years proved to be dull but very hard work for the ship and bad luck, following a collision with the battle cruiser HMS New Zealand, kept her in port for repairs when the Battle of Jutland was fought on 31 May 1916.
In mid-1916, Captain Radcliffe described Darley as – Above average. A very keen gunnery officer with good ideas and plenty of knowledge and takes great pains with the training. He is unmethodical which detracts from his otherwise good qualities. Six months later his report was similar – Above average. Most zealous and hardworking. His whole interests are centred in the Service. Has good ideas and considerable knowledge of gunnery. He is slow and unmethodical which detracts from his good qualities.
In May 1917 Darley distinguished himself when a 12-inch shell became jammed in one of Australia’s hydraulic ammunition hoists. One of her officers described this incident:
It was in the North Sea in 1917. We were ‘clearing the ship for action’ a common exercise in those days and at this command all guns are loaded and every soul onboard stands by for the next development.
On this particular occasion one of the 12-inch projectiles for the turret guns was being sent up from the shell-room to the loading chamber by hydraulic power. It was a Lyddite shell weighing 850 pounds and fitted with a highly sensitive nose fuse or detonator. A coloured signal showed that the shell and cordite were being sent up from below and the powerful hydraulic lift was seen to start on its way but the shell never came to the top of the trunk. There was a tearing straining noise and the lift stuck.
Eager faces looked at each other and a petty officer, after giving the order ‘Still’ looked inside the hydraulic lift. To his horror he saw that the shell had not been rammed into the cage sufficiently and the nose fuse had been allowed to catch on a projection inside the trunk. The tremendous strain of the hydraulic lift had crushed in the detonating fuse and at any moment the slightest further movement might explode the shell. Strong men turned white, but waited death if needs be for the whole magazine would have gone up and they knew it.
Commander Darley who was informed of the position quickly arrived on the scene and after a brief examination quietly but grimly ordered everyone out of the turret, magazine and shell rooms. When alone he climbed down the lift and with a crowbar and spanner proceeded to release the jammed shell and to extract the damaged fuse.
Officers and men held their breath and waited for the hundred to one chance that the detonating needle inside the fuse would touch the tiny film of composition which meant – ‘eternity’. But he won through and when he had thrown the fuse overboard he went to his cabin and lit the inevitable cigarette.
Lieutenant Commander Darley was subsequently awarded the French Croix de Guerre (London Gazette, 30 November 1917) for distinguished services rendered during the war due to his service as Australia’s gunnery officer in over three years of active service. By this time however he had left the ship and was admitted to Chatham naval hospital, in early September, suffering from neurasthenia (a general term for being ‘worn out’). He was re-admitted to hospital in mid-October with suspected appendicitis.
Despite his zeal and competence, however, there is some evidence to suggest he was removed from Australia as part of a ‘cleansing’ of difficult officers. In June 1917, Darley acted as a prisoner’s friend to a rating being court martialled for insulting a Midshipman. Evidence was uncovered by Darley that revealed this junior officer had been instructed to falsify evidence to protect the reputation of the Officer of the Day, who had been found asleep in the Wardroom while on duty.
Darley succeeded in having the sailor acquitted but was accused by others, outside of the ship, of disloyalty to his commanding officer (Captain Backhouse) and the Fleet Commander (Rear Admiral Leveson) for winning the case on a ‘technical point’. Despite this his report for September 1917 by Captain Backhouse stated: Above average. Temperate. Has more than average gunnery skills. Useful in training of efficient officers. Very useful in training and handling of men in this ship. Rear Admiral Leveson concurred and wrote – Very marked industry, zeal and keenness under difficult circumstance. I should be glad to have him with me again and have recommended him for promotion.
Many of Australia’s junior sailors recalled Darley fondly and one later wrote: Those who knew him will remember the smile that so often appeared through his pointed sandy beard.
He was in and out of hospital for the remainder of 1917, finally reverting to Royal Navy service on 31 December 1917. Darley commenced the Long Gunnery Course at HMS Excellent on 4 February 1918 and completed the course in July 1918. His course report stated – Above average. Strongly recommended for promotion in due course. Very zealous, enthusiastic and able officer. Above average lecturer and instructor, popular with his class. Excellent power of command. Smart and of good physique.
On 16 July 1918, Lieutenant Commander Darley joined the light cruiser HMS Calliope as her gunnery officer. He married a widow, Edith Gore Brown (nee Holdship), at Holy Trinity Church Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland on 5 October 1918, but shortly after was hospitalised again, with kidney issues, and was posted ashore on 13 November to HMS Vivid(the Devonport Naval Barracks in Plymouth).
In early January 1919 he applied for the position of Officer in Charge of the RAN Gunnery School at HMAS Cerberus (Williamstown Naval Depot). His application was accepted and on 13 February 1919 he was again lent to the RAN. His duties at Williamstown encompassed not only the Gunnery School but also the Executive Officer (Second in Command) and responsibilty for morale and discipline amongst the men. These were extensive duties and added to this were his increasing family responsibilities as two of his three children were born at Williamstown (Daphne in 1919 and John in 1920).
His 1919 report was again glowing – A very zealous and capable officer. Has carried out his duties of Executive Officer with conspicuous ability and tact. Is very much respected and liked by the ships company. Is in charge of the Gunnery School. Very strongly recommend for promotion – likely to do well in the higher ranks of the service.
Darley was promoted to Commander on 30 June 1920 and on 1 September 1920 was given command of HMAS Cerberus III, the new RAN base under construction at Westernport (work had begun in 1912 and was now nearing completion). In 1921 the decision was made to close the Williamstown Naval Depot and transfer all training activity to Westernport. As a result Cerberus III became Flinders Naval Depot (HMAS Cerberus) and Darley its first executive officer, on 1 April 1921, with Captain Stanley Miller, RN in command. Darley completed his loan service to the RAN on 12 April 1922 and the Darleys returned to England where he reverted to RN service on 27 July.
His final report from Captain Miller was very candid – Conscientious and very good mental qualities but at times a bit hare brained. Very good physical qualities but takes no active part in outdoor sports. Even temperament. Shows good zeal and is keen on the service in general. Very good tact. Good administrative qualities. Rather inclined to arrive at faulty decisions through not giving the subject sufficient consideration. A keen officer and popular with the men. Has the welfare of the service at heart, but is inclined to see on the side of leniency towards the men who take advantage of it. Many at Cerberus, however, recalled him as a popular, efficient and gallant officer.
Commander Darley had now been in the Navy for over 20 years and served entirely at sea or in training establishments. On return to England he undertook Technical and War Courses and in January 1923 commenced an Intelligence Course at the Royal Naval College (Greenwich). In May 1923 he was appointed as Naval Secretary to the Ordnance Committee at the Admiralty in London.
His reports during this period described him as a man of equable temperament, pleasant personality, tactful, good mannered, thorough and with good organising and administrative skills; and that he would make a good executive officer afloat.
After two years of service in the Admiralty, Darley was selected for command and undertook commanding officers training courses from August 1925 until the end of the year. He was then appointed as the commanding officer of the light cruiser HMS Despatch,then serving on the China Station, and assumed command on 28 February 1926.
China in the 1920s was a country in name only as rival warlord generals and political factions sought to gain power and control of the nation. The major powers of the time (Britain, France, Japan and the United States) had substantial mercantile investment in the country and maintained naval forces in the region to protect their citizens and national interests.
In late August 1926 an incident occurred when Nationalist Chinese soldiers seized control of two British steamers, the SS Wanhsienand SS Wantung then operating on the Yangtse River in the vicinity of Wanhsien (Wanxian) Central China). Attempts by the British Consul General at Chunking to negotiate the release of the two vessels failed and the Chinese forces were reinforced with more troops and artillery. Two Royal Navy gunboats operating on the Yangtse were no match for this force but prevented the steamers from leaving Wanhsien.
The Royal Navy devised a plan to recapture the two British vessels by stealth, rather than force. The steamer SS Kiawo was requestioned and 60 men, under the leadership of Commander Darley, were embarked and departed the river port of Ichang (Yichang) on 4 September 1926. The plan was for Kiawoto steam to Wanshien and go alongside the two captured vessels where Darley’s men would board and re-take them with supporting fire from the British gunboats. The plan was described as bold, but would entail heavy casualtie’.
On the morning of 5 September 1926 the Kiawo went alongside the Wanhsien,where all appeared quiet, but as soon as the boarding party leapt aboard hundreds of hidden Chinese soldiers opened fire. Darley and several of his men were killed instantly. British sailors onboard Kiawo returned fire and did frightful execution amongst the massed Chinese.The next day a large British naval force arrived at Wanhsien and Chinese forces handed both vessels over and peacefully departed the scene.
Before going into action Darley wrote a letter to his mother stating – If you ever get this letter, I will have ‘passed on’ before you and I pray God that I may do nothing that may bring discredit on the White Ensign under which I shall fight. This morning I read to my men the 1st and 2nd Prayers for those at sea, the Confession and the Lord’s Prayer … and I have done my best to persuade my men not to kill unnecessarily.
Commander Darley’s body was recovered after the action and was buried in the British Cemetery at Ichang, China on 15 September 1926 by the Reverend Walter Scott (Chaplain of HMS Hawkins). Whether this grave site still exists is unknown. [See addendum below.]
Frederick Campbell Darley was posthumously awarded a Mention in Dispatches for services at Wanhsien on 5 September 1926 with the citation reading – Organised the expedition, acted with considerable gallantry, and by personal example instilled enthusiasm in all officers and men under his command in HMS Kiawo. (London Gazette 6 May 1927). In October 1927 a bronze memorial plaque to Commander Darley was erected at HMAS Cerberus and is still there today in the Church of England chapel.
And so Frederick Darley died as he had lived – leading by example and doing his duty to the utmost.
In January 2021, Mr William Bell wrote from England to say he had discovered that one of his great uncles served aboard HMS Tern, a Patrol Gunboat on the Yangtse River circa 1929-1931. He sent a photograph of Commander Darley’s grave that he found in one of his grand uncle’s albums. Whether the gravestone or grave still exists remains unknown.
The plaques on the gravestone read:
To the memory of Frederick C Darley, Commander Royal Navy, HMS Despatch. Killed in action at Wanhsien 5th September 1926,
Erected by the Flag Officers, Captains, Officers and Ships Companies of the China Squadron in conjunction with the relatives.