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Lieutenant William Evan Crawford (Darby) Allan


William Evan Crawford Allan, 'Darby' to his shipmates, was born on 24 July 1899 in the then British colony of New South Wales, eighteen months before the Commonwealth of Australia came into being. His grandfather was one of the original settlers in the Bega region and as a child, Evan was brought up on a family property in nearby Upper Brogo.

Interviewed in 2000, Evan highlighted the 1908 visit of the American Great White Fleet as influencing his desire to join the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). This ambition was realised on 13 March 1914 when Evan enlisted as a 14-year old Boy Second Class and began his naval career in the boys' training ship HMAS Tingira.

In July 1915 Evan joined the light cruiser HMAS Encounter, which shortly thereafter sailed on a four-month patrol in the South West Pacific area. Fiji was utilised as a base for the ship's operations. The Australian cruiser also protected Fanning Island to deter enemy forces from attempting to repeat the success of the German Navy's SMS Nürnberg, which in a raid in September 1914 destroyed the cable station and severed the Pacific communications cable. Evan then saw further active service overseas in the Malay archipelago from late 1915 to early 1916; in the South West Pacific between September and December 1917, when Encounter joined the search for the German raider Wolf and two voyages to Colombo on convoy escort duty.

Evan left Encounter in August 1918 for passage to the United Kingdom in the transport Barambah. During the voyage there was an outbreak of Spanish Influenza which caused a significant number of deaths. Although he showed symptoms of infection, Evan was fortunate not to suffer the full and deadly effects of the disease. He then joined the cruiser HMAS Sydney in Scotland one week after the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet. Sydney returned to Australia in July 1919 after a long passage from England via the Suez Canal.

Evan then drafted to HMAS Brisbane in September 1919 and served in the cruiser for the next three years. The period was typical of peacetime service. The only overseas port visits were to Penang and Singapore in March 1921 and New Guinea in September 1921. However, it was a significant time in the context of Evan's professional development. He was promoted to Leading Seaman in November 1919 and then to Petty Officer in June 1922; qualified as a Seaman Torpedoman; and volunteered to join the fledgling submarine service in September 1921. He also ran a popular side business developing photographs, taken with his own camera, and printing them on to postcards for sale to his shipmates.

Brisbane decommissioned on 4 August 1922 and her crew commissioned the light cruiser HMAS Adelaide the following day. It transpired that Evan would spend almost four years in Adelaide. The undoubted highlight was her attachment to the Royal Navy's Special Service Squadron in 1924. Adelaide sailed from Sydney in April 1924 and accompanied the Squadron on the second half of its world cruise. The Squadron arrived in Portsmouth in late September 1924 having visited New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Canada, the United States, Panama and Jamaica. Adelaide also became the first RAN ship to pass through the Panama Canal. When she visited the Canadian port of Vancouver in July 1924, Evan was introduced to Miss Ida Gwendoline Wright. Evan and Gwen struck up an immediate friendship, so much so that when it came for his ship to leave Vancouver he lamented the difficulty of service life and the hurt and sadness of saying goodbye, feelings shared by many of his similarly heart broken shipmates. Adelaide sailed from England in January 1925 and arrived back home in Australia three months later.

Evan returned to Tingira in June 1926 for instructional duties until the boys training ship decommissioned in June 1927. A short stint in the depot and accommodation ship HMAS Penguin (ex Encounter) preceded service in HMAS Melbourne, which sailed from Sydney in February 1928 on her decommissioning cruise to England. Melbourne decommissioned at Portsmouth on 23 April 1928 and her crew transferred to the newly built heavy cruiser HMAS Australia which commissioned the next day. Following sea trials Australia departed Portsmouth in August 1928 for her delivery voyage to Australia, visiting Canada, the United States, Jamaica, Panama, Tahiti and New Zealand.

On 6 August 1928 Australia was in the North Atlantic enroute to Montreal when Evan was swept overboard with heavy seas running in force eight winds. Evan and several other crew were attempting to recover the starboard breakwater door which was adrift on the forecastle. The official report states that a large sea came inboard and swept the fore part of the forecastle. When it cleared, the Commanding Officer saw Evan swimming in the water abreast of the bridge. The sea state precluded the safe launching of the sea boat and it was only due to Evan's remarkable coolness and the prompt actions of Commissioned Shipwright William White, Lieutenant Commander Rupert Long, and Evan's divisional officer, Lieutenant Commander Harry Howden, that tragedy was averted. Evan suffered from shock caused by immersion and contusions to one leg, the latter the result of the heavy seas bumping his body against the cruiser's hull when he was hauled back on board.

In early 1929 Evan seemingly gave some thought to parting from the Permanent Navy and transferring to the RAN Auxiliary Services - his current engagement was due to expire in July 1929. In January 1929 Captain John Stevenson, then Second Naval Member of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, observed that a decision to leave would be a decided loss to the service. Captain Stevenson had been Evan's Commanding Officer in Encounter, Brisbane and Adelaide, and had a high regard for Evan's abilities as a professional sailor and made a point of highlighting his very good conduct and superior abilities.

In mid-1929 Evan was drafted to Sydney to join HMAS Penguin. Penguin was formerly the submarine depot ship HMAS Platypus and had been re-assigned for service as a depot and accommodation ship. Promoted to Chief Petty Officer in April 1932, Evan remained in Penguin throughout the early years of the Great Depression until January 1933 when he briefly served in the seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross.

In 1933 he proceeded to England in the SS Comorin to commission the Scott Class Flotilla Leader HMAS Stuart. Stuart had been in commission with the Royal Navy since 1918 and in 1933 the Admiralty agreed to loan Stuart and four V&W Class destroyers (HMA Ships Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen) to the RAN. The five ships commissioned at Portsmouth on 11 October 1933 to form the Australian Destroyer Flotilla , later to become famous in World War II as the 'Scrap Iron Flotilla'.

Evan left Stuart to join the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra in July 1934. His service in Canberra was generally routine peacetime cruising in home waters. One of the few highlights came in late 1934, when Canberra was tasked on Royal Escort duty when His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester visited Australia in HMS Sussex.

Evan also took the opportunity to further his professional knowledge of small craft operations by studying for a Master's Ticket in Sydney. The Maritime Services Board of New South Wales issued a Certificate of Competency as Master of a Harbour and River Steamer on 14 July 1936. The qualification was a necessary pre-requisite for Evan to apply for the position of Master of the 120-foot auxiliary vessel Ripple, which was expected to become vacant the following year. Ripple was employed by the RAN as a water tender. The support of Commander Harry Howden, one of his rescuers from 1928, is further evidence of the rapport that Evan had with senior naval officers.

In late 1936 the Australian Government agreed to send a contingent of servicemen to England to represent Australia at the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937. The naval detachment of the Australian Coronation Contingent was to be 25 in number and led by a Commissioned Warrant Officer. Fourteen were to be permanent service ratings and the remaining 10 drawn from the Royal Australian Fleet Reserve, Royal Australian Naval Reserve and RAN Auxiliary Services. Evan volunteered and in the new year was selected to join the Coronation Contingent. They embarked in the SS Oronsay in February 1937. Apart from their royal ceremonial duties, the contingent attended a number of official functions in England and Scotland. Their final engagements were in France, and the contingent embarked in the RMS Orama at Toulon for passage to Sydney.

In August 1937 Evan began duty at the Royal Australian Naval College at Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria, instructing the young Cadet Midshipmen in the art of sailing and seamanship. In early 1938 the College underwent an organisational change from the 'year' system to the 'house' system, and Evan assumed the mantle of the 'Flinders House' Chief Petty Officer.

Evan was drafted for active service in the armed merchant cruiser HMS Moreton Bay one month after the outbreak of World War II. Built as a passenger and cargo liner, Moreton Bay was fitted out in Sydney and served on the China Station, the East Indies Station and then in the South Atlantic on patrol and convoy escort duties. When Moreton Bay decommissioned in August 1941 for conversion to a troopship, arrangements were made to return her Australian crew via the United States and Canada. This provided an opportunity for Evan to re-establish contact with Gwen some 17 years after they were first introduced to each other. They married in Canada and Gwen subsequently accompanied Evan aboard the liner Mariposa, arriving in Sydney on 5 December 1941.

Whilst serving in Moreton Bay, his Commanding Officer had recommended Evan for promotion to Warrant Rank (in Evan's case Boatswain). He was duly promoted to Acting Boatswain effective 9 July 1942 and appointed to the instructional staff at the new Officers' Training School, under the charge of Commander Alan Harris RN. Commander Harris described Evan as 'a man of outstanding qualities...' and '...an excellent influence on the young men in his charge.' The Officers' Training School had been established because of the urgent requirement to provide properly trained officers to man a rapidly expanding wartime fleet.

In July 1944 Evan was posted to HMAS Ladava, the RAN depot at Milne Bay in New Guinea, for service as the Piermaster. Although a short appointment of only six months duration, the Commanding Officer of Ladava observed that Evan's common sense and service knowledge '...helped guide the many inexperienced officers...' and that 'he has created order out of confusion that existed amongst the boats and lighters.' Not surprisingly, he was recommended for promotion to commissioned rank.

From Ladava, Evan was appointed again to the cruiser Australia as the ship's boatswain, replacing Boatswain Cyril Deighton who had been injured in the Japanese kamikaze attacks at Leyte Gulf in October. Evan was flown to Seeadler Harbour but missed his connection with Australia by only a matter of hours, the ship having already sailed for operations at Lingayen Gulf. In a twist of fate, Sub Lieutenant Keith Levy, who was tasked to discharge the duties of boatswain during Evan's absence, was killed in action when Australia was hit by another kamikaze on 5 January 1945.

Evan eventually joined Australia when the ship returned to Seeadler Harbour in late January 1945. She had sustained considerable battle damage at Lingayen Gulf and proceeded direct to Sydney for repair. Evan left the ship in May 1945 to assume duty as the Instructional Boatswain at the New Entry School at Cerberus. Promoted to Acting Commissioned Boatswain in January 1946, Evan saw out the remainder of his naval career instructing at Cerberus. He was highly regarded by his superiors and commanded the respect of his subordinates - Commodore Henry Showers RAN, then Commodore Superintendent of Training, was strong in his recommendation that Evan's services be retained, despite the post war personnel reductions.

Evan retired from the Navy on 30 October 1947. He returned to the land and lived on a small farm in the Frankston area, not far from Cerberus, to raise his young family. Although he shied away from events such as Anzac Day marches, Evan maintained a keen interest in contemporary naval affairs. He served the nation as a professional sailor for over 33 years and served throughout both World Wars. He commissioned four ships, decommissioned a further three and was the recipient of both the 1935 King's Silver Jubilee Medal and the 1937 Coronation Medal. In the post war years the RAN adopted Royal Navy provisions governing the institution of a War Service Rank, and in 1948 the Naval Board wrote to Evan confirming that he had been granted the War Service Rank of Lieutenant. In more recent years Evan was presented with the 80th Anniversary Armistice Remembrance Medal and the Centenary Medal.

Evan Allan liked to tell people that he had been "as lucky as a ship's cat with nine lives".  It was a phrase that spoke to both the seawater that had coursed through his veins since he was a 14-year-old ship's boy and to the reality.

He had survived two world wars, the Spanish flu of 1919, being washed overboard in the North Atlantic, German mines and U-boats, and Japanese kamikaze bombers.

But after 106 eventful years, time finally caught up with Evan. When he passed away in a Flemington nursing home on 17 October 2005, Australia lost its last living link with its fighting men of World War I. The old sailor was the last survivor of the 330,000 Australians who saw active service.

He was farewelled with a State Funeral at St Mark's Chapel, HMAS Cerberus, on 25 October 2005.

More than 200 VIPs including the Deputy Chief of Navy and 1,200 sailors turned out to pay their respects to Mr Allan, who was Australia’s last direct link to two world wars and the generation that forged the proud tradition of Anzac.

DCN RADM Max Hancock told Navy News that Mr Allan’s death was significant not only for the Navy but the entire country because "he takes with him a piece of our history".

"We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Mr Allan and the generation of Australians who forged the Anzac tradition with their blood, sweat and tears in war," he said.

CDRE Jim Dickson AM MBE RAN (Rtd) delivered the eulogy and said Mr Allan’s death was a milestone of great symbolic importance to all Australians. "The Last Post has sounded for the last Australian and Navy man to fight in WWI, the conflict that helped forge an infant nation’s identity," he said.

"Farewell Evan Allan, father, grandfather, sailor, friend.  May you rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that you have the admiration, affection, respect of the people of the country you served so long, so proudly and so well."

The Navy farewelled the last sailor to fight in both world wars with a funeral befitting an Admiral of the Fleet.

After the service, a party of 24 sailors fired a three-volley salute from their Steyr rifles as Mr Allan’s flag-draped coffin was "walk-marched" from the chapel.

It was then placed on a naval 12-pound gun-carriage for his last journey through Cerberus, where decades earlier he had taught seamanship as an instructor.

Officers led the funeral procession with swords reversed, while some 500 sailors stood at attention. As the Navy Band played a funeral song, the gun-carriage was led to the hearse that would take the coffin to the crematorium.

His ashes were scattered in Port Phillip Bay from the flight deck of HMAS Sydney on 24 July 2006.

Source:
Sea Power Centre - Australia