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Captain Hector ‘Hec’ MacDonald Laws Waller

Hector Macdonald Laws (Hec) Waller was born on 4 April 1900 at Benalla, Victoria, the youngest of ten children of William Frederick Waller, storekeeper, and his wife Helen, née Duncan.  Hec was educated at the Benalla Higher Elementary School and was appointed as a cadet midshipman in the Royal Australian Navy in early 1914.  He entered the RAN College, Osborne House, Geelong (relocated at Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, in 1915).  Chief Cadet Captain in his final year, he was awarded the King’s Gold Medal on graduating in 1917.  On 1 January 1918 he was promoted Midshipman.

Sent to Britain, Waller was appointed to the battleship HMS Agincourt in the Grand Fleet in April.  He transferred to the cruiser HMAS Melbourne in February 1919 and returned to Australia in April.  Made Acting Sub Lieutenant in September that year and Lieutenant in March 1921, he went to sea as a watch-keeper and undertook professional courses in Britain before joining the staff of the RANC in March 1923.  At the Methodist Church, Lewisham, Sydney, on 7 April that year he married Nancy Bowes.

Waller began training as a signals officer in England in 1924.  He topped the advanced course and in May 1926 took charge of the Signals and Wireless-Telegraphy School at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria.

In 1928-30 he served with the Royal Navy as signals officer in the destroyer leader HMS Broke.  A Lieutenant Commander from 1929, he was posted to the flagship of the Australian Squadron, HMAS Australia, as squadron signals officer in July 1930.  He continued to specialise in communications, developing an impressive reputation.  Promoted Commander in 1934, he was appointed Executive Officer of the RANC, which had been moved to Flinders Naval Depot.

In 1936-37 Waller spent six months with the British Admiralty's Naval Intelligence Division before taking up an exchange posting as Executive Officer of the repair ship HMS Resource.  More importantly, in 1937-39 he commanded the destroyer HMS Brazen.  This was a learning experience for Waller, who found - as did many other specialists in their first seagoing command - that he needed to develop his ship-handling skills.  In a busy fourteen months which included monitoring the Spanish Civil War, he learned his trade well.

After a short stint at Navy Office, Melbourne, in September 1939 Waller was given command of the destroyer leader HMAS Stuart.  In December she and her four consorts arrived in the Mediterranean.  Derisively nicknamed the 'Scrap-Iron Flotilla' by German propaganda, the Australian ships rapidly made their mark.  Waller gained the respect of both the Commander-In-Chief, Admiral Sir Andrew (Viscount) Cunningham, and the Vice Admiral (destroyers), John (Baron) Tovey.  The seamanship he displayed in the salvage of the disabled tanker Trocas confirmed their initial impressions.  He was appointed to command the 10th Destroyer Flotilla (incorporating the Australian ships) in May 1940 and promoted Captain on 30 June.

Captain Waller was awarded his first DSO on September 1940 for a variety of actions, including his attacks on the U-boats off Alexandria on 14 June and 1 July which, in both cases resulted in damage to the submarines.  The citation also noted his performance of extremely valuable and hazardous work in locating and marking a minefield laid off Alexandria by the first submarine, when Stuart had blundered into it.  By skilful handling and with enormous courage, Waller had not only extricated his ship from the danger but also plotted the position of the mines.  His anti-submarine Control Officer Lieutenant Geoffrey Corlett RN was awarded the DSC after Waller had commended his '...courageous enterprise and devotion to duty in recent engagements'.  Waller's own citation continued: 'In addition to his gallantry and exemplary conduct on these occasions, the success achieved by the destroyers of the 10th Division which had been under his command since commissioning early in the war is a measure of its inspiring leadership'.

He won a Bar to his DSO for the role played by Stuart in the battle of Matapan in March 1941.  The citation notes that Waller '...carried out a successful torpedo attack on two enemy cruisers and followed this up with a spirited attack on a damaged enemy cruiser under heavy fire'.  In fact, Stuart had got between the British battleships and their target, but élan will cover a multitude of sins.  It was a quality Cunningham greatly admired and Waller had an abundance of it.  The citation continues: 'On hauling clear, Stuart again attacked the Zara class cruiser and when the action was broken off, this cruiser was burning fiercely and had ceased firing'.  Waller was complimented on his 'dash'.  The flotilla continued to be prominent in operations off Greece and Crete, and along the North African coast, particularly in the 'Tobruk Ferry' which supplied the besieged fortress.  When Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies visited the Middle East that year, Cunningham introduced Waller to him as 'one of the greatest captains who ever sailed the seas'.

Twice mentioned in dispatches, Waller returned to Australia in September and next month took command of the cruiser HMAS Perth.  In January 1942 the ship was sent to the American-British-Dutch-Australian area to help defend the Netherlands East Indies.  The hastily assembled allied naval forces proved no match for the Japanese, and suffered severe losses in the battle of the Java Sea on 27 February.  That night Waller withdrew Perth and her sole remaining consort, USS Houston.  This action was later criticized by Waller's Dutch superior, Admiral CEL Helfrich, because it contravened his instruction to fight to the last ship.  But Waller, of all people, knew the difference between gallantry and suicide and had both the combat experience and the moral courage to make the distinction.  There can be no doubt that his action was correct.  The following day Perth and Houston attempted to break out of the archipelago but encountered a Japanese invasion convoy and its escort at the entrance to the Sunda Strait.  The allied cruisers destroyed at least four transports and a minesweeper, but both were eventually sunk in the early hours of 1 March 1942.  Waller was listed as missing, presumed killed.

On 15 March 1946, Waller was awarded a posthumous mention in despatches for "gallantry and resolution" aboard HMAS Perth.  His younger son John followed him into the Navy, entering the RANC in 1947.  Graduating as chief cadet captain, John Waller became a weapons electrical engineer and attained the rank of commander in 1967, before transferring to the Emergency Reserve as a senior Navy research scientist.

Hec Waller's name appears on the Roll of Honour located at Panel 6 in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and on the Plymouth Naval Memorial in Devon, England.  He is also commemorated by Waller Crescent and Waller Place in the Canberra suburb of Campbell.  The Benalla Costume and Pioneer Museum holds his medals and dress uniform.  The Waller Division of the RAN Recruit School at HMAS Cerberus, Victoria, was named in his honour until his name transferred to a division at RAN College in 2013.

HMAS Waller, the third of the RAN's Collins-class submarines to enter service, was commissioned on 10 July 1999.  The attendees included John Waller, Michael Waller's wife, and surviving crewmen of HMAS Perth.  On 13 March 2010, a memorial to Waller was unveiled in his home town of Benalla.  In April 2011, he was one of thirteen servicemen—eleven sailors and two soldiers, including Teddy Sheean, Robert Rankin, and John Simpson Kirkpatrick—named by the Australian government for consideration as possible recipients of the Victoria Cross for extreme valour in combat, under a review by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal; no RAN member had ever been awarded the decoration.  Concluding its investigations in February 2013, the tribunal recommended that no further award be made to any of the thirteen servicemen, but that the name Waller (among others) should continue to be used for RAN ships after the current bearer was decommissioned. 

The Hec Waller Memorial was erected in 2010 at the town of Benalla where Waller was born and raised. It is situated adjacent to the Botanical Gardens entrance and Avenue of Honour.


Front Inscription
To the memory of all men and women lost at sea on operational service

Left Side Inscription
Comments by Hec's senior officers in 1941:
"One of the greatest Captains who ever sailed the seas"

"A first class fighting leader whose cheery, bouyant and resolute outlook brushes difficulty aside and gets the best out of those serving with him."


Right Side Inscription
Captain Hec Waller
DSO and Bar RAN








‘Hector Macdonald Laws Waller will
always remain in my mind as one of the
very finest types of Australian Naval
Officer.  Full of good cheer, a great sense of
humour, undefeated and always burning to
get at the enemy, he kept the old ships of
the flotilla – Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta,
Voyager, Waterhen – hard at it always.
Greatly loved and admired by everyone, his
loss in HMAS Perth in the Java Sea in
March 1942, was a heavy deprivation for
the young Navy of Australia.’

Admiral of the Fleet,
Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope

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"Hard Over Hec"

4 April 1900, Benalla, Victoria

1 March 1942 (aged 41) HMAS Perth, Sunda Strait

Australia

Royal Australian Navy

1913–42

Captain

HMS Brazen (1937–39)
HMAS Stuart (1939–41)
10th Destroyer Flotilla (1940–41)
HMAS Perth (1941–42)

World War I
Spanish Civil War
World War II
     *Mediterranean theatre
     *Battle of Calabria
     *Operation Lustre
     *Battle of Cape Matapan
     *South West Pacific theatre
          *Battle of the Java Sea
          *Battle of Sunda Strait †

Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Mentioned in Despatches (3)

Source:
Sea Power Centre
Waller, Hector Macdonald (Hec) (1900–1942) by J. V. P. Goldrick
Bravo Zulu Vol I by Ian Pfennigwerth
Naval Historical Society of Australia
Wikipedia