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Sub-Lieutenant Richard PIRRIE MiD

The eldest son of six children, Richard “Dick” Pirrie was born in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn in 1920 and was studying law when the war broke out.  He grew up two streets from Glenferrie Oval, a member of a family footballing dynasty which continues to this day.

Dick Pirrie played three games on a wing for Hawthorn, including at least one alongside his brother Kevin.  Kevin returned from the war emaciated and diseased, but went on to play more games for Hawthorn.  Kevin was said to be inspired by his older brother’s example, in what is described by his son Michael as a role of a remaining brother-in-arms.  Kevin applied a strict discipline and military-style fitness in an approach later popularised by Hawthorn coach John Kennedy.  Their father also played for Hawthorn. 

Their uncle Mick McGuire, was thought to be the youngest ever player in the VFL (15) until Essendon’s Tim Watson bested him by a few months three generations later.  Throughout life, McGuire kept a photo of his fallen nephew on his desk at home.

Dick's nephew, Kevin’s son Stephen, played for Richmond, St Kilda and Essendon.  Ned Moyle, the son of Dick Pirrie’s niece, now plays for the Gold Coast Suns.

Dick gave up his promising football career with the Hawthorn Football Club when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve as an able seaman and subsequently being promoted to sub-Lieutenant.  He was later seconded to the Royal Navy aboard HMS Invicta.

On 5 June 1944, Sub-Lieutenant Richard Pirrie sat down to write a letter to his family.

“My dearest Mother, Dad, and boys,” he began.

“Well, my dears, the pressure is on now and as soon as the weather improves we sail for the greatest event in the history of the world.

“By the time you receive this you will surely have heard some of the bare details. This is the greatest Armada that ever was formed. A colossal feat of organisation; the product of years of planning and hard work.

“Yesterday morning our chaplain came aboard and with the soldiers, Canadians, we received General Absolution. If anything happens, it is just the will of the Sacred Heart. I will leave this, and hope and trust in God that I will conclude in a few days.

Pirrie never finished the letter.

The following day, 6th June 1944, he was the first Australian to be killed on D-Day.

Tasked with spotting German gun positions, Pirrie was part of the first wave of landing craft to reach Juno Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Known to his British crewmates as “Digger”, Pirrie had the dangerous job of piloting his craft close to the beach so that he could relay information to a naval artillery observer where to direct gunfire onto the German defences.

He had performed a similar task during the invasion of Sicily the year before, but this time disaster struck.

Pirrie and two others were killed instantly when his landing craft struck a mine and was simultaneously hit by enemy shell-fire close to the shore.  In the words of his nephew,

"he got so close to the German strongholds that he became a sitting duck".

But the Pirrie family was later told that the low subsequent casualty rate along that stretch of beach was attributable to the bravery and skill of their lost son.

Allied landing craft underway to the beaches of Normandy. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

His boat, amid scenes depicted in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, was hit by a mine or enemy shell.  He was killed instantly.

Pirrie had been a school prefect who sang in the church choir.  When on service leave in London, Dick was known for his renditions of Waltzing Matilda.  A lone Aussie placed with Canadians and Brits, he was nicknamed "Digger".

Sydney Daily Mirror - 29th June 1944

Australian Hero Died On D-Day

(From ROBERT RAYMOND, Daily Mirror War Correspondent on H.M.S. Invicta, off Normandy.)

THIS is the story of Dick ("Digger") Pirrie, Australian Sub-Lieutenant, of Melbourne, who gave his life while doing his share to make the invasion of Normandy a success.

Few could have played a braver or cooler part than "Digger," who went ahead of the invasion forces with an artillery spotting officer to within 1000 yards of the beaches, in broad daylight, to range our invasion bombardment.

Typical RAN Man

Dick's close-cropped black beard and satanic grin were widely known among the little ships of the Royal Navy.  He was typical of the many R.A.N. men over this side of the Channel today.

I can tell you about him, because he was from this ship and while we waited for D-day I learned to know him.

When we anchored just off the beaches of France in early daylight on D-day, "Digger" and his major climbed into a little motor-boat, which turned its nose towards the shore.  Behind it, hundreds of ships were marshalled for the great assault.

Before leaving, "Digger" came up on the bridge and swore blisteringly at the weather, which was making the sea choppy, but when I leaned from the bridge and waved him off, he grinned and cocked an impudent beard at the enemy.

A thousand, yards from the shore, almost close enough to look down the barrels of the German coastal battries, "Digger" heaved to — and stayed there while the major spotted ranging shots for the artillery which was to give powerful short-range support to the Canadian spearhead from our ship by means of Canadian 105mm. self-propelled guns fired from Landing craft.

Hit By Enemy Shell

The major quickly radioed his batteries, which soon were throwing stuff over as fast as the crews could load.

But as the barrage really was getting going, "Digger's" little craft, lying in full view of the enemy batteries, caught a direct hit from an 88mm. shell which killed him and the major and most of the crew.

So died a gallant Australian, one of many who carried out heroic duties in the bloody initial stages of history's greatest invasion.

Before the war, Dick Pirrie worked in the Commonwealth Audit Office at Melbourne. He joined the R.A.N, in 1941 as an ordinary seaman and soon was posted with a group of A.B.'s to the armed merchant cruiser Ceramic.

He went to Britain the same year and spent most of his sea life aboard destroyers, including the Quentin.

"I sculled around Russia for a while and then, when commissioned in 1942, I started running convoys to Malta," he told me.

"During the invasion of Sicily I started this new job of taking an artillery spotter close inshore.  My cobber and I swapped craft the night before the assault.

"My former craft caught a direct hit from an 88 mm. and my cobber lost a foot and an eye. I never saw anything come back from this show."

While crossing the Channel on D-Day, "Digger" told me about crowds of Australians he had trained and sailed with and who were now up to their necks in it along the Normandy coast.

Other Aussies There

For example, there was Lieutenant Commander Appleton, R.A.N.V.R., of Sydney, second in command of a division of tank landing craft.  He nursed this branch of the service from the very beginning of the great assault.

Our "picnic trip" across the Channel in the Invicta was perhaps partly due to the efforts of Sub-Lieutenant Bruce Ashton, R.A.N.V.R., of Sydney, who volunteered for secret work; Sub-Lieutenant Dave Wood, R.A.N.V.R., of Melbourne, where his father is said to be a well-known veterinary surgeon — his brother was with Squadron 10 Coastal Command (Australian Sunderlands) and is now on his way home: Sub-Lieutenant Ken Wright. R.A.N.V.R., ex-bank clerk, of Adelaide, commanding an infantry landing ship carrying 100 men.

Then there was Lieutenant Johnny White, R.A.N.V.R., of Geelong, who commanded tank landing craft; Lieutenant Neville Yuille, R.A.N.V.R., of Adelaide, engineer aboard a big troopship, and scores of others.

Everywhere one looked during the Invasion there was evidence of Antipodean participation in the magnificent amphibious operation.

Just ahead of us on D-Day was H.M.S. Monowai, former armed merchant-ship in the Pacific.  It has a New Zealand skipper and several Australian engineers.

Every officer on this ship knows Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane almost as well as he knows Liverpool or Southampton.

Remembrance of Australia was heightened on that, grim but glorious day by my friendship with "Digger" Pirrie.

"Digger" often showed me his boat. He had rigged up formidable armament aboard his tiny craft.  There were two heavy machine-guns and a four-inch mortar in the cockpit beside him, not to mention an assortment of smaller weapons.

"I'll have a good crack at the cows," he shouted, as he went in to the shore on D-Day.

"Digger" never had a chance, but the Canadians fighting ashore today know what he did — and won't forget.

A fellow officer, Lieutenant Tom Longford, wrote to Pirrie’s mother to express his deepest sympathy.

Pirrie, he wrote, had performed his duty “so courageously and efficiently” that “on our portion of the beach not one of our troops failed to get safely ashore”.

“The whole flotilla is deeply grieved by the loss of so deeply loved and much respected friend,” he wrote. “His friendly nature, cheerful, willing devotion to all his duties, and his firm belief in the ultimate good of all things made him an officer with whom we are all proud to have served.”

Today, Pirrie’s name is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, which lists the names of 15,993 sailors of the British Commonwealth who were lost at sea.

For his “Gallantry, leadership and determination” Pirrie was posthumously 'Mentioned in Dispatches'.  He had performed his task with “great skill and his conduct and bearing greatly encouraged his men”.

On that day, D-DAY - 6th June 1944 - was Richard Pirrie's 24th birthday.



Australian War Memorial
Melbourne Herald-Sun
Trove / Daily Mirror