The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller DSO & Bar RAN, HMAS Perth, Second World War.

Places
Accession Number AWM2019.1.1.59
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 28 February 2019
Access Open
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copy provided for personal non-commercial use
Description

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Richard Cruise, the story for this day was on, Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller DSO & Bar RAN, HMAS Perth, Second World War.

Speech transcript

Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller DSO & Bar RAN, HMAS Perth
KIA 1 March 1942

Today we remember and pay tribute to Captain Hector Macdonald Laws Waller.

Hector Waller, commonly known as “Hec”, was born on 4 April 1900 in Benalla, Victoria, the youngest of ten children of William and Helen Waller.

He grew up in Benalla, and attended Benalla Higher Elementary School. Despite growing up in the land-locked town, Waller dreamed of the sea. He entered the Royal Australian Naval College as a cadet midshipman on 31 December 1913 and graduated in 1917 as chief cadet captain, having won the King’s Medal for his “gentlemanly bearing, character, good influence among his fellows and officer-like qualities”.

Promoted to midshipman on New Year’s Day 1918, Waller was sent to Britain where he was posted to HMS Agincourt. At the end of the First World War, Waller was posted to HMAS Melbourne. Further promotions followed and by 1920 he had been made sub-lieutenant. In March 1921,
Waller was promoted to lieutenant, coming top of his class during the examination.

On 7 April 1923 Waller married Nancy Bowes at the Methodist Church in the Sydney suburb of Lewisham. Two sons, Michael and John, were born to the couple in following years.

Waller returned to Britain in 1924 for training as a signals officer, and found that one his classmate was Lord Louis Mountbatten. Waller topped the advanced course. In 1926 he returned to Australia and was placed in charge of the Signals and Wireless Telegraphy School at Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria.

In 1928 Waller returned to Britain and served as a signals officer in HMS Broke. In March the following year he was promoted to lieutenant commander.

In July 1930 Waller was posted to HMAS Australia as squadron signals officer. By this stage, he had earned a strong reputation for his work with communications. Over the next two and half years, Waller spent time in sea-going and shore postings. He was promoted to commander in 1934, and became the executive officer at the Royal Australian Naval College. He was posted to Britain again in 1936, and spent six months in the British Naval Intelligence Division.

In December 1937 Waller was given his first sea command, the destroyer HMS Brazen. He initially struggled with his handling of the ship, but learned quickly. Brazen was sent to monitor the Spanish Civil War, a duty which included protecting British merchant vessels and rescuing crews of sinking ships.

By mid-1939 Waller had returned to Australia and had been posted to the Navy Office as Director of Signals and Communications.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was given command of HMAS Stuart, an obsolete destroyer, as well as having overall command of four more obsolete destroyers, HMA Ships Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen. After arriving in the Mediterranean theatre, these vessels, known as 19th Destroyer Division were derisively nicknamed the “Scrap Iron Flotilla” by the Germans. The name was adopted as a badge of pride by the Australian sailors.

Waller was recommended for accelerated promotion in March 1940 and was appointed to command the 10th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of four modern British destroyers and the Scrap Iron Flotilla. The following month he was promoted to captain.

Waller’s reputation continued to grow along with his successes. In July 1940 HMAS Stuart was involved in the Battle of Calabria. Waller was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his “courage, enterprise and devotion to duty”. In September Stuart attacked the Italian submarine Gondar, forcing it to surrender. And in early January 1941 Stuart provided gunfire support to Australian forces during the Battle of Bardia and assisted the Australian 6th Division during the capture of Tobruk.

When Prime Minister Robert Menzies visited Egypt in February, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who greatly admired his Australian captain, conducted Menzies on a fleet inspection. On reaching HMAS Stuart, he remarked to Menzies “now you’re going to meet one of the greatest captains who ever sailed the seas – his name is Waller.”

Stuart took part in the battle of Cape Matapan in March. During the action one of Stuart’s torpedoes damaged the Italian cruiser Zara. Waller was awarded a Bar to his DSO for this action.

Waller and his command were prominent during the failed Greece and Crete operations, and in operations along the North African coast, particularly the “Tobruk Ferry”, which brought supplies and men to the besieged fortress and ferried out wounded men. HMAS Stuart successfully completed 24 runs to Tobruk before trouble with the port engine forced the ship to return to Australia. Waller was twice Mentioned in Despatches for these operations.

After reaching Australia in September, Waller was given command of the light cruiser HMAS Perth.

In early 1942, Perth carried out various patrols and escort duties, and visited New Zealand, New Caledonia and New Guinea. With the Japanese rapidly advancing, in February the cruiser sailed for Java, in the Netherlands East Indies. At the end of the month the Australian cruiser participated in the disastrous naval battle of the Java Sea, where five allied ships were sunk by the Japanese.

On 28 February and 1 March, Perth and the American heavy cruiser USS Houston fought a fierce action when they were engaged by a much larger Japanese force.

Waller, never a man to admit defeat, aimed to force a passage through the enemy fleet via the Sunda Strait. After completing a turn, Perth was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side which knocked out the forward engine room.

By this stage the ship had expended all of its main ammunition and the turret mounted 6-inch guns were reduced to firing practice ammunition and the 4-inch guns star shells. A second torpedo struck Perth close to the first strike and Waller gave the order to abandon ship.

One of Perth’s survivors later wrote of the last sighting of Hec Waller:

Captain Waller was last seen with his ‘Mae West’ blown up at the front of the bridge, looking down at the silent guns. Shortly afterwards the bridge was seen to receive a shell and Perth’s captain must have been killed instantly.

Several more torpedoes struck Perth and at 12.25 am on 1 March 1942 the cruiser slipped beneath the waves. Houston sank soon afterwards. Of Perth’s crew, 353 officers, ratings and civilians were killed or drowned. The survivors were rescued by the Japanese and spent the next three and a half years as prisoners of war. Another 106 men from Perth died in captivity.

Hec Waller was 41 years old. He was posthumously awarded a Mentioned in Despatches “for gallantry as resolution whilst serving in HMAS Perth, lost by enemy action in the Far East on 1st March 1942.”

Considered by many to have been “the outstanding naval officer of his generation”, in 1997 a Collins Class submarine, HMAS Waller, was named in his honour.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, among almost 40,000 Australians who died while serving in the Second World War.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Captain Hector Macdonald Laws Waller DSO and Bar RAN, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Michael Kelly
Historian, Military History Section

  • Video of The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller DSO & Bar RAN, HMAS Perth, Second World War. (video)