Fifty Australians - Fighting Hec Waller

A captain who went down with his ship. The death of Waller, an outstanding naval officer, in the battle of Sunda Strait was a heavy loss for the Royal Australian Navy.

Captain Hector Macdonald Laws Waller, DSO (and Bar) (1900–1942)

Waller graduated from the RAN Naval College with the King’s Medal in 1917. He went to Britain in time to see war service with the Grand Fleet and returned to Australia in 1919; he specialised in communications and undertook further postings and training in Britain. In 1937 he commanded the destroyer HMS Brazen.

After the outbreak of war, Waller was given command of HMAS Stuart and sent to the Mediterranean, becoming part of what the Germans derisively called “the scrap-iron flotilla”. In 1940 he was appointed to command the 10th Destroyer Flotilla and promoted captain. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and then another for the work done by Stuart in the battle of Matapan in March 1941.

Waller was involved in a lot of action. The flotilla was in operations off Greece, Crete and North Africa, and was part of the “Tobruk Ferry” taking supplies into the besieged North African coastal town. In September 1941 he returned to Australia to take command of the cruiser HMAS Perth.

Once the Japanese entered the war, Perth was sent to defend the Netherlands East Indies. In the battle of Java Sea on 27 February 1942 an Allied naval force proved no match for a Japanese fleet. The cruisers HMAS Perth and USS Houston were withdrawn, only to encounter an enemy invasion fleet in the Sunda Strait. A heroic battle followed, with the two cruisers inflicting heavy damage on the Japanese. But it was an uneven fight, and Perth and Houston were sunk in the early hours of 1 March 1942.

Hec Waller was lost with his ship, which had bravely fought until out of ammunition. Survivors of his crew became prisoners of the Japanese; and many would die while in captivity. Of a crew of almost 700, few more than 200 survived the war. Many considered Waller to have been the outstanding naval officer of his generation. In 1997 a Collins-class submarine, named HMAS Waller in his honour, was launched.

Captain Waller on the bridge of HMAS Stuart

The cruiser HMAS Perth wearing camouflage. Captain Waller was lost with the ship on 1 March 1942.