The Lt-Col Ralph Honner Leadership Oration

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					  The Lt-Col Ralph Honner Leadership Oration
                                                                      Patrick Lindsay*
                                                                   Strangers Dining Room
                                                           Parliament of New South Wales
                                                                          20 August 2003

You‟d have to say that, for a great warrior, Ralph Honner had a less than promising
start to life.

When he first saw the light of day in Fremantle on August 17 1904, he rejoiced in the
name of … Hyacinth Ralph Honner.

He was born on Saint Hyacinth‟s feast day and Ralph‟s mother, a good Irish catholic,
thought she was doing the right thing by naming him after a 13 th century Dominican
priest known as the apostle of the north.

Not surprisingly, Ralph took a different view. He dumped the name as soon as he
possibly could and never volunteered it.

His unfortunate first Christian name apart, Ralph Honner was otherwise perfectly
named. His surname is pronounced „honour‟. And that‟s the way I‟ve always
thought of Ralph … Honner by name … Honour by nature. Ralph believed
passionately in chivalry and he lived his life according to his ideals. He was a true
renaissance man: a wonderful orator, a fine writer, sportsman, teacher, lawyer,
soldier, superb leader and diplomat. Above all, he was a good man, one of the finest
men it has been my privilege to meet.

Ralph‟s father was a country policeman who served in the backblocks of rural
Western Australia. The family lived at three springs, about 300 kilometres north of
Perth, and Ralph had much the same upbringing as Bert Facey - A.B. Facey - the
writer of that wonderful book on growing up in country WA, A Fortunate Life.

For high school, Ralph came down to Perth where he lived in a boarding house while
he attended Perth modern school. During this time he overcame his loneliness by
absorbing himself in books. He loved the great epic poems: El Cid, Paradise Lost,
Homer‟s Iliad, the Song of Roland. It was a fascination which would endure through
his life. In fact, Ralph was one of the last great romantics. He wrote in the epic
manner, with great flourish and style. He had presence. He spoke eloquently, with
great power and precision but always in a controlled and underplayed manner. Even
as an old man, he was ramrod straight.

I remember seeing Ralph give three different speeches on successive days at the
50th anniversary of his beloved 39th Battalion in Melbourne. He was in his late
eighties. He spoke without notes. He was spellbinding.

Had Ralph been born in the days of Camelot, he would have been a dashing knight,
rushing around righting wrongs and saving damsels in distress. When he joined the
AIF in world war two, I‟m sure that‟s exactly how he viewed his service.
By the time he matriculated to the university of Western Australia, Ralph certainly
looked the part. He was a handsome six-footer with a physique built by hard yakka
on the family farm. At uni he studied arts, majoring in English and modern history
and became a school teacher. He played top-grade Aussie rules and athletics and
he taught, first in Kalgoorlie and then at Hale School in Perth. Around this time he
met his beloved Marjory and began a relationship which would last 65 years. They
married in 1934, just after Ralph switched careers to study law and, by the outbreak
of World War 11, they had two sons.

Ralph anticipated the war. He joined the militia in 1936 and brushed up his language
skills in French, German, Italian and Spanish. He was one of the first to enlist in the
AIF when war broke out as his service number, WX15, attests.

Ralph was then 35 years old, with a wife and young family. He‟d just started a
promising legal career. He had a lot to lose. But, like many others, he felt he had a
duty to go. He sailed for the Middle East in April 1940.

Ralph served as a company commander with a Western Australia battalion, the
2/11th, in North Africa. He immediately distinguished himself as one of our finest
tactical commanders.

Old soldiers will tell you the real war is fought at the tactical level. While generals
plot and plan their grand strategies far away from the front lines, on the ground the
troops face each other man to man. The tactical commanders are there with their
men. They see the terrain, the conditions, the courage and the casualties first hand.
The tactical commander pits his wits, his courage and those of his men against his
enemy‟s. He must lead by example. He must anticipate. He must react. He must
hold his nerve. Above all, he must inspire his men. It‟s a very personal war.

Ralph showed his superb leadership in the fighting at Birdie, Torus and Derma, then
again during the disastrous campaigns in Greece and Crete. His escape from the
Germans their reads like a story out of the boy‟s own annual. Ralph was
recommended for a Military Cross for his bravery in Derma. He was passed over
there but won the medal later for his leadership and courage during the retreat from
Greece. The citation for the Military Cross was written by Ralph‟s battalion
commander, a World War 1 veteran, Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Louche:

     „Citation: WX15 Capt. Ralph Honner. Recommended for M.C. This officer
     is the best company commander I have known in this or the last war.
     Throughout the campaign he has led his men on all occasions with
     courage, cheerfulness, calmness and skill.‟

That summed up Ralph perfectly … courage, cheerfulness, calmness and skill.

Ralph and the remnants of his 2/11th Battalion arrived back in Fremantle in may 1942
and Ralph had a priceless seven days at home with Marjory and his two boys before
being promoted and posted as the commanding officer of a militia battalion which
was training in Geraldton.

Looking back now it‟s hard for us to comprehend the sacrifices which our diggers
and their families had to make in World War 11. Ralph had been away for just over
two years – he sailed in April 1940 and returned in May 1942. They gave him just
one-week back home before his new posting.

(Ralph used to tell the story that his young sons, then aged 5 and 3, apparently had
no idea who he was when he came home. They reported to the nuns at their school
that they‟d seen some strange man cuddling their mum in her bedroom. The nuns
figured things out and delighted in telling Ralph.)

 While Ralph had been away, things had changed dramatically in Australia and his
greatest fears were threatening to become a reality. Japan had bombed Pearl
Harbour and conquered Asia. Singapore had fallen. Australia was under direct
threat for the first time in its brief history.

He didn‟t know it at the time - as he trained his militia soldiers in Western Australia -
but Ralph Honner would play a critical role in Australia‟s salvation - a role I believe
even today has not been properly recognised.

On July 21 1942, the Japanese landed at Gona on the north coast of New Guinea.
They planned to travel overland to Port Moresby where they‟d establish a base from
which they could take Australia at their convenience.

Our only combat-experienced diggers were in the Middle East or being rushed back
from there as the danger became evident even to the politicians in Canberra.

But at that time, the only troops we had standing between the Japanese invaders
and Australia were untrained, untested militia troops who had been rushed up to Port

These kids, average age 18 and a half, were sent up a native walking track to defend
the only substantial airstrip between Gona and Moresby in a village called Kokoda.

There, one company of the 39th militia battalion – that‟s about 120 men - faced the
invaders just north of Kokoda. These young diggers had never fired a shot in anger.
They faced the first wave of the Japanese force - about 1500 troops!

In those first skirmishes, the diggers lost their commanding officer and their most
experienced company commander. Not surprisingly, some of them went bush when
they were outnumbered and surrounded at Kokoda but most held their nerve and
withdrew to a tiny village back along the track towards Moresby called Isurava.

The stragglers found their way back to Isurava and the full 39th battalion consolidated
there - about 450 defenders trying to hold up an invasion force of around 13,500

At that same time, back in Western Australia, Ralph Honner received orders to report
immediately to Moresby and to take command of the 39th Battalion. He had one day
with Marjory and his kids, then flew from Perth to Ceduna, to Parafield near
Adelaide, to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville and then by catalina to

Moresby. There he got his orders and hurried up the track. Those orders were
simple: „hold the japes on the northern side of the Owen Stanley‟s until you are

Ralph arrived at Isurava 61 years ago last Saturday - the day before his 38th

Now, try to put yourself in the shoes of those young diggers. You‟re 18, you know
you‟re not trained properly; you‟re outgunned and outnumbered. You have no new
clothes, no new food, no new ammunition. Just what you brought with you when you
staggered up the track … and you‟ve been out in the jungle by this stage for more
than a month. You‟re constantly wet, you‟re starving and you‟re scared. You‟re
probably malarial or you‟ve got dysentery. And your temporary Commanding Officer
is blaming you for going bush during the total confusion at Kokoda.

This is where Ralph Honner came in. Whether by accident or design, Ralph was the
ideal man for this occasion. In fact, it‟s difficult to imagine who else could have
handled the thankless task he had been given. But his background, his training and
his temperament, were ideally suited to the task before him.

To most of the young diggers he was old enough to be their father. But he
immediately showed his instinctive leadership.

On his arrival, the man in charge, Major Cameron, told Ralph he believed the diggers
from Bravo Company who had gone bush at Kokoda were „unreliable‟ and should be
dispersed throughout the other companies. In military jargon „unreliable‟ is about as
bad as it gets. It means they have no guts. They will run under fire.

Ralph looked at the young blokes in front of him and took a different view. He told
them he believed in them. He gave them a new commander. He told them he was
placing them in the most dangerous sector in the Isurava perimeter, the high ground
where he anticipated the heaviest attacks – the post of honour. He told them he
expected them to rise to the occasion.

And they did. During the raging four-day battle at Isurava, when they were
outnumbered by as many as ten to one, Bravo Company held that ground and repaid
Ralph‟s faith in them.

Ralph later summed up the 39th‟s performance in his beautiful prose:

     “Indeed, the strangest feature of their story is that the weaker they
     became, the stronger and fiercer waxed their resolution to hold on at all
     costs until the long-promised relief should become a reality. In the testing
     crucible of conflict, out of a welter of defeats and disasters, of mistakes
     and misfortunes, of isolated successes and precipitate withdrawals, they
     were transformed by some strong catalyst of the spirit into a devoted band
     wherein every man‟s failing strength was fortified and magnified by a
     burning resolve to stick by his mates.”

In pulling together the young men of the 39th battalion, Ralph Honner had performed
a truly remarkable leadership feat. And he did it in just ten days – the time he had to
get to know his men and prepare their defences while the Japanese consolidated
after landing and before launching their massive assault at Isurava. At no stage
could he ever address his men as a body. He simply relied on his presence. He
calmly moved around the defensive position in the thick jungle at Isurava and drew
his young charges together through the power of his character and personality and
his clear and evident knowledge of warfare. There was none of the American-style
„death-or-glory‟ speeches. Just Ralph instilling confidence and teamwork in the
young diggers.

The spirit he engendered in the young diggers of the 39th was later perfectly
illustrated by the way a group of their walking wounded responded when they found
the battalion was in trouble at Isurava.

About 30 of them – too sick or too badly wounded to fight - had been sent back down
the track towards Moresby and safety after the 39th Battalion was reinforced by the
2/14th, the first of the AIF units back from the Middle East.

The wounded had struggled back to the next main village along the track, Alola. But,
as soon as they heard their mates were in dire straits back at Isurava, 27 out of 30 of
them immediately turned around and headed back into the firestorm from which they
been so recently reprieved. Geoff Byrne, one of the young men of Ralph‟s Bravo
Company, later expressed it this way:

     “The battalion was in trouble and twenty seven out of thirty went back.
     Those who didn‟t were minus a foot, had a bullet in the throat and forearm
     blown off. We never did it for god, king and country. Forget that! We did
     it because the 39th expected it of us.”

Ralph Honner once gave me what I think is a brilliant summation of war or, in fact, of
many other challenges we face in life. He said:

     „War is largely a matter of confidence. If the troops have confidence in
     their mates, their weapons, their leadership, and sufficient confidence in
     their numbers – in that they‟ve got a fair chance and they‟re not
     hopelessly outnumbered – they‟ll fight well. When that confidence goes,
     then something snaps and the force can be dissipated.‟

Through the power of his leadership, Ralph Honner was able to instil that confidence
in the young diggers at Isurava. Had Ralph failed to do so - had they failed to hold
up the Japanese long enough for the AIF reinforcements to reach them and then to
conduct a fighting withdrawal back down the track, the whole campaign must have
been in doubt … and Australia must have been in great jeopardy.

Ralph‟s role has never been fully recognised. That‟s really not surprising. Even at
the time, the top brass didn‟t appreciate his work. In fact, after he returned to
Moresby once the 39th had been relieved on the track, Ralph was told to report to
General Blamey, the Commander of the Australian army.

Ralph was astonished when Blamey thought he‟d just arrived from Australia.
Blamey had no idea, nor, according to Ralph, any interest, in what Ralph had been
doing. Ralph was disgusted at the way he and his men were treated. He never
forgave Blamey.

After the Kokoda campaign, Ralph went on to lead the 39th at Gona against the
entrenched Japanese who had by then decided to fight to the death. At great cost,
the diggers finally defeated them and Ralph was able to send his famous cryptic
message: “Gona‟s gone!”

The Australians suffered savage casualties in what became known as the battles of
the beachheads, at Buna, Gona and Salamander where the Japanese invaders were
finally annihilated. Less than 10 percent of the original Japanese invading force ever
returned home.

But the cost to the Diggers was high too - largely because of the mindless insistence
by Macarthur and Blamey on attacking the deeply entrenched Japanese before
proper reconnaissance could be carried out. Indeed, the 39th was so heavily hit it
was withdrawn from the order of battle rather than being reinforced, much to Ralph‟s
everlasting dismay.

Ralph was then given command of the 2/14th Battalion and led it brilliantly in the
subsequent New Guinea campaign until he was badly injured leading an attack in
the Ramu valley. Ralph‟s hip was shattered by a machine-gun bullet. He was unfit
for further combat and walked with a limp and a stick for the rest of his life.

After the war, Ralph used his lawyer‟s skills and his sense of fair play as the
chairman of the war pensions assessment appeals tribunal where he adjudicated on
veteran‟s claims to great effect.

Later, he was appointed Australia‟s ambassador to the country of his ancestors,
Ireland. And he played a leading role in the Liberal Party in New South Wales,
serving as its president for some years in the early 1960s.

To me Ralph Honner represented so many of the attributes of a great leader. His
integrity, his fairness, his courage, his compassion, his morality, his initiative, his
faith in himself and his team and his decisiveness all combined to make him an
inspirational leader.

Sadly, his role in saving Australia is not well known yet. I believe there‟s a
compelling argument that without him, the history of our country could have been
drastically changed.

He wasn‟t concerned about his own contribution but he was adamant we must
remember those who fought and died for our liberty. He wrote:

     “How do we remember them? Survivors of the bomb-loud battles of the
     ragged and the bloody might muse where sleep the brave whose
     gathered bones rest in the hushed, ensanguined beauty of Bomana.
     There they might review long lines of mute memorials immaculately

      dressed for that ultimate parade, seeing again the familiar names of the
      fallen – and almost their once familiar faces. And they might scan again
      the sundered years of their severed lives – 19,18,17 – and ponder the
      ravished promise of their perished youth. They died so young. They
      missed so much. They gave up so much: their hopes; their dreams; their
      loved ones. They laid down their lives that their friends might live.
      Greater love hath no man than this.”

To me, men like Ralph Honner are deathless. Their memory will live on while ever
we hold dear the freedom they fought to give us.

I‟m delighted Ralph‟s name will live on in the annual Ralph Honner Leadership

Patrick Lindsay is the author of „The Spirit of Kokoda: Then and Now‟ and „The Spirit of the Digger‟.
He also produced the television documentary „Kokoda – The Bloody Track‟.
Further details on


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