Admiral John Arthur Symons Eccles

Commander Australian Fleet (1949-1951)

ADML Eccles

John Arthur Symons Eccles was born in Marylebone, London on 20 June 1898 and joined the Royal Navy on 15 September 1916 as a Special Entry Cadet. Eccles was promoted to Midshipman on 31 March 1917 and appointed to the battle cruiser HMS Indomitable, which was part of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, including HMAS Australia and HM Ships Inflexible and New Zealand, based at Rosyth, Scotland. He struggled initially with service at sea being described as “hardworking but dull”.

The 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron undertook patrols in the North Sea and also escorted minesweepers laying a large minefield in an attempt to prevent U-boats exiting the North Sea into the Atlantic. Overall her service was hard but mundane. Eccles was promoted to Sub Lieutenant on 15 March 1918. He undertook courses in seamanship, navigation, torpedos and gunnery during the second half of 1918. He failed the gunnery course twice, in September and November before finally passing in early 1919, he was described by his seniors then as “dull, stupid but willing”.

He joined the newly commissioned destroyer HMS Wallace in late March 1919 and served in her until April 1920, gaining his watchkeeping qualification and was described by his Commanding Officers as “a very good and zealous officer”. Eccles was then selected to attend academic courses at Cambridge University where he showed some flair with languages. He was promoted to Lieutenant in May 1920, and in August that year commenced navigation training at HMS Dryad. Following this he was appointed to the battleship HMS Revenge, part of the Atlantic Fleet, in January 1921. His Commanding Officer described him as a competent Officer of the Watch and a capable leader of men.

In late 1921 Eccles was selected to attend the School of Oriental Languages, at the University of London, where he studied Japanese which included a period of training in Japan. Eccles was in Tokyo on 1 September 1923 when a major earthquake devastated the city killing over 140,000 people and destroying large parts of the Japanese capital and the port of Yokohama. Lieutenant Eccles was later commended by the British Foreign Office for his services to the British Embassy, in Tokyo, in the aftermath of the earthquake.

After successfully completing Japanese language training he undertook intelligence training as well as courses at the Government Code and Cypher School at Watergate House, Adelphi, London during 1924. From April 1925 to December 1926 he served in the battleship HMS Benbow which was firstly part of the Mediterranean Fleet and then the Atlantic Fleet from March 1926. In 1927 he proceeded to the China Station and joined the heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins (flagship of the 5th Light Cruiser Squadron) for intelligence, interpreter and code breaking duties. Eccles was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 15 May 1928 and transferred to the heavy cruiser HMS Kent in August 1928 when she became flagship of the 5th Light Cruiser Squadron.

Lieutenant Commander Eccles returned to the United Kingdom in late 1930 and served briefly in the Atlantic Fleet battleship HMS Valiant before undertaking the Royal Navy Staff Course at Greenwich in 1931. On completion of this course he was appointed to the Admiralty for special duties as a Japanese interpreter in 1932. Over the next six years he service alternated from the Naval Intelligence Division, in the Admiralty, to serving on the East Indies Station (HMS Hawkins 1932-33) or China Station (HMS Kent 1934-35, and HMS Cumberland 1936-37). Much of this time in Asia was spent working ashore and included wireless telegraphy duties, assisting the Foreign Office staff in Peking and a period of language study in Japan. Eccles was promoted to Commander in December 1933.

In January 1938 he joined the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal as the Executive Officer, and during his service on board the ship operated as part of the Home Fleet. Ark Royal sailed soon after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, to patrol the Western Approaches searching for U-boats. She was involved in the destruction of the German submarine U-39 on 14 September, and narrowly escaped damage by German air attack on the 26th, although the Germans erroneously claimed she had been sunk. During October-December 1939 Ark Royal operated in the South Atlantic, as part of Force K, hunting the German ‘pocket battleship’ Graf Spee. After the German warship was scuttled by her crew, off Montevideo, on 18 December 1939 Ark Royal returned to Scapa Flow.

Eccles was promoted to Captain on 31 December 1939, and on 2 March 1940 was appointed as Commanding Officer of the light cruiser HMS Durban. The cruiser operated initially in the Indian Ocean, on convoy escort duties and also searching for German merchant ships and raiders, before being based in Singapore and operating in Southeast Asian waters on patrol and convoy escort duties.

He relinquished command of Durban in mid-October 1941 and upon returning to the United Kingdom was appointed to the Admiralty as Director of Operations Division (Home). He served there until October 1943 and then joined the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable as the Commanding Officer on 2 November 1943, the namesake of the first ship Eccles had served in during World War I. The carrier had been damaged in the lead up to Operation HUSKY (the invasion of Sicily) in mid-1943 and was repaired in the United States before commencing sea trials in April 1944.

Indomitable joined the Royal Navy Eastern Fleet, at Colombo (Ceylon) in July 1944 and she and the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious launched air attacks targets on various locations in Sumatra (Operation BANQUET) in August followed by attacks on railway yards at Sigli, Sumatra (Operation LIGHT) on 17 September 1944. The two carriers later attacked Japanese facilities in the Nicobar Islands, Bay of Bengal, during 17-19 October, after which Indomitable, in company with the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, conducted air attacks on Medan (Sumatra) on 20 December 1944 as part of Operation ROBSON.

The following year, Indomitable, now part of the British Pacific Fleet, attacked oil installations at Pangkalan Brandon, Sumatra as part of Operation LENTIL on 4 January 1945 in company with Victorious and the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable. Subsequent air attacks, as part of Operation MERIDIAN, were conducted against oil refineries at Pladjoe, near Palembang, and Soengai Gerong in Sumatra during late January 1945. The British Pacific Fleet then moved into the Northern Pacific Ocean to link up with US Navy forces to attack Japanese targets.

On 4 May 1945 Indomitable was hit by a kamikaze, while operating in the North Pacific Ocean as part of Operation ICEBERG; the Allied campaign to capture the island of Okinowa during April-June 1945. Some damage was caused but her armoured flight deck saved her from serious damage and she remained at sea and operational. In August, with the war ending, Indomitable supported the liberation of Hong Kong. The carrier returned to the United Kingdom in November 1945.

Captain Eccles was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 1 May 1945, for service in Operation MERIDIAN, and mentioned in dispatches on 23 October 1945 for service in Operation ICEBERG. In late December 1945 he relinquished command of the carrier after two hard years of wartime service. He was promoted to Commodore 2nd Class in early 1946, and appointed as Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth. He reverted to the rank of Captain in 1947 and attended Imperial Defence College in London that year.

Eccles was appointed as a Commodore 2nd Class again in 1948, and took command of the Royal Navy Barracks at Chatham. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on 8 January 1949, and later that year, on 5 October 1949, was appointed Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet, taking over from Rear Admiral Harold Farncomb, CB, MVO, DSO, RAN who became the Head of the Australian Joint Services staff in the Australian Embassy in Washington.

There was concern within the RAN that due to the heavy wartime losses of several senior captains, and the ability of other certain senior RAN captains that there were no suitable Australian officers capable of taking up command of the fleet, especially one now operating an aircraft carrier. Farncomb had commanded a Royal Navy aircraft carrier during the war so had knowledge of air operations at sea in larger task groups. Ultimately, Eccles and his replacement Rear Admiral Eaton, RN were to fill the gap until Vice Admiral Collins CB, RAN (Chief of Naval Staff) felt that an Australian officer could fulfil the role. This would eventually be Rear Admiral Roy Dowling who took command of the fleet in late 1953.

During Eccles' time in command of the fleet the RAN increased its ability to operate its first aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, and Eccles as a former aircraft carrier commanding officer helped greatly with this. Additionally after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 he oversaw the necessary training needed to deploy destroyers and frigates to that conflict as well as maintain the training standards for the remainder of the fleet. He was frequently at sea with the Fleet and also visited RAN forces in Japan during April-May 1950, which operated as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Rear Admiral Eccles was appointed as a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) in the 1951 New Year’s Honours List.

Rear Admiral JAS Eccles, Flag Officer commanding the Australian Fleet, is piped aboard HMAS Shoalhaven at Kure Harbour. Meeting him at the head of the gangway are Commander IH McDonald, left, and Lieutenant Commander A Sangster, right. (AWM HOBJ0718)
Rear Admiral JAS Eccles, Flag Officer commanding the Australian Fleet, is piped aboard HMAS Shoalhaven at Kure Harbour. Meeting him at the head of the gangway are Commander IH McDonald, left, and Lieutenant Commander A Sangster, right. (AWM HOBJ0718)

When Sydney was deployed to Korean waters in August 1951 it was due in many respects to Eccles oversight of the ships work up program in order to ensure she was ready for combat operations. Rear Admiral Eccles handed over command of the Australian Fleet to Rear Admiral John Eaton, DSO, DSC, RN on 10 October 1951 and then returned to the United Kingdom. He was promoted to Vice Admiral on 22 April 1952 and became the Admiral commanding the Reserves in that year.

He then went on to become Flag Officer Air (Home) in 1953 and was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) on 16 July 1953. In the 1955 New Year’s Honours List he was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (KCB). Eccles was promoted to Admiral on 1 December 1955 and became Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet and NATO Allied Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet. Admiral Eccles was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (GCB) in the 1958 New Year’s Honours List and retired from the Royal Navy on 28 February 1958.

Admiral John Eccles died in Winchester, Hampshire on 1 March 1966. He was survived by his wife Madeline and son Jonathan.

Left: Rear Admiral Eccles opens the RSL Conference in Sydney in 1950. Right: Rear Admiral Eccles inspects the guard on board HMAS Sydney. (Fairfax Media)
Left: Rear Admiral Eccles opens the RSL Conference in Sydney in 1950. Right: Rear Admiral Eccles inspects the guard on board HMAS Sydney. (Fairfax Media)