Commander Jefferson Hirst Walker

Edited by Lieutenant Commander Dave Jones, RAN


Commander Jefferson Hirst Walker, MVO, DSC, RAN (1901-1941)

Jefferson Hirst Walker was born on 16 July 1901 in Hawthorn, Victoria. He was named after US President Thomas Jefferson, and his middle name, Hirst, was his grandmother’s maiden name. His mother’s family had a strong merchant marine pedigree and as a young boy he was passionate about boats and the sea and later the art of navigation. He learned practical skills from his father which served him well in his application to join the RAN.

Walker was accepted into the RAN College in 1915, the year that the College moved from its first, temporary home at Geelong to Jervis Bay. He was just 13 years of age and by his own description was “a thin gangling child with straw coloured hair and a shyness then acute”.

He graduated as a Midshipman in 1918 and sailed for England in Jan 1919 where he was posted to HMS Revenge, flagship of the first battle squadron led by Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Freemantle. He was present at the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow and spent the next 18 months in the Mediterranean in a challenging post-war environment. He was promoted Sub Lieutenant in 1921, and attended the Sub Lieutenants’ course at the historic Greenwich Naval College and the gunnery school at Portsmouth. In August 1922 he came back to Australia where he was promoted Lieutenant before joining the sloop HMAS Geranium, a Flower Class minesweeper of 1250 tonnes which had been converted for surveying operations in northern Australian waters.

In 1924 Walker returned to Portsmouth in the UK to undertake a specialist course in navigation. On completion he joined HMS Triad, a yacht hired for use by the Royal Navy as a headquarters ship operating in the Persian Gulf. In 1927 he returned to Australia to serve, in turn, aboard HMA Ships Platypus, Brisbane, and Albatross. In August 1929 he married Mary Alison Cheadle of Adelaide. In 1930 he was promoted Lieutenant Commander after passing his ‘big ship’ navigation course in England. He was subsequently posted to the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle before returning to Australia and serving in Naval Headquarters in Melbourne.

In 1934 he joined HMAS Australia as its navigator and was appointed a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in 1935 for his service aboard Australia during the visit of the Duke of Gloucester. He was then posted ashore as the Master Attendant, Garden Island, and, in 1938, was posted to Darwin as District Naval Officer (DNO) with a staff of five sailors. There he took up residence in the newly-built, unfurnished DNO’s residence with his wife Mary.

Retirement age for Lieutenant Commanders at that time was 45. Walker’s prospects for further advancement appeared limited and he temporarily transferred to the Auxiliary List in August 1938. The war intervened, however, and Walker was transferred back to the permanent naval force in January 1940. He was subsequently posted in command of the new Grimsby Class sloop HMAS Parramatta, which commissioned on 8 April 1940.

Parramatta sailed from Fremantle on 29 June 1940 for the Red Sea. Except for a visit to Bombay in December 1940, Parramatta spent the next nine months in one of the world’s most torrid zones escorting, patrolling and minesweeping. It was monotonous work in the worst possible conditions relieved only by occasional Italian air attacks against the convoys under escort.

In April 1941 Parramatta took part in the British operations against Italian Eritrea, East Africa. That May she transferred to the control of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Station. Soon afterwards the sloop was assigned to escort duty in support of the campaign in Libya, part of the famous ‘Tobruk Ferry’ service. She sailed from Alexandria on her first run on 15 June and was subsequently attacked by German dive bombers. Parramatta survived but her consort, HMS Auckland, was sunk. Parramatta picked up 164 survivors. Commander Walker was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for this action and his superb leadership in the Meditearranean. It was later presented to his widow after he was killed in action at a later date.

In July Parramatta operated as escort to transport vessels providing reinforcement of British forces in Cyprus, and in September operated as Duty Sloop at Attaka in the Suez Canal zone where, said Walker, “it was intended that my presence should inspire confidence in the crews of American merchant ships loaded with military stores”. October was spent in the Gulf of Suez on survey work with which Walker was well acquainted, harking back to his service aboard the survey ship HMAS Geranium as a young Lieutenant in 1923/24. He was promoted Acting Commander in September 1941.

On 25 November Parramatta and the destroyer HMS Avon Vale sailed from Alexandria escorting the deeply laden ammunition ship Hanne to Tobruk. At 12:45am on 27 November the submarine U-559 fired a single torpedo at a range of 1500 metres, striking Parramatta amidships. There were two almost simultaneous explosions, the second probably in the ship’s magazine. Parramatta was torn apart. All lighting failed and Walker, standing on the bridge, had only time to issue the order ‘abandon ship’ before she rolled rapidly to starboard and sank.

Only those on deck had a chance to escape. About 30, including two officers, clung to an Oropesa float among a mass of debris. They could hear shouts close by in the darkness. Suddenly as if she were reluctant to take the final plunge, Parramatta’s stern broke the surface. Some distance off a vague black shape was visible. Two seamen decided to take a chance and swim towards it. After three quarters of a mile and near exhaustion they were picked up by Avon Vale at 3:05am. The destroyer had, by then, already plucked nineteen survivors from the wreckage-strewn sea. No others were found and, although she searched a wide area, the destroyer could find no trace of the Oropesa float nor any of those who clung to it. Three more, however, reached the Libyan coast unaided to be rescued by advancing British troops, making, in all, twenty four survivors. One hundred and thirty eight men lost their lives, including all the ship’s officers. 

Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Andrew Cunningham later wrote:

Parramatta was one of the ‘little ships’ which made the great sacrifice in keeping the hard pressed garrison of Tobruk supplied. She went down fighting gallantly and in doing so added a glorious page to the Naval history of our Empire. I have the liveliest memories of that very fine man her captain and her gallant company.

The dedication in the book The Price of Admiralty says of Walker:

He knew it a privilege to serve with them;

He would have considered it an honour to die with them;

It was an honour not denied him.