Commander Lionel Sydney Dalton

By Alan Hinge

Lionel Sydney Dalton (1902-1941), naval officer, was born on 26 October 1902 in South Melbourne, second son of Edward Lisle Dalton, a clerk from Adelaide, and his Victorian-born wife Annie Myra, née Oliver. Educated at Middle Park State School, in 1916 Syd entered the RANC, Jervis Bay. He did reasonably well academically, won colours for cricket and Rugby Union football, and gained a reputation as a good "all rounder" who was prepared to "have a go". In January 1920 he was promoted Midshipman and sent to sea in HMAS Australia.

Based in England for further training from 1921, Dalton served in several Royal Navy ships. He was promoted Lieutenant in December 1924, graduated from the Royal Navy Engineering College at Keyham, Devonport, in 1925, and returned to Australia that year. After postings to HMA Ships Anzac and Adelaide, he went back to England in 1927 to commission the new vessel, HMAS Australia. On 24 March 1928 he married Margaret Mary Anderson at St Andrew's parish church, Plymouth. Home again, in 1931 he was posted to the seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross. While an instructor (1932-34) at the Engineering School HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, he was promoted Engineer Lieutenant Commander. In 1934 he found himself once more in England, standing by the six-inch gun cruiser HMAS Sydney, then under construction at Wallsend, Northumberland. He sailed in her to Australia and in 1937 transferred to HMAS Adelaide.

Promoted Engineer Commander on 31 December 1937, Dalton rejoined Sydney in June 1939 as Engineer Officer. In May 1940 the ship was deployed for service in the Mediterranean. On 19 July, while patrolling off Cape Spada, Crete, a flotilla of British destroyers sighted two Italian cruisers, the Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni. Some forty nautical miles (74km) to the north, Sydney changed course to lend assistance: she pursued the Italian vessels at high speed down the west coast of Crete, destroyed the Bartolomeo Colleoni and damaged the Bande Nere. Dalton's steadfastness and professionalism ensured that Sydney's machinery performed faultlessly throughout the engagement. He was awarded the DSO.

Sydney's action against a superior force was widely regarded as Australia's most significant naval victory. Dalton recorded the ship's arrival in Alexandria harbour, Egypt, next day: "[We]...steamed down the line of battleships and cruisers, receiving a welcome that was wonderful. All ships cleared lower deck and gave us three cheers as we proceeded, and anyone would have imagined that we had won the war". In 1940 the demands made on Dalton and his staff were enormous, with the ship steaming a total of 66,000 nautical miles (122,300km). Sydney returned to Australian waters in February 1941.

On 19 November 1941, about 150 nautical miles (278km) south west of Carnarvon, Western Australia, Sydney challenged a disguised merchant vessel, later known to have been the German raider Kormoran, which lured the cruiser closer then opened fire. Both ships were lost in the action, Sydney with her entire complement of 645 men. Dalton was survived by his wife and son David who became an Engineer Officer in the RAN and rose to Captain.