Commander Warwick Seymour Bracegirdle

CMDR WS Bracegirdle

Warwick Seymour Bracegirdle was born on 22 December 1911 at the family home in High Street, Newcastle, New South Wales the eldest of two sons to (Sir) Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle, naval officer, and his wife Lilian Anne (née Saunders). Warwick was educated at Melbourne Grammar School (Grimwade House) during 1918-19 and 1923-24, St Peters College, Adelaide during 1919-21 and Cranbrook School, Sydney during 1921-22, moving frequently to follow his father’s naval career.

He entered the Royal Australian Naval College (Jervis Bay) in February 1925, as a Cadet Midshipman, graduating in 1928 with sporting colours for rugby and hockey and winner of the welter-weight boxing competition. An average scholar, he was nevertheless awarded the King's Gold Medal for exemplary conduct, performance of duty and good influence amongst his peers. He was promoted Midshipman in May 1929 while serving in HMAS Australia.

Bracegirdle commenced training with the Royal Navy, in early 1930, on board HMS Ramillies (Mediterranean Fleet) and was also the midshipman’s welter weight boxing champion. Promoted Sub Lieutenant in September 1931, he studied at Greenwich Royal Naval College. Struggling with the academic aspects of the course he failed subjects in 1932 but repeated them in 1933. He joined the destroyer HMAS Stuart in 1933, was promoted Lieutenant in 1934, and gained his watchkeeping certificate. In December 1935 he joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra.

He completed the long gunnery course in England during 1937-38, and joined the light cruiser HMS Amphion in preparation for her transfer to the RAN. On 10 June 1939, at the Greenwich Naval College chapel, he married Margaret Eve Slingsby Bethell. They later had two sons (Simon and Nicolas) and a daughter (Phillada), known socially as the ‘Bracelets’. Amphion commissioned as HMAS Perth, with Bracegirdle as gunnery officer, on 10 July 1939.

After the outbreak of war, Perth served in the North Atlantic and Caribbean before returning to Australia in mid-1940. In late 1940 the cruiser deployed to the Mediterranean and was involved in the Battle of Matapan (28 March 1941) and the evacuation of Commonwealth troops from Greece and Crete in April-May 1941. Bracegirdle was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for "whole hearted devotion to duty and high personal courage" - particularly during an air raid at Piraeus, Greece, when towing an ammunition lighter away from a burning ship, which exploded nearly killing Bracegirdle and another officer. He was appointed to HMAS Cerberus in November 1941 and was temporarily officer in charge of the gunnery school. Promoted Lieutenant Commander in December 1942, he joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Shropshire as gunnery officer.

During the next two and half years he saw service in the New Guinea and Philippines campaigns. On 25 October 1944 at the Battle of Surigao Strait Shropshire fired over 240 eight inch shells which, as part of US Navy task group, contributed to the destruction of the Japanese battleship Yamashiro. Bracegirdle was awarded a bar to his DSC and twice mentioned in dispatches. He was highly regarded by the ship's company who described him as "a great one-eyed gunnery officer, never failing in his enthusiasm", and who had a significant effect on the training and devotion to duty of his men.

His personal reports told a different story. Captain John Collins, commanding Shropshire, stated "He has not an agile brain and rapidly changing situations are rather bewildering to him, however he plods on and gets things sorted out eventually." The constants throughout his officer reports were his outstanding social skills, love of the Navy, a selfless attitude (especially in combat) and his genuine concern for the welfare of the men under his command. One reporter described him as “A breezy, cheery type, for whom the troops will do anything.”

Bracegirdle returned to the gunnery school in May 1945 and was promoted Commander in June 1947. The family went to England in February 1948 with Warwick completing the Joint Services Staff Course followed by secondment to the British Combined Operations Headquarters and the Operations Division in the Admiralty. On returning to Australia he took command of the destroyer HMAS Bataan in late 1951, and took her to the Korean War (February-August 1952). Bataan operated in poorly charted waters conducting frequent naval bombardment of North Korean positions. Early in her deployment she was hit by a single enemy shell which caused minor damage, including tearing Bracegirdle’s dress uniform hanging in his day cabin.

His men recalled him with respect and admiration, with war correspondent Ronald McKie describing him as "a big, ruddy, cheerful looking man with smooth black hair and one of those deceptive innocent English schoolboy faces." His peers considered him to be an "actor" who had a winning personal style which greatly contributed to his success in command. At one point the Naval Board chastised him for excessive use of ammunition in bombardments, but Bracegirdle claimed the ammunition was almost out of date and it was better to fire it at the enemy then dump it at sea. For his Korean War service Bracegirdle was awarded a second bar to his DSC and the United States Legion of Merit (Degree of Officer).

Upon returning to Australia he took the opportunity to take his two sons to sea in Bataan for exercises off the east coast and in Bass Strait. He relinquished command of Bataan in late 1953 and spent the next year as Director of Training and Staff Requirements, in Navy Office (Melbourne). The family then travelled to England where Warwick took up duties as the RAN liaison officer with the UK Joint Services Staff. His tenure ended in late 1956 and, at age 45 years with no prospect of promotion to Captain, he resigned from the Navy on 14 February 1957. The Bracegirdles remained in Britain and Warwick was employed initially by Morgan Crucibles Company Ltd, London before joining the National Iranian Oil Company, based in Abadan, as a training specialist. His family did not accompany him to Iran.

The Bracegirdle marriage became strained by living apart, and at Winchester County Court on 5 August 1969, Warwick and Eve were granted a divorce. At the Gosport Registration Office, Hampshire, on 20 September 1969, Warwick married German divorcee Pauline ‘Polly’ Annelies Maria Caspar. Warwick worked briefly for Vosper-Thornycroft in the 1970s, before retirement and settling at ‘Lodge Cottage’ in Gislingham, Suffolk. Known as ‘Braces’, he was the typical gunnery officer of his era, hard working and brave but also very highly respected by his men. He was frequently visited by old shipmates from Perth, Shropshire and Bataan.

Warwick Bracegirdle died from myocardial infarction and atherosclerosis, at home on 14 March 1993, and was buried at St Marys Churchyard, Gislingham, Suffolk. A memorial service was also held in Australia, at the Naval Chapel at Garden Island for his family, friends and many admirers. He was survived by his first and second wives, and the three children from his first marriage. His younger brother, Brian Leighton Bracegirdle, who was born in Melbourne in 1918 and served as a Squadron Leader in RAAF during 1939-1949, and later in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, also survived him.

Warwick’s eldest son Simon became a music teacher and had a long term career in the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Nicolas joined the Royal Navy and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander, seeing service in the 1982 Falklands War. Phillada migrated to Greece and became a professional tour guide.

Warwick Seymour Bracegirdle’s medals and the King’s Gold Medal awarded to him in 1928 are on display at the Australian War Memorial.