Lieutenant Gavin Campbell, RAN (Retd), died in Sydney last week after a long illness, at the age of 94. He was the remaining surviving commissioned officer of the Royal Australian Navy wartime cruiser HMAS Perth (I). He was serving in her when, under the command of the famous Captain Hec Waller, RAN, she fought to her last shell against overwhelming odds in the Battle of Sunda Strait on the night of 28 February/1 March 1942.
Gavin Campbell had joined the Navy as an 18 year old Supply Branch Midshipman in 1939 and had served in the cruisers Canberra and Hobart during the first two years of the war. He received a very short notice posting, in navy speak a ‘pier head jump’, to join Perth as Waller’s secretary when the ship sailed from Fremantle to join the America, British, Dutch, Australia (ABDA) Squadron after the fall of Singapore.
This improvised multinational naval force was tasked with preventing the Japanese from invading the oil rich Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. It was a hopeless task. The ships of ABDA were out numbered, outclassed, and out fought. Two Dutch cruisers and one British one were sunk at the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942 with three Allied destroyer escorts.
After the battle Gavin typed from dictation Captain Waller’s action report in which he described the chronology of the engagement. Perth was the senior surviving ship from ABDA which had now ceased to exist. Waller’s intention was to get his small force home to Australia. He ran into a full scale Japanese amphibious invasion and attacked troop ships.
In the Battle of Sunda Strait Perth (I) and the US cruiser Houston fired all their remaining main armament ammunition while taking numerous hits. Waller was killed on his bridge by an incoming shell after he had ordered his crew to abandon the torpedoed Perth which had slowed almost to a halt and was listing.
Gavin broke his leg badly as he left Perth and having avoided drowning he got ashore then hobbled towards assistance with an improvised crutch and splints provided by a shipmate, Able Seaman Denny Maher. This feat of endurance went on for three weeks until he was eventually rounded up with the rest of Perth’s survivors by Japanese captors.
Gavin then survived the exhaustion, horror disease and death of the Japanese Thai-Burma railway, until final liberation came in 1945 after three and a half years of brutal captivity.
There were 681 men in Perth’s ship’s company when she was sunk. Only 218 came home to Australia. Gavin was one of them. He remained in the Navy for a further five years.
He married and had a daughter and lived for another seventy years after liberation. Throughout his long life he told his story to naval historians and a succession of Commanding Officers of Perth (II) and (III) who valued his eye witness account of the dramatic and tragic events which he had survived.
One of Gavin's last visitors in hospital before his death was the current Commanding Officer of Perth (III), Captain Ivan Ingham.
His funeral service was on 15 December at Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Crematorium and was attended by senior Australian Navy officers and his many naval friends. Gavin’s sword was on his coffin and a Royal Australian Navy Bandsman played the Last Post for him.