Darby family donates medical relics from Sydney-Emden battle

Published on POIS Paul Berry (author and photographer)

Location(s): Canberra, ACT

Helen Hill (left) and Doctor Claire Darby (right) present Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett with memorabilia from their great uncle, Surgeon Captain Leonard Darby, at Russell Offices in Canberra. (photo: POIS Paul Berry)
Helen Hill (left) and Doctor Claire Darby (right) present Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett with memorabilia from their great uncle, Surgeon Captain Leonard Darby, at Russell Offices in Canberra.

Relics that once belonged to the late Royal Australian Navy pioneer Surgeon Leonard Darby, CBE, MB, Ch.B, RAN, were donated to the Navy Historical Collection last week.

A letter written by Surgeon Darby, a photo album and medals and decorations earned during his 34-year naval career which spanned from 1912 to 1946, have shed new light on the Royal Australian Navy’s first wartime victory at sea.

Doctor Claire Darby and Helen Hill presented their great-uncle's memorabilia to Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, on behalf of their family.

Surgeon Darby served in HMAS Sydney (I) during World War I and was Sydney's senior Surgeon when she intercepted and defeated the German cruiser SMS Emden off the Cocos Keeling Islands on November 9, 1914.

It was the Royal Australian Navy’s first single ship action and victory at sea. The centenary anniversary of the battle will be commemorated later this year.

Surgeon Darby's letter, written to his brother, describes the engagement and the medical treatment and care administered to the wounded men from both Sydney and Emden.

Despite the terrible injuries suffered by the wounded sailors and the trying conditions, the Surgeon and his team saved many lives.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC, RAN with a photo of Surgeon Captain Leonard Darby, donated by Helen Hill (left) and Doctor Claire Darby. Director General Health Capability and Navy Health Service, Commodore Liz Rushbrook (right) attended the presentation.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC, RAN with a photo of Surgeon Captain Leonard Darby, donated by Helen Hill (left) and Doctor Claire Darby. Director General Health Capability and Navy Health Service, Commodore Liz Rushbrook (right) attended the presentation.


Vice Admiral Barrett said the donation was important for the Navy.

"A lot of our sailors are re-discovering some of our rich history, particularly now as we celebrate more than 100 years of Navy military action and peace-time activities," Vice Admiral Barrett said.

"The fact that we can demonstrate and tell the stories about these events reminds our people of the legacy we carry forward," he said.

"It's very important to us, we'll take great care of them and we'll make sure that others understand the story."

Dr Darby, the third in four generations of medical doctors in the family since Surgeon Darby, said the upcoming centenary of the Sydney-Emden engagement had inspired the family’s donation.

"We thought gosh, it's going to be 100 years old this year, so it was now or never," Dr Darby said.

"It seemed that these were things that none of us should have, because they might get lost in the family and we thought it would be of interest to the Navy," she said.

"We hope that it will add to the knowledge of that particular event as time goes on and that's a good thing."

Helen said she was confident that the items would be well preserved and accessible to students and historians.

"We felt it was important and we didn't feel that we had the means to preserve it all," Helen said.

"We are just thrilled and overwhelmed by how wonderful it's all been," she said.

The historical items will be stored at the Sea Power Centre in Canberra, where they will be preserved for posterity.

Surgeon Darby retired from the Navy as a Surgeon Captain in 1946 and lived in Queensland until he passed away in 1980.