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Farncomb file photo [7644]

Harold Farncomb

Given NameHarold
Born28 Feb 1899
Died12 Feb 1971


ww2dbaseFarncomb was one among a number of promising young cadets that graduated from the first class to enter the Royal Australian Naval College. Of all these first graduates of the RAN College, many who went on to become distinguished admirals and other senior officers in the RAN, Farncomb would be among the first to reach flag rank. Between his graduation and promotion to the rank of Rear Admiral, Farncomb contributed significantly to the RAN and Royal Navy during WWII. He was the executive officer, at various points during and around the Second World War, aboard the heavy cruisers HMAS Australia & HMAS Canberra, the light cruiser HMAS Perth, and British escort carrier HMS Attacker. In the course of his career he received a Distinguished Service Order, the US Navy Cross, Legion of Merit, and became Companion of the Honourable Order of the Bath.

ww2dbaseHarold Bruce Farncomb was born in 1899, the youngest son of a Sydney accountant. He was raised in Gordon, a suburb then on the northern outskirts of Sydney. He attended Gordon State School and Sydney High School, where he excelled academically, particularly enjoying history, and played competitive cricket. He entered the RAN College at age thirteen, and was among several promising cadets to graduate. Upon graduation, Farncomb was promoted to midshipman on 1 January 1917. His first posting was to serve on the Grand Fleet battleship, HMS Royal Sovereign, remaining with the ship until after the Armistice. At this point he was promoted to sub-lieutenant and posted to the small craft, Woolsher. Farncomb then returned to Australia to serve on the destroyer HMAS Stalwart for a year followed by a year working among the staff of the Commodore Commanding the Australian Squadron (CCAS). Returning to the United Kingdom for a ten month war staff course, Farncomb then worked in the Directorate of Training and Staff Duties at the Admiralty for six months, afterwards becoming the Staff Officer (Operations & Intelligence) to Rear Admiral William Wordworth Fisher, Rear Admiral of the First Battle Squadron in the Mediterranean. Farncomb returned to Australia to become Staff Officer (Operations) for the CCAS in May 1925. At this stage Farncomb was a lieutenant commander. In 1927 he married Jean Ross Nott, an Australian girl he had met during his travels to the UK. Once again, Farncomb needed to return to the UK, he had been posted to the Atlantic Fleet battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which he left to take a twelve month course at the Imperial Defence College in London. After completing this he returned to Australia to work at the Navy Office. During his two years there he was promoted to the rank of commander. This extended time ashore was followed by two years as the executive officer aboard HMAS Australia. After making his presence felt in a sea-going command, Farncomb returned to a shore command, he took a posting in the Americas desk of the Admiralty Naval Intelligence Division. His job was to liase with the US Naval Attache in London and working with the Latin American navies. Farncomb applied for an interpretership in German, but this was rejected by the Navy Office, even though he later discovered that he had achieved 95% on the entrance exams. Farncomb and his wife were on holiday in Germany when he reached the rank of captain on 30 June 1937, six months before any other graduate of the RAN College. For the rest of 1937 and most of 1938, he was the executive officer aboard the minesweeping sloop, HMAS Yarra. In the 21 years since his graduation from the RAN College, seven and a half years being spent with the Royal Navy. The remainder of that time, besides the two years in the Navy Office, were spent in sea-going commands with the RAN. By 1939 his postings had provided him with suitable experience in the two main wartime roles that, according to planners at the time, the Royal Australian Navy needed to fulfil: trade protection and operating with a British Eastern fleet, if one was deployed to Singapore. If there was a gap in his training and experience to this point it was in air-power, a deficiency shared by many Royal Navy and RAN officers. In June 1939 Farncomb commissioned the light cruiser, HMAS Perth in the United Kingdom. He travelled home aboard Perth, which headed for Australia via New York, where the World's Fair was underway, under the command of a Royal Navy officer, W. I. G. Adams. Adams was a pompous little man, disliked by the sailors aboard Perth. A dispute broke out while Perth's crew attended a formal function, so Farncomb assumed the role of captain of Perth from Adams for the remainder of the journey. With the outbreak of war, Perth was retained in the West Indies, covering the fuel supply protection area. Operating out of Kingston, Jamaica, HMAS Perth, under Farncomb's command, performed patrol, trade control, and escort duties up to the exit of the Panama Canal. After Perth's services were no longer required in the West Indies, Farncomb ordered Perth's crew to steer the ship through the Panama Canal, course set for home. Upon return to Australia, Farncomb assumed command of HMAS Canberra in June 1940. The duties which Canberra was employed in were similar to those that occupied Perth in the West Indies: escort and patrol. Stationed in Freemantle, Canberra escorted a troop convoy to Ceylon, then returned to Freemantle. While Canberra was en route to her home port, the British steamer Maimoa had been sunk eight hundred miles north-west of Perth by the German raider Pinguin. Maimoa had sent a radio signal that was received in Perth. Just as Canberra docked in Freemantle again, Farncomb knew that any moment the Navy Office in Melbourne might order Canberra out to hunt for Pinguin, Farncomb took the initiative and prepared for the ship for departure. On receiving word from the Navy Office via cable, Farncomb ordered Canberra out of port, course set for Maimoa's last known position. In the meantime Pinguin had sunk the Australian steamer, Port Brisbane, too. A Parliamentary Statement by the Minister of the Navy was broadcast on Perth radio, a transmission picked up by Pinguin, informing her crew of the impending arrival of a warship. Farncomb, located five hundred miles south-east of where Port Brisbane was sunk, picked up the only lifeboat of survivors from Port Brisbane and searched for the enemy raider, but Pinguin, with the unintentional warning from the direction of Perth, was long gone. Canberra searched, but found no trace of Pinguin. Knowing a convoy needing escort was waiting in Freemantle, Farncomb soon called off the search, setting a course for home. Immediately after this Canberra operated between Madagascar and Ceylon with HMNZ Leander in search of raiders, and sunk the German raider Ketty Brovig and her support ship Coburg. Between December 1941 and March 1944, Farncomb served as executive officer aboard HMAS Australia and as Flag Captain to the Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Squadron. This was a vital time for the RAN, with war so close to Australia's shores. Farncomb operated closely with the Royal Navy, the New Zealand navy, the Free French, and the USN. An incident known as the Australia court martial, where two sailors aboard the HMAS Australia murdered another on 12 March 1942, requiring Farncomb's presence ashore following this incident. As prosecutor in the case, Farncomb discovered that he had suitable aggressiveness, intelligence and logical thought processes for the role. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, Farncomb effectively resisted aerial attack, both from torpedo and level bombers, earning him the respect of the crew. His intelligence served him well in improvising in a situation for which he had little training. At the appointment of an officer junior to Farncomb, J. A. Collins, to the post of CCAS, Farncomb travelled to the United Kingdom for a month of courses, followed by an appointment as executive officer on the escort carrier, HMS Attacker, from 12 May 1944. When Collins was wounded in October of that year, Farncomb was recalled to Australia and given the rank commodore, first class to act in the post of CCAS until Collins was fit to return to duty. Simultaneously, Farncomb filled the posts of Flag Officer for NSW & Commodore Superintendant of Sydney. From October 1945 to November 1946 Farncomb commanded the RAN's training establishment, HMAS Cerberus, his first full-time shore command since 1937. On 9 November 1946, Farncomb again succeeded Collins as CCAS. On 8 January both Farncomb and Collins were promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. As presiding CCAS, Farncomb was most senior of the two, so he was considered the first graduate of the RAN College to achieve flag rank. Farncomb retained command of the squadron, which became a fleet once again on 1 January 1949 until October of the same year. Shortly after he travelled to Washington DC to assume his last service posting, as the Head of Australian Joint Services Staff and Naval Attache. His tenure in the position lasted less than a year. He returned home and stepped ashore in Australia on 6 April 1951, being placed on the retired list the following day. After his compulsory retirement in his early-mid fifties, Farncomb developed a dependence on alcohol that would plague him for the rest of his life. Inspired by his success during the Australia court martial, he started studying law, and became a barrister in his retirement years, he was admitted to the bar on 6 June 1958. He served as a Judge's Associate in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. He died from heart disease at St Vicent's Hospital on 12 February 1971. On 15 December 1995 the second Collins class submarine commissioned into the RAN was named after him, the HMAS Farncomb.

ww2dbaseAdmiral Richard Peek commented on Farncomb's qualities, which is a fitting conclusion to explain Farncomb's success as both a ship and staff officer:

Farncomb's success as a naval officer stemmed from his willingness to delegate and trust, from the knowledge that he was very capable and wise and from the fact that the buck stopped with him. Not that he accepted sloppiness from his team. On the contrary, he could be savage but accepted blame from higher authority himself. He was well supported by his wife Jean. Hal had the best brain (of all the officers known to me), not only from the point of view of intelligence, but because of decisiveness.

ww2dbaseSources: D. Stevens, The Royal Australian Navy in World War II, The Australian Dictionary of Biography, The Royal Australian Navy.

Last Major Revision: Mar 2009

Harold Farncomb Timeline

28 Feb 1899 Harold Farncomb was born.
12 Feb 1971 Harold Farncomb passed away.


Commander Harold Farncomb at the bridge of cruiser HMAS Shropshire, 3 Jul 1945

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More on Harold Farncomb
Event(s) Participated:
» Battle of Coral Sea

Ship(s) Served:
» Australia
» Canberra (County-class)
» Perth
» Repulse
» Royal Sovereign

Harold Farncomb Photo Gallery
Commander Harold Farncomb at the bridge of cruiser HMAS Shropshire, 3 Jul 1945

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