Ralph Honner DSO MC
Ralph Honner, born at Fremantle, Western Australia, on 17 August 1904, became one of Australia's best-known officers of the Second World War. Honner, who preferred to be known as "Ralph", became a teacher but after two years in the profession began to study law.
Honner married Marjory Bennett in June 1934. He joined the militia in 1936 and enlisted in the AIF in October 1939. He was given command of C Company, 2/11th Battalion and sailed for the Middle East in April 1940. After a period in Palestine, Honner's company fought at Bardia, Tobruk, and Derna before being sent to Greece.
In Greece, Honner commanded his men through a series of fighting withdrawals before superior German forces.
They were evacuated to Crete where the fighting at Retimo took a heavy toll on the battalion. Honner escaped to Alexandria, was promoted to major, awarded the Military Cross for his work in Greece, and began to rebuild C Company around a nucleus of veterans.
He returned to Australia, was briefly reunited with his wife, and promoted to lieutenant colonel before being sent to
Papua to command the 39th Battalion, then fighting the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail. Honner was ordered to hold the Japanese at Isurava. Taking up his new command on 16 August 1942, he was confronted by a group of soldiers already exhausted from difficult fighting in the most inhospitable of conditions, many suffering tropical diseases, and facing a large enemy force while waiting for reinforcement.
Honner's experience in the Mediterranean prepared him well for the Kokoda Trail and he conducted a skilled defence and fighting withdrawal back along the trail; his troops rested only when the tide had turned against the Japanese.
His next battle, at Gona, on the Papuan coast, gave Honner another opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a combat commander. He turned his battalion from a demoralised force at Isurava to an effective unit that contributed to an important victory at Gona. For his role there Honner was awarded the Distinguished Service Order before seeing his battalion disbanded in July 1943.
Honner then took command of the 2/14th Battalion,
leading them early in the campaign in the Ramu-Markham Valley before being seriously wounded in the hip. His combat career over, Honner was posted as General Staff Officer Grade 1 Directorate of Military Training at Land Headquarters in Melbourne. He left the Army towards the end of 1944 to chair the War Pensions Assessment Appeal Tribunal, a position he held until 1968. Having moved to Sydney in 1949, Honner served as President of the New South Wales United Nations Association between 1955-57. He also served as President of the New South Wales Branch of the Liberal Party from 1961-63.
Having retired in 1968, Honner became ambassador to Ireland. In his later years he travelled to Europe and returned to Crete. He died in Sydney on 15 May 1994.
Lt Col Ralph Honners speech to his men (39th Militia Battalion) after their stand on the Kokoda track, Menari village 6th Sep. 1942
"Now I don’t know a lot of you by name, but I know you.
We met at Isurava. We fought there together and every step of the way here.
Now we are relieved and we will leave the battle.
And every day the enemy supply line stretches further. He suffers now as you have suffered.
The battle we fought for the track may have just saved your nation. At Imita we will stop him.
Brigadier wants you to know…your gallantry, your courage, your fortitude are an inspiration.
And I want you to know that you are some of the finest soldiers that I have ever seen.
You have seen things in this place that no man should witness.
Some of these things you must forget. But history will remember you, and in the years to come others will wish that they had your conviction.
And remember…remember the glory is not the exhortation of war, but the exhortation of man.
Mans nobility, made transcendent in the fiery crucible of war.
Faithfulness and fortitude.
Gentleness and compassion.
I am honored to be your brother.” — Lt Col Ralph Honner DSO MC
Members of the 39th Battalion, AMF, parade after weeks of fighting in dense jungle during the Kokoda Campaign. The Officer in front is Lieutenant Johnson. The men standing behind him, from the left, are: Arnie Wallace, Bill Sanders, Harry Hodge, Kevin Surtees, George Cudmore, George Puxley, Kevin Whelan, Len Murrell, Dick Secker, Neil Graham, Clive Gale and Jack Boland. Their bedraggled dress reflects the hard fighting of the past weeks.