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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bland, Robert Havelock (Bob) (1903–1989)

by Kathryn Spurling

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Robert Havelock (Bob) Bland (1903-1989), sailor, was born on 5 May 1903 at Balmain North, Sydney, sixth child of Thomas George Bland, a locally born watchmaker and jeweller, and his wife Mary Hamilton, née Stewart, who came from Scotland. Bob was apprenticed to a blacksmith, but on 14 April 1921 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy as an assistant cook. He was 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall with auburn hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. `Rated’ as a cook in the following year, he rose to leading cook in 1925 and to petty officer in 1927. On 4 December 1926 he had married Florence Alice Thomas, a dressmaker, at St Philip’s Church of England, Auburn.

In October 1935 Bland was promoted to chief petty officer cook. Having served in HMA ships Marguerite, Canberra, Vendetta, Australia and Adelaide, he left for Britain, where he was among the commissioning crew of HMAS Perth in June 1939. The cruiser was at sea in the Caribbean when Australia declared war on Germany. `Bob was Pusser built’ recalled one of his peers, meaning that he embodied the highest standards of naval discipline and decorum. Another remembered a less punctilious chief cook who turned a blind eye when food was taken from the mess for the ship’s cat.

Perth served in the Mediterranean from December 1940 and took part in the battle of Matapan in March 1941. During the evacuation of Greece in April, Bland `worked untiringly and cheerfully throughout the night baking four batches of bread so that all troops onboard could be given plenty of bread and butter and jam which they appeared to regard as a special luxury’. He was mentioned in despatches. After evacuating 1188 troops from Crete in May, the ship endured numerous air attacks. A bomb blew away part of the ship’s galley, killing thirteen men, including two cooks. Bland quickly supervised the restoration of the galley to working order and rallied the remaining members of his staff to provide within two hours a hot meal for the ship’s company and the soldiers on board. For his `zeal, patience and cheerfulness’ he was awarded the British Empire Medal.

After refitting in Australia, Perth sailed for Java in February 1942. On 1 March she was sunk by the Japanese in a torrid sea battle in the Sunda Strait. Hauled from the ocean covered in black oil fuel, Bland and other survivors became prisoners of war. They were incarcerated first at Serang, Java, where Bland gave `invaluable assistance’ to medical staff. As the number of men with dysentery and chronic diarrhoea increased, he appealed to the Japanese to be permitted to cook the rice ration. This was allowed and, according to a fellow prisoner, `not only was it then palatable, but our health improved’. From Changi camp, Singapore, he spent eighteen months working on the Burma-Thailand Railway. At Tamarkan, Thailand, he ran the camp kitchen. Repatriated in September 1945, he was again mentioned in despatches for his service in Perth. He elected to remain in the navy, but spent most of a year in hospital and was discharged medically unfit on 10 December 1946.

The ensuing years were difficult. Unable, because of dysentery, to continue in the trade he so enjoyed, he cooked only for the ex-POW reunions he could attend. He worked briefly as a storeman and as a gatekeeper, but recurring bouts of diarrhoea and malaria restricted his employment. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 19 April 1989 at Concord, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (1957)
  • A. Payne, H.M.A.S. Perth (1978)
  • B. Whiting, Ship of Courage (1994)
  • M. Gee, A Long Way from Silver Creek (2000)
  • series A6770, item Bland R H, series B503, item Y19 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Kathryn Spurling, 'Bland, Robert Havelock (Bob) (1903–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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