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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Hugh Kelvin (Kel) Duncan (1923–2009)

by Michael Fogarty

The commanding officer attempted to light his cigarette once he had gathered his officers in the wardroom to brief them on a dramatic change to the ship's 1967 program. HMAS Duchess was serving with the British Fleet in the Far East Strategic Reserve.

The captain regarded his officers with a grim fixity of purpose as he tried to achieve ignition. He failed spectacularly.

No one spoke. Until the gunner, "Squizzy" Taylor, came to his rescue. "Wrong end, sir."

The red-faced senior officer recovered and adjured his men. "Let that be a lesson to you, of the evils of smoking filter-tipped cigarettes."

Kel Duncan's sensible leadership ensured that morale would never flag.

Commander Kel Duncan was the first sailor in the Royal Australian Navy to command a fleet destroyer. He was a member of the vanishing present, among the dwindling numbers of that great generation of Australians who made it so in World War II. Then, not content to bask in his achievements, in retirement he turned his reserves of energy into community service.

Hugh Kelvin Duncan was born on February 11, 1923 in Henty, between Albury and Wagga. He was working in the family grocery store when the war began and he was taken by a Royal Navy poster that featured HM ships including Hugh [Walpole], Kelvin and Duncan.

He told his father: "That's it, Dad, for I am destined to join the navy". This he did, in 1940, as an ordinary seaman second class at HMAS Cerberus. Many of his recruit intake were killed the next year when HMAS Sydney was lost off Western Australia.

Duncan fought off New Guinea, Burma, the Philippines and Okinawa. He was in HMAS Nepal at the Japanese surrender in 1945, an acting petty officer in the torpedo category. Also in 1945, he married Lillian Beller.

When hostilities ended, another threat emerged. All services had to deploy an explosive ordnance demolition front against the detritus of war, enemy and allied. Duncan was an instructor and joined parties to dispose of recovered munitions. He was commended for his service in those hazardous mine counter-measure operations.

In 1952 he was promoted to commissioned gunner torpedo anti-submarine and spent a long attachment with the Royal Navy, including service in HMS Sheffield with NATO forces.

In 1955, having returned home as a lieutenant, his career bloomed. He did two tours in Q class ships during the Malayan emergency, interspersed by a posting as head of the seamanship school at Cerberus.

He made lieutenant-commander in 1961 and was appointed acting commander when he briefly commanded HMAS Huon in Tasmania. Duncan later commanded HMA ships Rushcutter and Waterhen, with a return as training commander at Cerberus in between.

In 1965 he served as the executive officer of the fleet oiler HMAS Supply. In 1966 he was appointed to drive Duchess. The appointment attracted praise and interest. Clearly, he would come under more scrutiny than those among the officer corps who had achieved command through the professional service college path. He made the grade and he got his ship together. Confirmed in his last rank, he was fit for sea command.

In 1967, serving in South-East Asia and on passage from Bangkok to Hong Kong, Duchess exchanged identities with USS Falgout south of Ca Mau, off the tip of Vietnam. (Several years earlier Falgout had become the first USN destroyer to be commanded by an African-American, Vice-Admiral Sam Gravely.)

Duchess was later challenged by a US maritime reconnaissance aircraft between Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trang, a nasty moment rectified when signal intercepts showed that Duchess had been mistaken for the aircraft's mother ship. Navy reports commended Duncan as ''a very zealous, alert and reliable officer who has displayed sound judgment and good appreciation of the responsibilities of command. He is a good leader who understands men, and who is highly respected by those under him.''

After a posting to HMAS Albatross at Nowra, and a staff officer role at navy office, he resigned in 1972 to settle in Canberra. He joined the inaugural Marine Operations Centre, later becoming director of the merged Coastal Surveillance Organisation.

At a personal level he was tireless in community activities. He also became chief executive of the National Capital Agricultural Society - in effect running the annual Canberra Show.

He was awarded the OAM (2001) and the Centenary Medal (2004). Lillian died in 1999, and in 2002, Duncan married Karen Govier of Minnesota. In 2008 they moved to Taree.

Duncan is survived by Karen and his son, Philip.

Original publication

Citation details

Michael Fogarty, 'Duncan, Hugh Kelvin (Kel) (1923–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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