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Donald James (Don) Horne (1924–2020)

by Mike Fogarty

Donald Horne was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on 15 October, 1924. He died in Canberra on 22 August, 2020. In 1947 he joined the Australian Foreign Service and had an eventful life as a career diplomat. A Chinese linguist, he added value to his profession. Typically, for his skills sub-set, many postings were to Asian countries, namely China and Hong Kong. 

This intelligent teen left Australia with his family for Scotland in 1938, after an early education in Melbourne. At Aberdeen, he gained first prize in History and at 17 he passed the Scottish Senior Leaving Certificate in 1941. A top result led to the offer of a national scholarship to study Chinese at the School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) at London University. Some students later became diplomats, academics, spymasters and colonial Governors. 

The students boarded at Dulwich, a suburb of London. Several hours of classes a day were followed by six hours of private work. The language was in Roman script form, for ease of learning. Two language students were killed during the WWII courses. A Nazi “doodle-bug” fell silently from the skies and it landed near them on the High Street, claiming both.  The Nazi blitz continued, London was also at war. 

Horne had attempted to join the Royal Navy earlier but was dissuaded for his age. His time would come. He was one of 74 students out of 1300 applicants accepted by SOAS. This intensive course was undertaken from 1942-1943. On completion of his studies, he was appointed as a Midshipman (Special Branch) RNVR in December, 1943, later being promoted to acting Lieutenant.  

This officer was first attached to the staff of Chief of Naval Intelligence Eastern Fleet (Colombo) from March 1944 to March 1945. A fellow Chinese linguist, from a later class, was active in boats off the Arakan coast, in Burma. He used his language skills to monitor radio traffic. The Command wanted to know what the Chinese were up to. Ed Youde became Governor of Hong Kong. There they met. 

More adventures awaited Don.  Given a “pier-head” leap to wartime China, he was sent at short notice to replace an officer. Horne flew “the hump” twice, a perilous flight from Assam to Southern China. Dakota (C-47) and Sky Master (C-54) aircraft flew over razor-backed peaks and through down-draught valleys up to 12, 000 feet. The planes often scraped mountain sides. It was thus dubbed the aluminium staircase. 

The US pilots were accomplished and Don had every confidence in them. He recalled landing on a river island which was often beset with floods. On initially attempting to converse with a perplexed peasant, the disbelieving local could not achieve cognition. So Don grabbed his arm, and with a stick, wrote a Chinese character in the dust. Éclat! In his new comprehension, he soon embraced Don in tears of joy. They connected. 

From March, 1945 to September, 1946 Horne served as the Assistant to the Naval Attaché at the British Embassy, China. He formed useful personal contacts with the Australian Legations at Chungking and Nanking. Donald had a safe war but he never spoke about it. On his return to Britain in 1946, the passenger manifest included the first panda flown to the London Zoo. 

Lieutenant Horne was demobbed on New Year’s Day in 1947. Recruited from London, Horne returned to Australia. A pass result in Chinese fluency with 257 marks out of a possible 300 all but ensured it.  Joining the department as a diplomatic staff cadet, he was in good company. As expected, many of his male colleagues were ex-servicemen who were yet to complete their university studies. This they did later through departmental auspices. Some of his distinguished peers went on to notable achievement. They included: Jim Plimsoll, Alf Parsons and Keith Brennan. Miss Mary McPherson was also appointed. Donald did not complete his BA studies. 

Don married Nanette Piggin in Canberra on 27 August, 1949. They would have five children: four sons; Michael (1952), James (1953), Ian (1957) and Graham (1959). The last child was a daughter Anita (1963). Their mother pre-deceased the family dying in 2018. The children also had a peripatetic life being schooled in many countries, and also in Canberra. Donald Horne led a quiet private life outside of work. 

He had key postings, marked by promotions with increasing responsibilities through his long and exacting career until he retired in 1985. They included: Tokyo (1951), Hong Kong (1951-1954), Kuala Lumpur (1956-1958), Hong Kong (1961-1963), Wellington (1965-1968), Tokyo (1971-1974), Athens (1974-1976), Seoul (1976-1978) and Hong Kong (1982-1985), the last three were as the head of mission.  

Postings were interspersed with assignments in Canberra. Living at Red Hill, he sometimes cycled to and from work. Don often wore shorts and short sleeved shirts without a tie. His build was slight, thin, wiry and of average height. He retired as a senior assistant secretary, at band two in the executive division. He rued that the department had lost the plot — it may have been due to his stalled promotion chances.      

Without access to his confidential (“fitness”) reports, it is difficult to assess his performance. But for his regular cycle of appointments, at home and abroad, he obviously enjoyed the confidence of senior management. In short, his department had a dearth of linguists. Don met that gap. While he was earmarked to study at the Peiping language school, in 1949, the revolutionary war ensured that he did not.

What was departmental policy towards students undertaking Chinese language training?  Proficiency had to be rated in order to earn a language allowance, to be assessed at an annual examination, based on United Kingdom standards. Practitioners had to possess a competent knowledge, colloquial or otherwise, for ordinary usage. Linguists had to stay fluent, and they could expect to return to posts to re-apply it.

This obituary on Donald Horne is limited by practicalities. Not being a “high flier”, he did not seek a public profile, so he has escaped our consciousness. For that, it would be a false gesture to over-analyse his professional contribution to the guild. His many assignments to Asia proved that he was despatched to regional posts where his Chinese could be used where it was intended. He mastered the Chinese vernacular.

What was his character? Language student Stephen FitzGerald recollected that Don Horne was an engaging nonconformist Christian and vegetarian teetotaller. He was quiet and never sought the limelight in comparison to some peers. But he could be relied upon to discharge sound work. Much of it defaulted to the Intelligence Division, where he had the requisite background and experience to apply the craft.

It is not necessary to replicate or analyse his impact at individual posts served. History is out there and it can be found elsewhere. Beyond his efficient political reporting, he was a capable manager, also mentoring young language students. He had to as his career progressed. Donald Horne was a quiet, rugged individualist who deserves to be better remembered for his effective contribution to our diplomacy.   

* Mike Fogarty is a former RAN officer and diplomat who served in Singapore and Hanoi. He graduated MA (Military History) from UNSW ADFA in 2016.  

Original publication

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Citation details

Mike Fogarty, 'Horne, Donald James (Don) (1924–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 October, 1924
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


22 August, 2020 (aged 95)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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