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Igor Alexander (Harry) Sterelny (1920–2002)

by Donald Howard and Hilton Hollingdale

Harry Sterelny, (left), with Jack Tredrea, Malinau, Eastern Borneo, 1945. Credit: Jack Tredrea

Harry Sterelny, (left), with Jack Tredrea, Malinau, Eastern Borneo, 1945. Credit: Jack Tredrea

photo provided by family

Harry Sterelny's recent death has virtually closed the book on the colourful characters who have passed through Hawkesbury Agricultural College since the late 19th century.

Igor Alexander Sterelny was born to White Russian parents in Osaka, Japan, in March, 1920. Shortly afterwards, his parents took their son and daughter Margaret to live in China. He spent his younger life in several cities, leaving as they were encircled by hostile troops.

His father, a marine engineer, finally settled in Shanghai where he enrolled Igor in a German school. There he mastered five languages, won a national wrestling title, played first-grade soccer, developed into a strong swimmer and skilled billiards player and became an expert chess player.

In 1939 his father read the international situation and brought the family to Australia where, a year later, Harry (as he had become known) entered Hawkesbury Agricultural College.

His "explosive volatility" as his contemporaries described it coupled with his superb physique, earned him the nickname of "Stromboli". During a practical class on blacksmithing, members of his group bet him 10 shillings (a sizable sum) that he could not lift the large anvil. He took it in his arms and walked to a nearby bench where he raised it and left it. Upon collecting the bet, he said, "Now you bastards can put it back." It took several of them to do so.

When Japan entered the war, there was a mass enlistment from the student body which nearly closed the college for the duration. Harry was bogged down with an armoured unit in Western Australia, with no enemy troops in sight, when an announcement in daily orders changed his life: "Anyone who is single, has his own teeth and is of good physique, and who is willing to engage in a special undercover unit, may fall out." He said to himself, "That'll do me," and found himself in the famous Z-Force.

He saw service in New Guinea, Morotai and New Britain, before being parachuted by night into the jungle of Borneo six months before the invasion. Of five men involved, three were from Hawkesbury, the other Hawkesbury men being Phil Henry and Alan Wheelhouse. Sterelny and Wheelhouse had married Joyce and Nancy, the daughters of the college's poultry instructor.

The five men operated individually in organising resistance among the locals. One day Harry was paddling his canoe down a jungle river when Australian troops took him prisoner. They were highly suspicious when this scantily clad man, with a pronounced accent, told them that he did not know that the war had ended. He persuaded them to call his superiors in Morotai. They did so and were immediately instructed to put him on the first DC3 to Australia.

He returned to Hawkesbury and, as he and Joyce lived a distance from the college, at Yarramundi, he advertised for a car of "any shape, size or vintage". Soon he was the proud owner of a battered 1926 Chevrolet tourer. It had no protective cover for its occupants and Harry would arrive frozen at lectures in the winter after travelling over the Richmond flats. But he was very fond of her and painted "Jenny" in large letters on the bonnet.

After the war, Harry became a British subject and was also mentioned in dispatches for his war service. He graduated with his diploma in agriculture in 1946. After serving with the infant Soil Conservation Service on the Keepit catchment, he spent time in Fiji as a field officer with CSR. Later he went into business selling agricultural and veterinary products in association with a college contemporary, Hilton Hollingdale.

Harry and Joyce divorced some years ago. She and their two sons, Peter and Kim, survive him, together with his second wife Norma, his grandchildren and his sister Margaret.

Harry was a man of strong opinions. He was generous to a fault but did not suffer fools gladly. However, those whom he respected or liked had his loyalty for life. He loved the land of his adoption and embodied the quintessential characteristics of the Australian digger.

Original publication

Citation details

Donald Howard and Hilton Hollingdale, 'Sterelny, Igor Alexander (Harry) (1920–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Harry Sterelny, (left), with Jack Tredrea, Malinau, Eastern Borneo, 1945. Credit: Jack Tredrea

Harry Sterelny, (left), with Jack Tredrea, Malinau, Eastern Borneo, 1945. Credit: Jack Tredrea

photo provided by family

Life Summary [details]


March, 1920
Osaka, Japan


2002 (aged ~ 81)

Cultural Heritage

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Military Service