Des Harrison, right, and Jock McDiarmid affix a message to a doomed pigeon during the cadets? 1959 cross-country march.
Des Harrison, right, and Jock McDiarmid affix a message to a doomed pigeon during the cadets? 1959 cross-country march.

Des Harrison ? soldier, teacher and family man

Lieutenant-Colonel Desmond James Harrison, long time agriculture teacher and master-in-charge of cadets at The Armidale School (TAS), died recently at the age of 83.

He was one of a generation of schoolmasters who began their careers in the late 1930s only to have them interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.

After military service, they returned to the classroom, bringing with them a wealth of experience that was to influence their approach to education in profound ways.

The fabric of Des Harrison's life was woven from the strands of existence common to early 20th century regional Australia ? farming, bushcraft, horses, droving, mateship, drought, Depression, and campfires.

Des was born in 1921 at Lawrence, near Grafton. After obtaining agricultural diplomas from Hawkesbury and Gatton, at the beginning of 1942 he joined the staff at TAS.

But after just two terms, he enlisted in the army and spent two eventful years as a member of the Northern Australia Observer Unit that came to be known as 'Curtin's Cowboys'.

Service in the NAOU was not for the faint-hearted. Inspired by the Boer commandos, it was established to detect any Japanese landing that would have endangered the concentration of Allied troops stationed in the Darwin area.

Its stock in trade was long range horse mounted patrols over a seaboard of 5500km. They were to operate in small groups, living off the land as far as possible, and operate without hope of medical assistance or casualty evacuation.

These 'Nackeroos' could not have operated without the assistance of the local Aboriginals.

Three or four Aboriginal men were allocated to each platoon. In Des's own words, 'when we had white fella tucker, we shared it with them and when there was only black fella tucker, they shared it with us'. (Sam, one of the indigenous trackers who taught Des lifesaving bushcraft, later appeared in the Bush Tuckerman television series).

After discharge from the Army in 1946, Des returned to TAS. The war years had made him restless and he left again in 1949 to spend the next four years in state schools in rural Queensland and Tasmania.

But TAS, its foundations inspired by Dr Thomas Arnold's Rugby School, drew Des back. Returning there in 1953, he married Winnie, raised a family of two girls and a boy, and devoted the next 33 years to the school and to a part-time military career.

Most of the TAS students were 'from the land' and the study of agriculture was popular.

Participation in games and the Cadet Corps was compulsory. Through obligatory attendance in the Chapel for a minimum of five services each week, a brand of rugged Christianity was also encouraged.

During the prosperous wool boom of the mid-1950s, the school expanded rapidly. Des became housemaster at Meadowfield, a renovated homestead near the School, where he was responsible for the welfare of 27 Year 8 boys.

Since boxing was one of the sports Des encouraged, he sometimes helped to arbitrate disputes between boys by ordering the combatants to the gym where they donned gloves and settled matters over a few closely supervised rounds. In 1962, Des was appointed to head Abbott House ? a position he held for the next 17 years.

Des was an early disciple of what is now called 'life-long learning'. Studying explosives, welding, horse-shoeing and artificial insemination, he was described by one of his daughters as a 'courseaholic'. He served for some years on the NSW Department of Education's Agricultural Syllabus Committee, its Sheep Husbandry and Wool Technology Committees, and taught Woolclassing and Animal Husbandry at the Armidale TAFE.

Alongside their normal duties, Masters at TAS were also expected to contribute to extra-curricular activities.

He was in charge of athletics, coached rugby and supervised a highly rated gymnastics squad. His fitness was legendary and once served to save him from serious injury.

On an excursion with a biology class to the pathology department at Armidale Hospital, he and boys were being briefed on a second floor verandah. Des leaned on the wooden balcony, which suddenly gave way and he fell two floors to the ground.

He landed in a correct tumble, dusted himself off, and called up to the aghast witnesses above: 'Carry on, lads, carry on'.

Des joined the Armidale Squadron of the Tamworth-based 12/16 Hunter River Lancers, a regiment with an illustrious history. Its lineage includes the 12th Light Horse which, after service on Gallipoli, participated in the last successful cavalry operation in history, the charge on Beersheba.

After being promoted through the ranks to Lt. Col., Des became the Commanding Officer of the Lancers.

He was immensely proud of its Light Horse traditions and, in what must have been for him one of the proudest moments of his life, he was chosen to lead the Light Horse contingent in the Sydney Anzac Day march.

Des's level of involvement in the Citizens' Army meant that the School Cadet unit was also a commitment of great importance to him. Anzac Day was -? and still is -? marked by an impressive Dawn Service followed by participation in the annual march along the main street.

From the commencement of first term we drilled relentlessly with heavy WW1 Lee Enfield .303 rifles.

Des told us that precision and military bearing were what we owed both the fallen and those who came to commemorate them. We were drilled until we got it right.

Much of the rehearsing was done in the early morning before school breakfast. The guard, band and flag party were required to be turned out and ready to march by 6.30 am.

Boys reluctant to crawl out of bed and brave the frosty morn would be roused (along with the rest of the School) by Major Des beating the bass drum in the courtyard below the dormitories.

In licking these teenagers into military shape Des was ably assisted by Jock McDiarmid, the school sergeant.

A wiry Scot, Jock had a formidable handlebar ginger moustache and an even more formidable war record. His service as a Sergeant with the Special Air Service Regiment creating havoc behind the German lines in Italy and France had earned him a Military Medal and Croix de Guerre. Des and Jock were kindred spirits.

After turning up one morning with a split eyebrow and a swollen black eye, Jock confessed to an inquiring prefect that he and Des had had a dram or six the night before and had got into 'a wee difference of opinion' about the relative merits of the Light Horse and the Special Air Service Regiment.

Jock collided with the architrave as Des flung him bodily out the door of his (Jock's) lounge room. Des was unmarked. If these men had a tough military presence, they could not conceal a gentle side.

During the dedication of the TAS War Memorial Assembly Hall in 1957, Des shed a tear or two.

Des's greatest triumph during my time at TAS was an overland march in August 1959 from Armidale to Grafton by a detachment of 14 volunteer cadets led by Des and Jock.

Our route took us straight across the magnificent wild country of the New England gorges. For about five of the eight days it took us we did not see another human being except by pre-arrangement.

An experienced bushman, Des knew exactly what he was doing, and this trip was well prepared.

We spent months in training to prove that we were committed enough to see it through, and that we could march 20 miles with a full pack and bounce back for more the next day.

The Army's Eastern Command supplied a truck manned by regulars who kept track of us by radio and provided logistical support by replenishing our rations whenever we could be reached by road or forestry trail.

As a back-up for the radios, a local fancier provided us with a carrier pigeon, trained to ferry messages back to Armidale.

Unfortunately, the pigeon did not survive its military service. Arriving home with a message Des had affixed to its leg, the bird circled its loft but showed a disinclination to land.

Its owner, anxious to retrieve the message, took his responsibilities more seriously than the situation warranted. He shot it down. The cadets, having taken turns to carry the bird along the way, were somewhat saddened by this news -? especially since the message said nothing more than 'All well'.

It would be reassuring to think that there is room in our school system today for colourful, largerthan-life characters like Des Harrison. To generations of schoolboys, knowing him was an enriching experience.

After retiring in 1986, Des bought a cattle farm near Casino. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. His son, Dexter, predeceased him.

Paul Barratt AO, an old boy of TAS, is a former Secretary of the Depart- ment of Defence.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald. Reproduced with permission.

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