Major Kenneth Drummond Chalmers

This webpage has a short biography of Major Kenneth Drummond Chalmers, Officer Commanding the Paga Heavy Battery at Port Moresby during World War 2. It concerns mainly his Port Moresby service. The rest of the story is on the main webpage.

Dr Richard Walding  
Research Fellow - School of Science
Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

Kenneth Drummond Chalmers was born on 15 November 1900 in New South Wales, the youngest of eleven children of Scottish immigrant parents John Chalmers and Eliza Jane Drummond.

After finishing high school Ken took entrance exams in October 1917 for the Royal Military College Duntroon and, on passing, entered at the start of 1918. He graduated and was appointed a Lieutenant with the Staff Corps in December 1921 as an officer in the Royal Australian Artillery. His Regimental Number was NX34984.

A relative said: I do know that from the 1920s he began to assert that the Japanese would one day push south, and that he used to get very frustrated at the indifference to these warnings.

Ken married Brenda Beresford King, a kindergarten teacher, in 1929 and had three children, Barbara in 1930, Colin in 1933 and Robin in 1935. During this time (1934) Ken was appointed as an instructor of the Anti-aircraft Battery at Mossman with the rank of Captain in the Staff Corps. In 1937 he was appointed adjutant of the First Heavy Battery at George's Heights, Sydney. [Note: for an overview of Ken's role at George's Heights please see the extract from the Sydney Morning Herald at the end of this biography].

In September 1938 Ken was advised that he was soon to be sent to Port Moresby to make a reconnaisance of the defences of the port and to report back. Although defence plans for both Papua and the Mandated Territory (New Guinea) had been in existence since the early 1930s, little had been done to implement them. In 1937 the Resident Magistrates in Papua - responsible for the control of the administrative Divisions - were instructed to prepare secret registers of white British subjects and ex-members of the Armed Native Constabulary capable of rendering service in the defence of Papua.

In 1938 the Commonwealth government introduced a new defence program and as a consequence expanded the senior ranks of the Australian Military Forces. On 22 September 1938 Ken was promoted to Major in the Staff Corps [SMH 23Sept 1938] while continuing to be adjutant at Dt George's Head, and awaiting his Port Moresby mission.

A meeting of army, navy and air force chiefs in Suva in early 1938 had discussed the deployment of the British Fleet in the Pacific and the needs for oil fuel installations and harbour defences in the event of a war with Japan. In late January 1939 Ken Chalmers and Captain Keith Melville Travis VX16180 - an engineer from Victoria - were sent to Port Moresby on their mission. The two officers were chosen to undertake a reconnaissance of Port Moresby and report back on establishing the defences there. Chalmers and Travis flew aboard the Carmania from Sydney to Port Moresby via Brisbane and Townsville arriving at Port Moresby on Wednesday 8th February 1939 (accompanied by Lt W. K Mahoney). After some reconnaissance they returned by the Carmania, arriving Cairns Saturday 18th February, and then via Townsville, Rockhampton and Brisbane to Sydney.

Chalmers at that time (February 1939) was still adjutant at George's Head battery, Sydney. He was told by the army that he was to establish a battery at Port Moresby. Ken rang up one of his junior artillery officers - 24 year old Lieutenant Timothy Frederick Cape (Staff Corps) - who had worked beside him at George's Head for the past year, and said "I'm forming a battery at Port Moresby and have an establishment for one sub-altern and you're it".

In March 1939 Major Chalmers and Lt Cape departed Sydney aboard the Bulolo for Port Moresby where he was to take up the position of Officer Commanding Port Moresby harbour defences. The ship called in at Brisbane on the 20th, Townsville on the 25th and arrived in Port Moresby several days later. Accompanying Major Chalmers and Lieutenant Cape were 36 men of 13th Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery (including one Warrant Officer and various sergeants and bombadiers (and 136 other - mostly civilian - passengers).

Major K. D. Chalmers, seated right, immediately after arrival at Port Moresby (March 1939). Seated beside him on the left is Herbert Champion, acting Lieutenant Governor in Hubert Murray's absences, and standing, Lieutenant Timothy F. Cape.

With war in Europe a reality, the Defence Plan for Papua clearly had to be revised, and Major Chalmers was given the responsibility for this task, in co-operation with the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua, Sir Hubert Murray.

Prior to their arrival several surveys had been undertaken: Late in 1937, a small detachment of the Royal Australian Navy arrived in Port Moresby to commence a survey of the approaches to the harbour, and in late 1938 a programme of road building around the planned defence installations on Paga Hill already has been undertaken using the services of 140 prisoners under the supervision of Captain P. Dolan.

On 10 February, 1939, the local newspaper, Papuan Courier, told its readers:

The Minister for Defence having decided that a defence base should be made at Port Moresby, a preliminary survey of the port is now being made in order to see what defences are necessary.

We hear that the first matters being considered are the installation of a battery of six-inch guns, probably on the top of Paga Hill, and the laying down of an air base.

From March 1939, the battery had to be formed, equipment and stores collected from Sydney and placed aboard a civilian ship, living arrangements organised, and the battery installed at Paga Hill. It was all done in 3 months - a quite impressive achievement. Of the 38 men, all were bachelors except Major Chalmers. Ken and his wife and three young children found a house in the township and set up home there. [Comments by Major General Timothy F. Cape, CB, CBE, DSO in an AWM interview September 1992].

The road was finished on 11 April 1939. The one-mile long road was named Chalmers Crescent with a gradient kept to 1:15.

A relative of Ken's said: Ken appears to have decided on the site of the Moresby barracks, and also on the site of airfields and roads.  A mutual relative has told me that most of Ken's recommendations were simply ignored.


Sydney Morning Herald 1 June 1939 p12


The Minister for Defence, Mr Street, announced today that the guns for the fixed coast defences of Port Moresby had been installed and were ready for action, and that preliminary measures to establish Naval and Air Force defences were being taken.

A Naval survey party under Lieutenant Commander R B A Hunt he added was carrying out hydrographical investigations in the harbour and its approaches to prepare data on berthing facilities and the First Naval Member Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin would inspect the work on June 13 when the escort vessel Swan arrived at Port Moresby.


Sydney Morning Herald 1 June 1939 p12.


Forty members of the Royal Australian Artillery, under the command of Major K D Chalmers were temporarily encamped close to the fortifications, said Mr Street and as soon as practicable permanent accommodation to house both the military and Air Force personnel would be provided.

Substantial progress had been made in constructing the road to the gun emplacements Military equipment landed at Port Moresby included shells for the guns, motor trucks, a tractor camp equipment lighting plant refrigerators and general stores.

On 26 August, 1939, Major Chalmers wrote to the Government Secretary, H W Champion, asking him to "secretly warn all RMs [Resident Magistrates] that action may be necessary to implement the scheme for calling up ex-members of the Armed Constabulary at short notice'. By now the Constabulary had become known as the Royal Papuan Constabulary.

After the declaration of war on 3rd September 1939, a company of the 49th Battalion of the Australian Military Forces arrived.

As it stood, the Defence Plan contemplated that in the event of invasion, the Administration would be transferred to the inland station of Kokoda, where non-combatants would also take refuge. Active guerrilla warfare against the invaders would then be carried out by the men of the Armed Constabulary.

Ken's daughter Barbara writes:

In 1939 the family moved to Port Moresby in what is now Papua New Guinea where our father was detailed to provide fortification for the strategically important harbour in the event of war.

The contingent was made up of 38 army personnel, two howitzer anti-aircraft guns, two searchlights, one army wife and three children. Port Moresby boasted a population of about 700 "whites" and a similar number of native Papuans, two schools for white children, one state and one catholic, each with 22 pupils, and one for natives. The rivalry between the two white schools was intense and we children were divided between the two.

Stone fights in the main street of town were not uncommon. We had to call a truce when we got home. Robin, being the youngest was often caught in the middle or left standing looking bewildered. Nevertheless we children had many happy and sometimes disastrous adventures together and with our friends. [Barbara Williams, Sunday, February 8th, 2015]

His son Robin recalls:

I remember the house we lived in was set on stumps a few feet high and had a wide verandah with a whole hand of bananas hanging under the eaves. We had a team of house boys, all Papuans with dark fuzzy hair and dressed in blue shirts and short blue skirts. They lived in an outhouse and would do military drill for the four-year-old me dressed in my smart red and white soldier suit.

We lived not far from the home the Officer Commanding the Royal Papuan Constabulary. My sister tells me that "Leonard Logan was an Englishman who served in WWI, met an Australian nurse, married her, and took a job as a Patrol Officer for the Administration of the Territory of Papua. He eventually rose to become the Commissioner of Police, a body of indigenous men trained to keep law and order in the territory.

When WW2 broke out our father and Commissioner Logan got together and arranged for the establishment of an indigenous infantry group recruited originally from the native police. Titled the Royal Papuan Infantry Battalion Logan was appointed to lead it with the rank of Major.

Ken's children attended the convent school in Port Moresby and then transferred to the one-teacher public school.
Robin continues:

I have vivid memories of a trip we all took to a hill station inland from Port Moresby past Rhouna Falls. The track from the falls to the hill station was only accessible on horseback. I think both Barbara and Colin had their own ponies but I rode on a cushion on the neck of my father's horse. I can still see in my mind's eye the cushion which was not much more that 16 inches square and which was covered in brick red cloth with a thin black check pattern on it.

We stayed in huts at the hill station and there is a story that my father, who was recovering from dengue fever, had to get up out of his sick bed to shoot a snake which was lurking around the steps of the hut in which my mother and we children were staying.

Extracts taken from "The Life of an Engineer" by Robin Chalmers 2009.

Major Chalmers had the Royal Papuan Constabulary (RPC) act as guards and sentries over the Paga battery, the magazines at Gabatu Island, and the wireless station, aerodrome, oil depots and defence headquarters.

On 12 January, 1940, Major Chalmers wrote to Sir Hubert Murray asking for the services, for the duration of the war, of Leonard G. Logan, the Headquarters Officer of the Royal Papuan Constabulary, for the purpose of training the proposed Papuan military unit made up of volunteers from the RPC.

On 19 April, 1940, Logan was authorised to recruit for the Papuan Infantry Battalion, with a raising date of 1 June, 1940. Logan was appointed to full-time duty with the Australian Military Forces on 27 May, 1940.

When Ken and his family returned to Australia, they went to live in Melbourne in a rented house in Caulfield. In February 1941, Ken was posted to the Middle East with the 2nd Australian Infantry Force to raise the 2/4 Light Anti-aircraft Regiment. He departed Sydney for Bombay aboard the Aquatania on 3 February and arrived there on the 23rd. He transferred to a naval vessel (Vessel 730) and disembarked in the Middle East on 15 March 1941.

His wife and children moved to a house in Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney which had been organised by Ken before he left for the Middle East. Ken was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 3 January 1942, Commanding Officer with the 2/4 Light Anti-aircraft Regiment Royal Australian Artillery.

On Saturday 22 August 1942 Ken's wife Brenda (aged 36) passed away at her home "Roslyn" at Hazelbrook, NSW. Her husband was away on army duties in the Middle East at the time and the aunts were living in Lawson in the Blue Mountains. They looked after the children until Major Chalmers re-married in 1946 and was able to establish his own home. Ken's son Robin wrote:

In August 1942, my mother died suddenly. My mother's last letter to my father says that I was ill at the time. I remember that I was in bed and my mother was reading to the three of us. She suddenly said "I feel funny", collapsed, and died. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my sister, who, at the age of 12, had to take charge of the situation, look after her two younger brothers, and get help. I guess she somehow got in touch with the aunts who were living not far away.

While in the Middle East Ken was (MiD) Mentioned in Despatches for gallant and distinguished services Ken and was promoted to Temporary Colonel - Royal Artillery (Army HQ) - on 9 December 1942.

Ken was made a Temporary Brigadier in November 1943 and as Commander Royal Artillery, 3rd Australian Infantry Division travelled north to Townsville and Cairns in before returning to Melbourne mid-1944. He is photographed here near Cairns, Queensland in April 1944:

Opening of the Koala Soldier's Club, Kairi Area, Atherton Tableland, Queensland 22 April 1944 by Lady Olga Blamey (far right), wife of the Commander in Chief Allied Land Forces SWPA. Brigadier K. D. Chalmers, Commander Royal Artillery, 3 Division is second from the left.

In mid-1944 Ken was posted to Darwin as Commander Royal Artillery (CRA), Northern Territory Force arriving there on 16 June. On 16 November that year was sent to Hollandia, a port on the north coast of New Guinea as Brigadier Royal Artillery, Advanced Land Headquarters. He served in many places while north including Morotai, Lae and Bougainville. He returned to Brisbane on 3 November 1945 and thence to Sydney. In early 1946 he relinquished the Temporary rank of Brigadier and was made Brigadier as an Honorary rank.

Ken Chalmers - on the far right - is pictured here at the opening of the Army Officers Club at Torokina on Bougainville, 12 May 1945. Others are (from left) Sister Millicent M. Stephenson, Brigadier Alec L. Dawkins, Deputy Director of Medical Services, and Sister Dorothy Douglas.

Ken married Rosa Alice Heath (b 13 May 1899) in 1946. For the next year he was placed in charge of several Prisoner of War Camps in Australia (Murchison, Hay, Cowra) which finished in February 1947. His next appointment was Director of Armaments, Equipment Division, Army Headquarters, then President of the Army Establishments Committee and for late 1948 to early-1949 was attached to Eastern Command in Melbourne where he bought a family home.

From there until his stint in London, he became Assistant Director of Weapons & Development, then Deputy Director of Staff Duties, and finally Colonel (Equipment), all with Army Headquarters in Melbourne.

In mid-1952 Ken was posted to the Defence Department staff in London, and he was accompanied by his wife Rosa and youngest son Robin. Ken returned to Australia with his wife in 1954 where he was appointed Director of Ordnance Services. His son Robin stayed on in London to complete university studies and seek employment. Ken retired from the army on 28 April 1955.

Kenneth Drummond Chalmers died at Wallsend NSW (just to the west of Newcastle) on 30 January 1971 and was buried at Beresfield. His wife Rosa died later that year (5 August).

A relative said: "Ken was very much a no-nonsense man, who could not be bothered crawling to superiors and peers; but this held back his promotion to General, which should have happened with his appointment as Master General of the Ordinance.  Ken was a very kind man in the right circumstances, but used to getting things done, whether with officialdom or commanding anti-aircraft guns in the Middle East."

The following is an excerpt from the SMH regarding the George's Head Battery when Ken was instructor.

Our First Battery.

Extract from the Sydney Morning Herald - 1 June 1939

The Antl-Aircraft Battery was formed some eight years ago, and consists of militia personnel and volunteers. The first commanding officer was Captain (now Major) Gordon Isaacs, but the present commanding officer is Major M Gibson AGA, instructor, Captain K D Chalmers Staff Corps and the second in command Captain F T Bradley, AGA

In the early days compulsory training was In force and men were selected from the annual quota of trainees for service in the battery. These men were given the chance to volunteer for the unit, and a selection was then made In 1929 however, compulsory training was suspended, and the battery was formed on a voluntary basis. All junior officers as well as the warrant-officers and non-commissioned officers, have passed through the ranks of the battery, before attaining promotion. The men mainly come from the Mosman and North Sydney districts, though a number are gathered from other suburbs. The battery strength now comprises seven officers, 124 others ranks, and a detachment of senior cadets, numbering 20. There will shortly be vacancies for 20 recruits.

The age of intending recruits is from 18 years to 40, but if enlisted before 40, they may remain until 48. The period of enlistment covers three years, and the rate of pay is 4/- a day for gunners during six days' camp and six days' home training. On promotion, the pay is increased, a sergeant receiving 10/- a day. The age of enlistment for cadets is from 16 to 18 years, and they are not paid. Drill takes place at Cross-street Drill Hall on every alternate Monday night the men's keenness to attend testifying to their efficiency. The battery also has its own rifle club, which shoots at the Chatswood rifle range twice a month. The uniform consists of breeches a blue tunic with a red collar, and yellow facings, leggings, a belt, bandolier, and "Digger" hat. Does not an old song say that "It is the uniform that takes the girls by storm"? Be that as it may, many a glance follows the smart military lads of the battery.


Some of the trophies proudly held by the battery include (1) the Buick Cup, given for the best militia senior cadet detachment which was won last year, on April 25, at the military gymkhana, (2) the C Grade Militia Rifle Club Association, won by the battery rifle club last year, and the cup held, (3) the inter-section trophy - the Gordon Isaacs' Cup, for inter-section competition, which was presented by Major Gordon Isaacs in December, 1933, to be held by the best three-inch gun section in the battery and which is competed for on a basis of efficiency, attendance, and work throughout the year.

The organisation for training purposes consists of battery headquarters, with two three-inch gun sections and a Lewis gun section, thus men who join can get experience as gunlayers, fuse setters, instrument men, drivers, Lewis gunners, or signallers.

The battery is armed for training with four three-inch guns. They are drawn by heavy tractors, and the instruments are carried in six-wheeled Morris trucks on the gun platforms are levers used for training the guns which can be elevated to an angle of 90 degrees, an unusual elevation, but one that is eminently practical for anti-aircraft shooting.

The Lewis gun detachment, which accompanies the battery is for use in bringing down low-flying planes. It fires .303 rifle cartridges and defends the battery against close-range attacks. Heavy iron jacks, on each side of the gun platforms, are used for levelling the gun on uneven ground which prevents the instruments from being thrown out of gear. The shell fired by the three-inch guns weighs approximately 10 lb.

The battery is equipped with the most modern range finding instruments, of which the most important is the Vickers predictor, and which is used for calculating the speed of the aeroplane automatically showing by how much the guns have to be laid off and deflected, in order to allow for speed.

It is on the same principle as duck shooting, when the shot is fired ahead of the moving target. The predictor also indicates the setting to put on the fuse, to allow for the distance of the target from the guns.

To the uninitiated this valuable instrument resembles a large square box, with the surface covered with delicately traced dials, indicative of the various altitudes. It is controlled by a hand lever and set to the degree required.

Other types of ranging machines are the UB2, which denotes the height of the target and the No 5 height finder (5 HF), the difference between them being that the UB2 is a short base height finder, the base being in the instrument itself whereas the No. 5 HF is a long base instrument with a usual base of 1000 to 4000 yards, and so consists of two instruments, connected with a telephone. In addition to all these, there is a height fuse indicator, which can be used in an emergency, should the Vickers' predictor be disabled.


The method by which practice firing is carried out, is for a Wapiti aeroplane to tow a sleeve target made of silk, 20 feet long, by two feet in diameter; this is drawn 6000 feet behind the directing plane, for safety measures. Strips of white canvas, placed on the ground in the form of numbers indicate to the plane, how many thousand feet altitude is required from the target. On January 21 and 25 [1939], the battery was engaged in shooting at North Head.

Practice was carried out with military precision, by an efficient and highly trained corps, instructed by several old Service, Warrant, and NCO's of the ANZAC Forces, men who had seen active service and the grim realities of war, and who would be among the first to go again, should Australia need them. The fine, soldierly stamp of youth, tanned, lithe and clear-eyed, who manned the guns, is a typical product of the sun, surf, and open-air life of this land. First aid, from the Army Medical Corps, was ready at hand, with a dis-play of splints, stretchers, bandages, and disinfectant, but fortunately there were no casualties.

The shooting was so accurate that a burst, from No. 2 gun, severed the wire connecting the target with the 'plane. Slowly it sank to earth, amidst the applause of the civilian on-lookers, into the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific below, whilst the Wapiti, which was directed by signals and wireless, made haste to display another sleeve.

Several other direct hits were recorded, but from time to time, passing ships delayed the battery's fire and held up proceedings, as they slowly ploughed their way through the Heads.

Watching the eager gunners at work in the golden sunshine, with a background of the exquisite panorama of Sydney Harbour, with the Bridge's perfect span, looming above the verdant hills, and the little coves and bays sparkling sapphire-blue in the distance, the thought arose - would that fair city, lying at rest like a beautiful woman, be threatened some day?

Suppose that behind the soft haze which veiled the horizon, a hostile fleet were approaching, heralded by a deadly flight of aircraft, equipped with bombs and poison gas? Suppose that practice shooting should change to grim reality? How vital to the national safety the anti-aircraft battery would prove; how it would stand between us and destruction; and how valuable an asset it would be in the defence of our shores.

All is activity now - at the word of command, the men spring to their posts. The order rings out, "Prepare to Fire!" "Fire!" A burst of flame, a deafening roar, which echoes and re-echoes in the hills; then a moment's silence! All eyes are straining into the blue! A sudden white smoke burst appears, high up in the sky, followed by a sharp report, and the swiftly moving 'plane, like some gigantic bird, skimming through the keen air, rushes onward, pursued by the shadow of death!

Other material taken from "To Find a Path - The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment", By James Sinclair. The Fiftieth Anniverary Commemorative Edition 1990, compiled and edited for the Trustees RPIR by Lt Col. M.B. Pears MC (Ret).