In Her Own Right

The Legacy of Gundula Holbrook

One imagines the clacking of the typewriter may have been particularly urgent on the 20th of September, 1915. Just a month earlier it had been reported that Lt. Norman Holbrook (1888-1976), the first naval recipient of the Victoria Cross in WWI, had been wounded.

The details were vague but Shire Clerk John Taylor must have been concerned that the news of Germanton, NSW, becoming Holbrook, NSW, would not reach their namesake in time. So much so, there was no time to update the stationery. A simple strike through the old name would have to suffice.

During WWI, over ninety Australian place names changed due to German associations. In 1914, the news of Lt. Holbrook’s successful mission as captain of British submarine HMS B11 was widely reported. While the names of politicians like Asquith, Jellicoe, and Kitchener were considered, Holbrook rose to the top due to his timely ‘valiant deeds.’

Holbrook recovered from his wounds and did receive this letter. In saying that, the relationship between himself and the town may not have gone beyond this single honour had it not been for his wife, Gundula Holbrook (1914-2020).

After marrying in 1952, Gundula encouraged him to make his first visit to the town and, by 1956, they would make their first of three visits together. Following her husband’s death in 1976, Gundula made sure to maintain a connection with the town in his stead. From her home country of Austria, Gundula donated her husband’s medals, including his Victoria Cross, as well as his midshipman’s chest to the town. But her generosity wouldn’t end there.

When the town was looking to erect a naval memorial made from the casing of a submarine (HMAS Otway), it was Gundula’s donation of $100,000 which sealed the deal. This led to her being made an honorary citizen upon her final visit to the town in 1997, a moment she described as ‘the most important thing that has ever happened to me.’

In 2020, having become a major part of Holbrook’s history in her own right, Gundula passed away aged 106.