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Ronald Ramsay McNicoll (1906–1996)

by Joseph Morgan

Ronald Ramsay McNicoll (1906-1996), Australian Army officer, engineer, archivist, and author, was born in Melbourne on 15 September 1906, eldest son of (Sir) Walter Ramsay McNicoll, a high school headmaster, soldier and politician of Scottish descent, and Hildur (née Jarlsberg). In his formative years, Ronald attended school in Geelong. In 1918, the family moved to Goulburn, in New South Wales, and Ronald attended Scots College in Sydney. After matriculating, he was appointed to the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Graduating from there in 1926 as a Kings Medallist, he was commissioned into the Permanent Military Forces, allocated to the Royal Australian Engineers, and later studied civil engineering at the University of Sydney. During the early 1930s, McNicoll was posted to the Darwin garrison, where he served under Major Cyril Clowes as second-in-command, and commanded the engineering section, which was eventually designated the 7th Fortress Company. In this role, he was tasked with building coastal defences and establishing Larrakeyah Barracks.

During the Second World War, McNicoll volunteered for overseas service in early 1940 and transferred to the Second Australian Imperial Force. In the early years of the war he was deployed to the Middle East with the 6th Division, where he served in Greece and Palestine, before joining the staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces in 1944. In this role, he helped to plan the Normandy invasion, and later served in France and Germany, one of only a few Australian Army officers to serve in that theatre of the war. Finishing the war with the rank of colonel within the 6th Divisional Engineers, he returned to peace-time soldiering, and eventually rose to the rank of major general in 1956. Throughout the post-war period, McNicoll held a variety of senior appointments including Engineer-in-Chief of the Australian Army (1952), General Officer Commanding Central Command, and Master General of the Ordnance. He also served as the Fourth Member of the Military Board between 1960 and 1964. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Years Day Honours List in January 1957 for his service as a staff officer in the post war years.

He retired from the military in January 1964, and went on to pursue a successful writing career, publishing numerous articles in works such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, and the Victorian Historical Journal. He also published several books, including John Ramsay 1811–1867, The Early Years of the Melbourne Club and 36 Collins Street. In addition, he was instrumental in the publication of the seminal history of the Royal Australian Engineers, writing the first three volumes which covered the history of the corps from colonial times until the end of the Second World War. The final edition, from the post war years to the end of Vietnam, was later written by another former Army officer, Phillip Greville. For his services to literature, in particular his contribution to the field of military history for his work on the RAE corps history, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours List in 1982.

Apart from writing, McNicoll spent his twilight years as an archivist for the Melbourne Club and the Friends of the La Trobe Library. He also travelled extensively and built several houses – incorporating the designs of architect Roy Grounds – including one in South Yarra that later became the family’s home.

He died in Melbourne on 18 September 1996, just a couple of days after his 90th birthday. His wife, Joan (née Hill), whom he had married in 1938, survived him as did three of their four children: Geoffrey, Barbara, and James. Colin, the couple’s eldest son, predeceased them, dying in 1969 at the age of 30 from asthma. One of McNicoll’s siblings, Alan, achieved the rank of vice admiral in the Royal Australian Navy and Australia’s first ambassador to Turkey, while another – David – became a war correspondent and prominent journalist. Like Ronald, they received official honours for their contributions to various aspects of Australian society. A fourth sibling, Frederick, served in the navy.

In the general’s obituary, which was published in The Age a month after his death, McNicoll’s brother, David, described him as having an ‘abrupt manner’ that masked an ‘underlying shyness’, but that among friends he was ‘relaxed, good company and well informed’. His niece, Penelope Nelson, wrote in The Australian that McNicoll ‘valued integrity and precision’ and had an ‘imaginative generosity.’ Geoffrey Searle, a former editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, described him as a ‘valuable contributor... trusted for facts and interpretation of context… [who]…had very advanced views on some issues’.


Original Publication

Citation details

Joseph Morgan, 'McNicoll, Ronald Ramsay (1906–1996)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1906
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


18 September, 1996 (aged 90)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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