09 Dec 21

Military biography in Australia has a long history. Naval biography, and particularly autobiographies of Australian admirals, less so, with most admirals preferring to simply leave their stories to others to recount. This significant new authorised biography by Peter Jones, himself a retired Vice Admiral and recognised expert in Australian naval affairs, shines a light on the inspiring career of one of Australia’s most celebrated and decorated living admirals, Rear Admiral Guy Richmond Griffiths AO, DSO, DSC, RAN.

With full access to his characteristically modest and initially reluctant subject (it took Peter many months to finally convince Guy, now 98, but still very much ‘with it’, that his story should be told), this carefully researched, sympathetic and authoritative biography provides an insightful perspective not only on the man and his chosen profession of arms, but also on the history and development of the Royal Australian Navy through three of the most important wars of the 20th Century.

Guy Griffiths, who witnessed the realities of war in positions of increasing responsibility, saw first-hand the introduction of radar, the replacement of the battleship by the aircraft carrier, the strategic impact of atomic warfare, the advent of the Cold War, the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines, and the dawn of the missile age. Perhaps, more than any other man, Guy experienced the RAN’s journey from its Depression-era strictures pre-World War II, its darkest days in the face of the Japanese onslaught, its finest hour in the Philippines Campaign and then its post-war reinvention as a capable middle-power Navy centred on aircraft carriers in the nuclear age.

Jones follows a sequential approach to Guy’s career. The first part moves swiftly through his relatively humble childhood as the son of a vigneron in the Hunter Valley before concentrating on his arrival at the Royal Australian Naval College as a 13-year-old cadet midshipman in early 1937 as war clouds steadily gathered. Guy’s first ship after graduation from the College in late 1940, the British battle cruiser HMS Repulse, was involved in the exhilarating hunt for the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic. And as a teenage midshipman, he subsequently survived the disastrous sinking of Repulse in a Japanese air attack off Malaya on 10 December 1941 along with HMS Prince of Wales. This claimed 840 lives, including his classmate, Robert Davies. This would become a defining moment in Guy’s story. He is the last survivor in Australia of Repulse, and patron of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse Survivors Association.

As war raged on in the Pacific, Guy was promoted and saw further action in the South-West Pacific during the fighting to liberate the Philippines. As an Air Defence Officer defending against Japanese kamikaze aircraft, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “For gallantry, skill and devotion to duty while serving in HMAS Shropshire in the successful assault operations in the Lingayen Gulf, Luzon Island”. He was to witness the last act of the Pacific War – the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

During the Korean War Guy, by now a specialist gunnery officer, twice served off Korea, firstly in the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney and then the Battle class destroyer HMAS Anzac. He went on to commission the new locally built frigate HMAS Parramatta in 1961 and the book gives a rare insight into the RAN during the Cold War. His second sea command was the new guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart which he commissioned in the United States. She was the first RAN destroyer to serve in the Vietnam War. The book describes her extremely active service off the Vietnamese coast for which Guy Griffiths was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order for his outstanding leadership in action.

Guy subsequently served in Malaysia as Naval Adviser to the Chief of Naval Staff, Royal Malaysian Navy and later commanded the aircraft carrier and RAN flagship HMAS Melbourne when it aided Darwin in the wake of cyclone ‘Tracey’. He then served is a variety of senior positions within the Navy, including Chief of Naval Personnel, reflecting the marked differences between service at the front line in an operational unit and the cut-and-thrust of service in Canberra dealing with issues at the strategic level, and the at times intense rivalry between the three services. He retired in January 1980 after a remarkable naval career which spanned over four decades.

This enthralling biography is the personal journey of a country boy who went from young cadet-midshipman to become a highly regarded and deeply influential naval leader who remains an inspiration for all today. Peter Jones should be congratulated on producing a very thorough and highly readable account of Guy Griffiths’ life and achievements in peace and war. In the fitting words of retired Vice Admiral Rob Walls, who wrote the foreword to Peter’s biography, “I commend this exceptional book – and Admiral Griffiths – to you: I venture that you won’t be disappointed in either”.