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- RAN Ships
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- September 2021 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Guy Griffiths: The Life and Times of an Australian Admiral. Paperback by Peter Jones, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2021.
After the highly effective Vietnam deployment of HMAS Hobart in 1967 commanded by Captain Guy Griffiths, US 7th Fleet Rear Admiral Walter Coombs, a destroyer man himself with 44 destroyers under his command, wrote that: ‘HMAS Hobart and Capt. Griffiths were equal to the very best’. During Sea Dragon, Guy ‘…grasped the essentials of complex situations, acted promptly and precisely with a deft sure hand in handling his ship’. Hobart received a US Navy Unit Commendation and Guy was awarded a US Legion of Merit. In recognition of his and Hobart’s performance Guy would later be appointed to the Distinguished Service Order. The insignia was presented to him by Her Majesty the Queen. Twenty-seven of Hobart’s officers and sailors would receive medals, Mentioned in Despatches or a Naval Board Commendation.
At the time and in later life, Guy considered his command of Hobart during the Vietnam war the high point of his career. It had been ’…an exhilarating and rewarding experience’. Lieutenant Murray Forrest (later RADM) said ‘…at the end of the deployment the pride felt by everyone on board in what they had achieved was extraordinary’. Captain Peter Doyle remarked that Guy had ‘…the ability to get the best out of his team’. CPO John Rae, in charge of the sick bay on Hobart, wrote ‘…a Captain is prepared to die for his ship, and if he is a truly good captain then the crew will be prepared to die for him. Guy Griffiths was such a man. I have never met anyone like him before or since’.
Hobart had departed Sydney on 7 March 1967 for Vietnam via Subic Bay. She was flying the new Australian White Ensign with its blue Southern Cross and Federation Star. Hobart, with its commissioning Captain Guy Griffiths, was destined to join the US Pacific 7th Fleet cruiser-destroyer force. Hobart, call sign ‘Purple Royal’ would either escort aircraft carriers, interdict North Vietnamese inshore infiltration or supply craft and bombard shore targets with naval gunfire support. These activities were a component of operation ‘Market Time’; further north of the gulf of Tonkin they were part of Operation ‘Sea Dragon’.
Hobart’s daily activities were at a high tempo. On 14 April, she conducted Harassment and Interdiction firing in the early hours, replenished ammunition from supply vessel Haleakala then was on the gun line from 1120 to 1154. In the afternoon she refuelled from Kennebec then conducted a further bombardment before resuming H& I from 2100 until 0400. At 0400 Hobart was requested to provide an immediate call for fire to save an ARVN detachment being overrun by VC. Hobart’s guns were firing at a range of 24,000 yards, 800 yards inside her maximum range.
Hobart’s entire ship’s company became extremely efficient; in just over one hour the ship embarked 1349 shells and cartridges then conducted her largest refuelling. On return to Sydney on September 27 after nearly seven months away, she had been at sea for 160 days of her 204-day deployment. While off the Vietnamese coast she had fired 10,000 rounds at 1050 targets. The North Vietnamese had fired on Hobart nine times with the ship sustaining only minor shrapnel damage. Guy was disappointed not to be asked to call on Navy office to personally debrief on Hobart’s highly successful deployment.
The now 98-year-old RADM Guy Richmond Griffiths was born in Sydney. His family had years-old ‘vintage’ connections in the Rothbury/Pokolbin district in the Hunter Valley, NSW. He joined the RAN College at HMAS Cerberus in January 1937 as a member of Phillip year. He was one of 17 successful applicants from a field of 400. Guy graduated from the college on 13 December1940 and was posted to HMAS Australia in Britain. However, he finished up as a midshipman on the battle cruiser HMS Repulse in early 1941.
Whilst operating in waters off the east coast of Malaysia, Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were attacked by a large group of Japanese torpedo bombers. Repulse, having been hit by six torpedoes, was sinking. With the ship listing at 30 degrees Guy managed to escape through an upper deck scuttle and slide down the side of the ship into the water. He was eventually rescued by an escorting destroyer, HMS Electra.
Guy joined the cruiser HMAS Shropshire on her commissioning in 1943. Shropshire was involved in the battle of Leyte Gulf, Lingayen Gulf and Surigao Strait during the fighting for the Philippines in 1944. He was promoted Lieutenant in 1944 and awarded the DSC in May 1945 for ‘…gallantry and skill as an Air Defence Operator while serving on HMAS Shropshire in the successful operation in the Lingayen Gulf of Luzon Island’. After the war he completed the specialist course in gunnery at HMS Excellent, then had a two-year exchange with the RN at HMS Drake.
In 1950 Guy joined the carrier HMAS Sydney as gunnery officer and his duties included responsibility for armaments of the embarked carrier air group. During the Korean deployment Guy learnt about ‘the whole business of air power at sea’. Captain Harries of Sydney wrote that Guy was ‘…quite definitely an outstanding officer’. After active service in Korea as gunnery officer in HMAS Anzac and an RN staff course at Greenwich it was back again to the UK for service on the ‘new’ HMAS Melbourne. He performed well in Melbourne both as gunnery officer and Fleet gunnery officer. Officers of this specialisation were characterised by some as being ‘seldom right but never doubtful’ but Guy was different, he was reasonable! Guy was promoted Commander in 1956 while on the staff of FOCAF. Whist in Melbourne in Hong Kong Guy met a lady from the West German Consulate, Carla Mengert. They were married at St. Mark’s Church at Darling Point, Sydney in 1959.
Following command of HMAS Parramatta Guy returned to Navy Office as Head of Tactics and Staff Requirements. Much of the work at Navy Office and for Guy changed dramatically as a result of the tragic collision between Melbourneand HMAS Voyager in February 1964. Guy thought the accident shattered the Navy. He was promoted Captain in June 1964. From late 1973 to mid-1975 he commanded the aircraft carrier Melbourne and was promoted Commodore in 1974. On Christmas Eve morning, 1974, cyclone Tracey struck Darwin causing massive destruction. Melbourne was deployed on Boxing Day to bring relief and technical support to the battered city of Darwin. Here he was working closely with Captain Eric Eugene Johnston, NOIC North Australia. Guy relinquished command of Melbourne in June 1975.
He returned to Navy Office as Director General of Naval Personnel where he led the Junior Officers Structure Study and a Review which resulted in fundamental changes in the Officer Development Process. In June 1976, he was promoted to Rear Admiral, becoming Chief of Naval Personnel and setting a goal to create the RAN Staff College. Guy’s 37th and final posting in the Navy was to become Naval Support Commander (FONSC). Admiral Griffiths was made an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1979 for service to the navy over a period of 42 years, particularly as CNP. Guy retired from the Navy in January 1980, ten days before the 43rd anniversary of joining the Naval College in 1937. He left a Navy continually in transition. In four decades following his retirement from the Navy Guy has continued to contribute his services and wisdom to the Australian community and navy veterans.
This is a wonderful and readable biography of an extraordinary and heroic Australian naval officer Rear Admiral Guy Richmond Griffiths, and of a navy in a challenging world. There are two recurring themes in the book. Firstly, there is fortitude and courage of Admiral Griffiths within his own area of responsibility be it at sea or ashore, but especially his outstanding command of Hobart during the Vietnam conflict. Secondly, there is his thirst for knowledge and his innate ability to learn from his experiences then pass the knowledge onto others.
The book is highly recommended and the author Vice Admiral Jones deserves our thanks and appreciation.
Reviewed by Kevin Rickard