Rear Admiral Neil Ralph

Deputy Chief of Navy (1985-1989)

Neil Ralph was born at Carlton, Melbourne on 25 June 1932 into a family of eight children. His family resided in Ararat where he undertook his education and after completing high school he worked as a teller for the Bank of New South Wales. He joined the RAN on 12 May 1952 as a probationary naval airman (observer) and undertook three months basic naval training at HMAS Cerberus before being sent to England for training as an observer. 

Following his training as an observer he was selected for a seven year short service commission and was promoted acting sub lieutenant in July 1953. He returned to Australia in November 1953 and undertook further training including three months general service in the corvette HMAS Gladstone in April-July 1954. He was then posted, as an observer, to the Naval Air Station (HMAS Albatross) for service in 817 Squadron which operated the Fairey Firefly as an anti-submarine aircraft. This also included periods embarked in the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney.

In late 1954 he was selected for conversion to the newly acquired Sea Venom fighter and returned to England for training. Neil Ralph was promoted lieutenant in July 1955 while serving in the UK. He returned to Australia in the newly commissioned aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and then joined 808 Squadron at Albatross. Over the next two years the squadron was frequently embarked in Melbourne for exercises and deployments.



808 Squadron in 1955 posing before a Sea Venom on board Melbourne. Back row, left to right; Lieutenant's Peter Wyatt and David Hilliard, Lieutenant Commander's Peter Seed and George Jude, Lieutenant's Barry Thompson, Alan Cordell, Edward Wilson and Geoffrey Gratwick. Front row, left to right; Lieutenant's Ronald McIver, Stanley Carmichael, Keith Potts, Neil Ralph and Bernard Brennan. Thompson and Potts were both killed when their Sea Venom crashed into the sea in 1956. Stanley Carmichael also lost his life in similar circumstances in 1959.

Lieutenant Ralph was selected for pilot training in late 1958 and after successfully completing his training he was posted, in late 1959, to 724 Squadron which operated the Sea Venom and Sea Vampire fighters. In 1960 he transferred to 805 Squadron which also operated the Sea Venom fighter. Again these squadrons were embarked in Melbourne as required for exercises and deployments. The early 1960s was an uncertain period for naval aviation due to resource issues and there was concern that fixed wing aviation would be discontinued and Melbourne decommissioned. 

Lieutenant Ralph joined 723 Squadron, operating Sycamore Helicopters, in early 1961 for some brief familiarisation training before proceeding to England for training as a helicopter pilot. Upon return to Australia in 1962 he was posted to 725 Squadron flying the Westland Wessex anti-submarine warfare helicopter. In 1963-64 he served in 817 Squadron which also flew the Wessex and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in July 1963. In 1965 Lieutenant Commander Ralph took command of 725 Squadron, which continued to operate the Wessex helicopter. Throughout this period the squadrons were regularly embarked in the aircraft carrier Melbourne for training exercises and deployments to Southeast Asia. In March 1967, Ralph took command of 723 Squadron which was now operating the new Iroquois helicopter and in June-August 1967 he served briefly in the destroyer HMAS Anzac gaining bridge watch keeping skills. 

Lieutenant Commander Ralph was selected to command the first contingent of the RAN Helicopter Flight - Vietnam (RANHFV) in late July 1967. The contingent was formed at Nowra in August 1967, using 50 personnel from various squadrons, and following training arrived in Vietnam on 16 October 1967. They operated eight Iroquois helicopters and were integrated into the US Army 135th Aviation Company at Vung Tau but later moved to Camp Blackhorse in Long Khanh province in December 1967. The Australian unit was also known as the EMUs, for Experimental Military Unit. Neil Ralph was the also the second in command of the 135th Aviation Company, as well as commanding the RANHFV.  

Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph (CO RANHFV) greets Vice Admiral Victor Smith (Chief of Naval Staff) during his visit to Vietnam.

Operations in Vietnam consisted mainly of inserting, and extracting, US and South Vietnamese troops into landing zones, often under heavy enemy fire. During his time in command of the RANHFV three of his personnel were killed and several others injured. A number of aircraft were also destroyed or badly damaged due to enemy fire or crashed during bad weather. Lieutenant Commander Ralph took a very active part in flying operations and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), on 10 December 1968, 'in recognition of his services as the Commanding Officer of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam'.

Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph with Kelly Green and Mechanic Air Electrical 1st Class Ray Homer, May 1968. Kelly was part of group of Australian entertainers providing performances in Vietnam.

The first contingent of the RANHFV was relieved in September 1968 and returned to Australia. Neil Ralph undertook more familiarisation training at sea in October-November 1968 in the frigate HMAS Yarra, and was subsequently awarded his bridge watch keeping certificate that year. He was promoted commander in December 1968 and the following year completed the No. 23 RAAF Staff Course at Fairbairn in Canberra.

Commander Ralph was appointed as the executive officer of the fast troop transport (former aircraft carrier) HMAS Sydney in early 1970. During his time on board, the troop transport conducted five logistics resupply deployments to Vietnam. In August 1971 he was posted to the UK to serve on the staff of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. After returning to Australia he became Commander (Air) at Albatross in December 1973. He was promoted captain in December 1974 and became the Director of Naval Training at Navy Office in Canberra.

This was followed by his appointment as the commanding officer of the frigate HMAS Torrens in June 1977. During his time in command the frigate operated in Australian and Southeast Asian waters. Captain Ralph was selected, in October 1978, to become the inaugural Director of the newly created RAN Staff College, at HMAS Penguin, which commenced courses in 1979. He was subsequently made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in June 1980 'for services in establishing the Royal Australian Naval Staff College'. Ralph was also promoted commodore in June 1980, and attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London in 1981. Upon return to Australia in 1982 Commodore Ralph was posted as the Chief of Staff to the Fleet Commander in Sydney.

Commodore Ralph then became the commanding officer of the Naval Air Station (HMAS Albatross) in April 1984. A year later, in April 1985, he was promoted rear admiral and commenced duties as the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. Rear Admiral Ralph was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) on Australia Day 1987 'for exceptional service and performance of duty in the Royal Australian Navy, particularly as the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff'.

Rear Admiral Ralph retired from the RAN in early 1989. He was then appointed as Commissioner for Veterans Affairs and held the position for six years before retiring in 1995. During this time he was also the Commissioner for the Australia Remembers 1945-1995 project commemorating the end of World War II. Following his retirement he took up farming in the Nowra area.

Rear Admiral Ralph also has a keen interest in Australian military history and has lead a number of battlefield tours. He is currently the patron of the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia (Victoria Division) and the Vietnam Veterans of Australia Inc.