Vice Admiral Guido James Willis

Chief of Navy (1979-1982)

Guido James Willis, known as James, was born on 18 October 1923, in Learmonth, Victoria. He attended Wesley College, Melbourne, where his father and grandfather had both been educated, and in 1937 he entered the RAN College (Flinders Naval Depot). His younger brother Alan entered the RAN College in 1940. They both became admirals, the first two brothers to serve together at that rank in Australia.

Beginning a career that led him to become Chief of the Naval Staff, James Willis joined his first ship, HMAS Canberra, on Boxing Day 1940, and went on convoy escort duties and pursuit of German raiders. In December 1941 he joined the destroyer HMS Kingston in Alexandria and spent four months running the gauntlet, escorting convoys to Malta. Shortly after he was transferred to the battleship HMS Valiant, the Kingston was sunk.

After studying in Britain, Willis returned to Australia in April 1943 and joined the destroyer HMAS Nepal as gunnery control officer. In August 1943, aged 19, he was promoted lieutenant. Nepal operated throughout the Indian Ocean during the next two years. In late 1944 she bombarded the Burmese coast in support of a Gurkha battalion.

In early 1945, Willis was transferred to the British Pacific Fleet and took part in the final attacks against the Japanese. He spent the last months of the war as executive officer in HMAS Barcoo, operating in the Dutch East Indies. When the war ended, the ship was engaged in recovering Allied prisoners of war and rounding up isolated groups of Japanese soldiers.

After a short period at HMAS Cerberus (Flinders Naval Depot), he was appointed to his first command, the corvette HMAS Latrobe, and in 1947 went to England for specialist training and exchange service with the Royal Navy. Joining the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney in Plymouth, he returned to Australia with her in 1949, the year he married for the first time.

Joining HMAS Warramunga as the flotilla navigating officer, he served for six months in the Korean War, in a ship not built for such cold climates. Willis went back to the UK for further training, was promoted lieutenant commander, and did two years exchange service on the senior staff of HMS Dryad, the navigation school, before attending the RN Staff College at Greenwich. Returning to Australia in HMAS Tobruk, he joined HMAS Sydney as fleet navigating officer and when HMAS Melbourne arrived in Australia, was transferred to her. Promoted commander in 1956, he was in charge of the naval contingent lining the streets of Melbourne at the opening of the 1956 Olympic Games. Leaving HMAS Melbourne in December 1956, Willis had a series of shore postings of increasing importance, which gave him broad experience in operational planning, personnel administration and materiel procurement.

He also had appointments as commanding officer of HMA Ships Quiberon, Vampire and Yarra, and was promoted captain in 1962. In 1967, Willis attended the Imperial Defence College in London and returned to Australia for three years service as the Director-General of Operations and Plans in the Navy Office. He returned to sea as captain of HMAS Melbourne, and in 1972 went to Navy Office as commodore in charge of the Light Destroyer Project. He was promoted rear admiral in 1973, then in succession was Chief of Naval Personnel, Chief of Naval Materiel and Assistant Chief of the Defence Force Staff.

In 1976, he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). The same year, after the dissolution of his first marriage, he married Marjorie Campbell-Smith. Promoted vice admiral he became Chief of the Naval Staff in April 1979, representing Australia at the US Chief of Naval Operations Seapower Symposiums in 1979 and 1981. He watched his wife launch the guided missile frigate HMAS Sydney in Seattle in 1981 and arranged the purchase of the British carrier, HMS Invincible, a deal which to his great disappointment did not proceed.

Willis was knighted in 1981, the last Chief of the Naval Staff to receive this honour. After his retirement in 1982, he and his wife divided their time between Canberra and their home at Kyla Park near Tuross Head, NSW. He was the first chairman of the Foundation of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and was involved in community organisations. In 1998, the couple moved to Adelaide.

Vice Admiral James Willis passed away, in Adelaide, on 15 June 2003. He was survived by his wife Marjorie, children Susan, Janet and Alan, stepsons Michael, Andrew and Alexander and 11 step-grandchildren.

Royal Australian Navy senior officers at a mess dinner in Canberra, ACT on 9 March 1981. L-R: Rear Admiral Stevens, Rear Admiral Lynam, Rear Admiral Rourke, Rear Admiral Swan, Vice Admiral Willis, Rear Admiral Loosli, Rear Admiral Leach, Rear Admiral Doyle and Rear Admiral Robertson.
Royal Australian Navy senior officers at a mess dinner in Canberra, ACT on 9 March 1981. L-R: Rear Admiral Stevens, Rear Admiral Lynam, Rear Admiral Rourke, Rear Admiral Swan, Vice Admiral Willis, Rear Admiral Loosli, Rear Admiral Leach, Rear Admiral Doyle and Rear Admiral Robertson.