Rear Admiral Alan Antony Willis

RADM Alan Willis

Alan Antony Willis was born on 21 February 1926 at Learmonth in Victoria, the son of Dr and Mrs JRL Willis. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School before entering the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) as a Cadet Midshipman in 1940, following in the footsteps of his elder brother James who had entered the RANC in 1937. Alan would go on to reach the rank of Rear Admiral while James would become a Vice Admiral; the first brothers to hold flag rank at the same time in the RAN.

Known throughout the Navy as ‘Ack Ack’, Willis was an excellent student and athlete. He won the open tennis singles championship in all four years that he attended RANC, and won his colours in tennis, cricket, rugby and athletics. He was made cadet captain (prefect) late in 1941 and chief cadet captain in his final year. Upon graduation at the end of 1943 he travelled to the UK for loan service in the Royal Navy (RN). His time in the RN included service in HM Ships Duke of York and Rodney, both of which performed convoy escort duties through the Arctic Ocean to Russia, as well as surveillance of the German battleship Tirpitz in northern Norway.

Upon his return to Australia after WWII, by which time he had achieved the rank of Sub-Lieutenant, Willis joined the cruiser HMAS Shropshire in January 1946 in which he returned to the UK as a member of the Australian contingent for the Empire Victory celebrations. He was promoted Lieutenant in December 1946 before Shropshire steamed to Japan in early 1947 as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF). Willis returned to Japan for service in BCOF later in the year after transferring to HMAS Australia (II).

He joined HMAS Arunta (I) in May 1948 before returning to the UK at the end of the year for another period of loan service with the RN. He attended the RN’s Maritime Warfare School at HMS Dryad before joining the aircraft carrier HMS Glory. He completed his Long Navigation and Direction Course while in the UK.

Upon his return to Australia in early 1950 he joined the aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney (III), and soon found himself back in British waters when the carrier travelled to the UK in July to embark aircraft for two new Fleet Air Arm squadrons. The ship returned to Australia in December 1950. Sydney undertook a six-month deployment with United Nations forces undertaking operations in the Korean War in 1951/52. She conducted seven separate patrols over the course of her deployment primarily off the west coast of the Korean peninsula.

Willis served ashore in HMAS Watson after leaving Sydney in April 1952 and returned to the UK at the end of the year for another period of loan service with the RN which would last for more than two years. He completed the Advanced Navigation and Direction Course at HMS Dryad before serving in the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, and briefly ashore at Royal Naval Air Station Ford, HMS Peregrine, in West Sussex. He was promoted Lieutenant Commander in December 1954 while serving aboard Eagle.

He returned to Australia in May 1955 and served at Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra, HMAS Albatross, before joining the staff of the RANC at HMAS Cerberus in August 1955. While there he married Joy Brown becoming step-father to Joy’s children Geoffrey and Belinda. The couple would welcome another daughter, Jane, in 1961.

Willis joined HMAS Quiberon in January 1958, which deployed to South East Asian waters from March to May, and was briefly assigned to the Navigation and Direction School at HMAS Watson before once again departing Australia for loan service with the RN in September. He underwent the Naval Staff Course and associated tactical courses at HMS President in London, during which time he was promoted to the rank of Commander, and returned to Australia in April 1959 to assume his first command; the improved Tribal Class destroyer, HMAS Warramunga (II). He was in command when ‘Little Mo’, as the venerable destroyer was known, decommissioned on 7 December 1959.

Willis joined HMAS Melbourne (II) as Executive Officer in January 1960. Melbourne departed Darwin for her annual South East Asian deployment on 7 April to participate in the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) Exercise SEALION. SEALION was the largest SEATO exercise yet involving more than 60 ships from Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, France, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan.

Willis was assigned to HMAS Harman in Canberra from November 1960 to July 1962 where he was Secretary to the Joint Administrative Planning Committee and Staff Officer to the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. He assumed command of the Daring Class destroyer HMAS Voyager (II) on 31 July 1962 and, in late October, took part in Exercise SEASCAPE in Jervis Bay, a SEATO exercise designed to evaluate the naval control of shipping.

He returned to Harman in January 1963 to take up the position of Director of Officers’ Appointments and returned to sea as Commanding Officer of Voyager’s sister ship, HMAS Vendetta (II), in February 1964. That June Vendetta deployed to South East Asia for operational service during the Indonesian Confrontation. The ship operated with both RN and RAN units, and conducted anti-infiltration patrols in the Jason Bay - Mersing area. She took part in Exercise REEF KNOT before returning to Sydney in December 1964 for a seven month refit.

Willis assumed command of HMAS Watson on 3 February 1965 at which time he was made Acting Captain and confirmed in that rank on 30 June. He returned to Harman once again in January 1967 for special duties before proceeding to the United States that July to stand by the final stages of construction of, and commission, the new Charles F Adams Class guided missile destroyer, HMAS Brisbane (II). Brisbane was commissioned in the RAN under the command of Captain Willis on 16 December 1967 at Number One Pier, Boston Naval Shipyard. In honour of the occasion, the day had been declared Brisbane Day throughout the ‘Commonwealth’ of Massachusetts by the Governor, Mr John A Volpe.

A comprehensive internal training program began on 18 December as the final fit-out of the ship continued. Colours were half-masted from 20 to 22 December, and a memorial service conducted on board, as a mark of respect to the late Prime Minister Harold Holt who had disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach on Port Philip Bay the day after Brisbane had commissioned. Other USN ships in Boston at the time joined Brisbane in half-masting their colours. The following May, Willis attended an informal ceremony for the keel-laying of the USN destroyer escort named in Mr Holt’s honour at the Todd Shipyard in San Pedro, California.

The ship’s company had been in Boston for some months prior to the commissioning and had developed an excellent rapport with the local community. Many Boston families hosted crew members to Christmas lunch in their own homes and their generosity was reciprocated early in January 1968 when many members of the crew answered an emergency call for blood donations from the Red Cross when inclement weather had caused a blood shortage in Boston hospitals. More than half of Brisbane’s complement donated some 80 pints of blood. On 1 February 1968, the President of the United States of America, Mr Lyndon B Johnson, who had met Willis during the President’s visit to Australia in 1966, penned the following commissioning letter:


Dear Captain Willis,

The firm bond of friendly cooperation between the United States and the Commonwealth of Australia, brought home to me by my recent visit to your country, is further strengthened by the remarkable spirit of the members of the crew of HMAS Brisbane in response to an emergency request for blood from Boston hospitals.

I have been told that the crew found Boston a pleasant and hospitable town during their stay of several months there while the Brisbane was being commissioned in Boston Navy Yard.

That hospitality was more than amply repaid when, nearly 300-strong, the Brisbane’s crew answered this appeal despite hazardous wintry conditions that almost paralyzed the city, and curtailed activity of blood collections causing a dangerous shortage of blood in Boston hospitals.

I know the people of America join me in thanking them and in expressing to you and your crew our hope for health, well-being and long life as you put to sea on your maiden cruise.

Brisbane put to sea for the first time on 17 January 1968. She remained in North American waters until September conducting sea trials and exercises primarily off the US west coast and underwent a final maintenance period in San Diego from June to September. She departed Los Angeles for Australia on 28 September and arrived in her namesake port, Brisbane, via Pearl Harbor and Suva, on 17 October. The following day, at a ceremony conducted in the Botanical Gardens, the Freedom of the City of Brisbane was conferred on the ship and her crew. She arrived in her home port of Sydney for the first time on 22 October. By then she had already steamed more than 30,341 miles since commissioning.

In January 1969 Brisbane’s crew began preparing for the ship’s first deployment to the Vietnam War. She departed Sydney for Vietnamese waters on 20 March 1969 and arrived at Subic Bay, Philippines, on 31 March. After a brief work-up, she arrived in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on 15 April and conducted her first naval gunfire support (NGS) mission that evening; a night harassment mission in the Vinh Binh province 70 miles south of Saigon.

Brisbane’s NGS missions typically involved conducting one or more spotted missions during the day followed by a harassment fire mission of about four hours duration at night. She remained in the area south of Saigon until 8 May when she was assigned to support an operation on the island of Phu Quoc near the Cambodian border. She departed Vung Tau on 18 May to return to Subic Bay for maintenance followed by rest and relaxation visits to Manila, Philippines, and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

She returned to the area of operations on 10 June where she joined USS Rowan in support of Task Force South. Over the course of four days the two destroyers conducted 189 NGS missions mostly aimed at intelligence targets or Viet Cong base camps. Brisbane then conducted operations south of the Demilitarized Zone in company with the cruiser USS St Paul, and later in an area northeast of Phan Thiet before departing the area of operations on 29 June for a maintenance period in Singapore.

On the morning of 30 June, while en route to Singapore, Brisbane encountered a burning merchant ship, MV Sincere. A fire-fighting party was despatched but, in spite of their efforts over the course of the day which involved 71 officers and sailors, the blaze could not be contained and Sincere was abandoned. Her crew was evacuated to Brisbane for passage to Singapore. Brisbane stood by the burning vessel until 3 July when the salvage tug Salvana arrived and took Sincere in tow but the ship later sank some 80 nm north-east of Pulau Tioman.

Brisbane returned to the gunline on 15 July operating off Phu Yen and Binh Dinh provinces. On 22 July she suffered a premature explosion in the barrel of Mount 51 injuring Leading Seaman Lenton Benfield and rendering the gun unserviceable. Benfield was landed ashore and returned to Australia for medical treatment. Brisbane returned to Vung Tau at the beginning of August to continue NGS operations before undergoing maintenance at Subic Bay where Mount 51 was removed. Following a brief visit to Hong Kong, she returned to Vietnamese waters to form part of the destroyer screen for the USN carriers Oriskany and Constellation. She departed the area of operations on 14 September and was relieved by HMAS Vendetta (II) in Subic Bay on 28 September where her replacement Mount 51 was also installed. Brisbane returned to Sydney on 13 October where Captain Willis relinquished his command. Willis was mentioned in despatches in January 1970 "for devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy as Captain of HMAS Brisbane". The following January he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the New Year’s Honours List. He was also appointed honorary Aide-de-camp to the Governor-General in June 1969.

Willis was a member the Joint Intelligence Organisation at HMAS Harman from October 1969 to May 1972 before being appointed Chief of Staff to the Flag Officer Commanding HM Australian Fleet at HMAS Kuttabul from May 1972 to December 1973. In his spare time he would go fishing at the boat harbour, he caught so many John Dory that the dockyard workers contemplated banning him.

In 1974 he attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London after which he remained in the UK for a further two years as the Australian Naval Representative and Naval Advisor to the Australian High Commissioner, London, at Australia House.

He returned to Australia in January 1977 and took up the position of Director General Naval Operational Requirements. He was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral on 14 November 1977 and became Chief of Naval Operational Requirements and Plans. In July 1979 he became Chief of Naval Personnel, a position he held until his retirement in June 1980 bringing to an end a distinguished 40-year naval career. Willis retired with his wife, Joy, to the Isle of Capri at Surfers Paradise, Queensland. He passed away after a long illness on 28 November 1997.