Just to the left of the altar in Garden Island Chapel are inscribed the words “Quit ye like men” – a fitting epitaph for Michael Hudson, who throughout his naval and civilian life honoured and personified this idea. Hudson, who has died at 71, began his distinguished naval career as a 13-year-old cadet midshipman.
After commanding the destroyer Vendetta, the Brisbane, Stalwart and Melbourne, he was promoted to rear-admiral and fleet commander in 1982; in 1985 he was appointed vice-admiral and chief of naval staff, steering the navy through a period of great change until his retirement in 1991, when he had served as chief for longer than anyone in the previous 30 years.
In a unique recognition, he was promoted to full admiral on his last day of service. By then he had set the navy’s broad course and speed for decades ahead.
Michael Wyndham Hudson was born in Taree, the third son of Lindsay, the district forester who went on to become a NSW commissioner for forests, and Dorothy, a nurse, and grew up in Sydney, close to Middle Harbour. His childhood was active and happy and helped to develop an inner confidence that was reflected in his career.
Hudson briefly attended North Sydney Boys High before joining the Royal Australian Naval College at Flinders Naval Depot (HMAS Cerberus) in Victoria as a cadet-midshipman in 1947. This post-World War II group was a remarkable one, also producing a vice admiral and a state governor. Hudson established himself early as a leader, graduating as the King’s Medallist. Soon after, he went to sea as a midshipman, seeing operational service in the aircraft carrier Sydney during deployment to Korea in 1951-52.
Hudson sub-specialised as a navigator. His combination of intellect, precision and strong practical abilities meant that he excelled in the art and he was sent as navigator of the cadet-training ship Swan in 1959 on his return from an exchange with the Royal Navy.
In 1961, Hudson married Carla Suche. The long, close and happy marriage produced three sons.
He qualified as a “dagger” navigator with the Royal Navy in 1963, shortly after promotion to lieutenant commander and service with the US Navy in the 1962-63 summer season in the Antarctic on Operation Deep Freeze. He regarded the latter as a formative experience. With his extensive service in South-East Asia, it played an important part in developing his understanding of two of the strategic problems which Australia faced in meeting its security needs – distance and isolation.
Hudson spent two years as executive officer of Vendetta, much of it in the Far East during Confrontation with Indonesia. Promoted to commander in 1966, he was posted to HMAS Cerberus as training commander.
Hudson returned to Vendetta in 1970, this time in command. Here he began to establish the reputation as a highly effective ship’s captain that he would consolidate in his later commands.
His potential to reach the highest ranks of the navy was recognised in his succession of shore postings, which ranged between operational and planning appointments in Sydney and Canberra to higher military education overseas at the US Armed Forces Staff College and the National Defence College of Canada. Promoted to rear-admiral in 1982, he served as fleet commander and the following year returned to Canberra in the joint post of assistant chief of defence force staff (policy).
Hudson was appointed chief of naval staff and promoted to vice-admiral in 1985. As chief he built on his predecessor’s work in the immediate wake of the 1983 decision by the new Labor government to abolish the fixed-wing fleet air arm and cancel the new aircraft carrier project. Whatever his personal views – he had been the last operational commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Melbourne – he accepted that there was no prospect of a revival of fixed-wing naval aviation and that the RAN had to rebalance itself.
Hudson proved extremely skilful in adapting himself and his plans for the navy. He operated very effectively at the political level particularly with Kim Beazley as defence minister, and within the bureaucracy.
He lost a few skirmishes but he won most of his battles, particularly those related to his determination to produce a navy that had flexibility and a balance of capabilities. Before he had finished, contracts had been signed for new submarines, frigates, hydrographic ships and helicopters. The naval shore establishment was overhauled. The Naval Support Command was established. Service conditions were improved. The two-ocean navy was under way – although how you could have a two-ocean navy with a one-ocean budget was something he often grumbled about. There can be no doubt that the structure of the RAN now and its success in meeting the challenges of the past decade owe more to him than to any other single person.
He always listened to advice but the final decisions were his alone. “We’re here to defend democracy,” he’d say, “not to practise it.” He had firm views about responsibility and accountability. “If you’re in charge,” he said, “take charge.” And he did.
He was a man of grand ideas. One of his most visionary was the creation of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, which brought together the naval leaders of the nations of the region. It was an extraordinary piece of naval diplomacy, and an invaluable contribution to confidence building and mutual understanding about maritime affairs. In a related vein, he established the Strategic Studies Project for the formal study of such matters. This has since developed into the navy’s Sea Power Centre.
Hudson’s navy was also busy operationally, from the first Fijian coup in 1987, through the troubles in Vanuatu in ’88 and in Bougainville in ’90, to the Gulf war of 1990-91 when the RAN provided the primary Australian Defence Force response. New command arrangements gave operational authority to the Chief of Defence Force and there were frequent tensions among the senior personalities involved. Hudson firmly believed that, as chief of naval staff, he was the most qualified and most appropriate to provide specific advice to the Chief of Defence Force and, in turn, to the Government.
Hudson oversaw many changes in personnel. Some he championed himself, such as his efforts to integrate the Naval Reserve more effectively into the permanent naval forces. Other decisions he took as a response to external pressures, recognising that the navy needed to change with society. The most critical of these proved to be women going to sea.
Hudson had some obvious wins. The RAN’s 75th anniversary celebrations in 1986 were an extraordinary success, particularly the Fleet Review staged on Sydney Harbour. He had seen it as an opportunity to reinvigorate the navy and it worked: recruiting jumped and retention improved.
He missed playing an active part in the Australian bicentenary celebrations in 1988 because he’d been messing around with a boat of his own up at Pittwater. He was painting it and stepped back to admire his handiwork, forgetting that he was on a very tall ladder at the time. He suffered a smashed pelvis in the fall. He was transferred to the naval hospital at Penguin, where his staff set up an office in an adjoining ward and he ran the navy from his bed. Because Penguin was part of the navy, he personally ran the hospital for a time. He was not easy, either as a patient or hospital administrator. The staff couldn’t patch him up fast enough.
During his naval service, Hudson presented a formidable and austere visage to the outside world and he did not suffer fools gladly. His real sentiments in complex situations were often not well understood, particularly by his subordinates. This was especially the case in Navy Office, where the systems and attitudes which had operated under the old collective arrangements of the naval board had yet to consolidate under the new system, which gave much greater internal primacy to the chief of naval staff.
Hudson faced some resistance, which caused him justifiable irritation, although it was also true that he sometimes mistook legitimate debate for dissent. He disliked much about how he had to operate within the Department of Defence. He was probably seen by some as too strong an advocate of the navy, and of the authority of the services and their chiefs of staff, to be selected as the Chief of Defence Force.
Hudson lacked the affability or common touch of some of his contemporaries, although he possessed a dry humour and a sense of the ridiculous that could sometimes be roused, particularly if Carla was present. His fairness and consistency, as well as his extraordinary practical competence, made him a greatly respected commander at sea as well as an effective operator ashore. Those who worked with him closely enough soon came to realise his fundamental humanity and he was always good – and frequently forbearing – to the young.
Above all, he cared deeply for those who served with him and for the welfare of the navy as a whole. His essential kindness and concern for others became more obvious after his retirement in 1991, with his support for the naval veterans of the Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation and his involvement with organisations such as the Naval Association of Australia, of which he was elected national president time and again.
Hudson and his wife retired to the country and raised prize-winning cattle. He was appointed chairman of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Co-operative Research Centre and remained active in the Naval Institute, the Navy League and the Royal Services Institute. He had been created an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985 and promoted to Companion in 1987. In the past few years, supported by Carla and his sons Mat, Tim and Angus, he fought a valiant battle against lymphatic cancer. He died surrounded by his family.
Mat Hudson, David Campbell and James Goldrick
Rear Admiral David Campbell was Admiral Hudson’s secretary for most of his time as CNS. Commodore James Goldrick was his research officer.