- Newspaper, Sydney Morning Herald
- Biographies and personal histories, Obituaries
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
It’s given to very few parents to see a son grow up to be an admiral. Dr and Mrs J. R. L. Willis did that, and better. In 1926, then living at Learmonth in Victoria, the Willis family – there was already one boy, Jim – welcomed a new arrival, Alan.
Eleven years later, Jim joined the Royal Australian Navy as a cadet midshipman; Alan followed suit in 1940. They were to become the only brothers to hold flag rank in the RAN at the same time. Alan retired as Rear Admiral in 1980 and Jim as Vice Admiral Sir James Willis in 1981.
Alan Antony Willis, who has died at the age of 71, joined the Royal Australian Naval College from Geelong Grammar School and was a top student and excellent sportsman. He created a college record by winning the open tennis singles championship in all four years and won his colours in tennis, cricket, rugby and athletics.
He was made cadet captain (prefect) in late 1941 and chief cadet captain for his final year. On leaving the College at the end of 1943 Willis travelled to Britain via the United States for service in the Royal Navy.
In January, 1944 he joined the battleship Duke of York in Scapa Flow and later transferred to the Rodney. Both ships were part of the British Home Fleet with the task of escorting convoys to Russia via the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea. They also had the job of watching to see that the German battleship Tirpitz did not slip from its bases in northern Norway.
On return to Australia, after the war, Willis served in the cruisers Australia and Shropshire, the latter taking the Australian contingent to Britain for the memorable victory march in London.
After qualifying as a specialist in navigation and fighter direction in the UK in 1950, he returned to Australia and joined the RAN’s carrier, Sydney, this appointment including a six-month deployment with the United Nations in the Korean War.
In 1953 he returned to the UK to complete the advanced specialist course in navigation and fighter direction and serve on exchange in ships of the Royal Navy.
By 1957 he was a lieutenant commander and back at the Naval College. While there he married Joy Brown, a naval aviator’s widow, becoming a stepfather to Geoffrey and Belinda. Alan and Joy’s daughter, Jane, was to be born in 1961.
His first command was the destroyer Warramunga in 1959 and he was promoted to commander at the same time. He would later command another three destroyers – Voyager, Vendetta and the guided missile destroyer Brisbane.
As Captain Willis of the Brisbane he achieved every officer’s dream of standing by the building of a new ship, commissioning it, working it up to an efficient unit and then taking it on active service.
The Commander US Navy Fleet Training Group, Pacific, after two weeks of operational evaluation, gave Willis and the Brisbane the finest result of more than 1,000 ships examined over five years and added: “I find the command awe-inspiring”.
Brisbane returned to Australia briefly and then joined the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet on the gunline off the coast of Vietnam. In six months they steamed more than 40,000 miles and fired more than 8,000 rounds. Willis was mentioned in despatches and made OBE.
He then became chief of staff to the fleet commander on Garden Island in Sydney Harbour. In his spare time he would take his fishing rod to the boat harbour for pleasure and relaxation; he caught so many John Dory that the dockyard workmen contemplated banning him.
In 1974 he attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London and stayed on for two years as Australia’s naval representative at Australia House. On return home, Willis was promoted to Rear Admiral and took charge of the navy’s planning for the future. It was a difficult task and one he did well. On retiring from the navy in 1980, he retired to the Isle of Capri at Surfers Paradise, with his boat at the back door.
There was a nice symmetry in that – his father had met his mother on Italy’s Isle of Capri during World War I.