Admiral Michael Wyndham Hudson

Chief of Navy (1985-1991)

ADML Michael W. Hudson

Michael Wyndham Hudson was born in Taree in NSW on 10 March 1933 and grew up in Sydney. Hudson briefly attended North Sydney Boys High before joining the Royal Australian Naval College at Flinders Naval Depot as a thirteen year old Cadet Midshipman in 1947. This entry was an expanded one, reflecting the post-war revitalisation of the Navy which was then underway and its members were to enjoy a remarkable degree of professional success. Amongst the class were Ian Knox, who became a Vice Admiral and Vice Chief of Defence Force, and David Martin, later a Rear Admiral and Governor of NSW. Hudson established himself as a leader of the group, graduating from the College as a King's Gold Medallist. Soon afterwards, he went to sea as a Midshipman and saw operational service in the aircraft carrier Sydney during her deployment to Korea in 1951-52. After courses and qualifying service as a junior officer at sea, Hudson sub-specialised as a navigator. His combination of intellect, precision and strong practical abilities meant that he excelled in the art and it was significant that he was sent as navigator of the Cadet training ship Swan in 1959 on his return from exchange service with the Royal Navy (RN).

Hudson qualified as a 'dagger' (specialist) navigator with the RN in 1963, shortly after promotion to Lieutenant Commander he saw service with the United States Navy (USN) in 1962-63 during the summer season in the Antarctic on Operation DEEP FREEZE. He always regarded the latter as a key formative experience. Along with his extensive service in South East Asia, it played an important part in developing his understanding of one of the key strategic problems which Australia faced in meeting its security needs - that of distance.

Mike Hudson spent two years as the executive officer of the destroyer Vendetta during a period when it spent much time in the Far East during the Confrontation with Indonesia. His captain was Commander David Leach, later Hudson's immediate predecessor as Chief of Naval Staff and, with such talent, it was a highly successful commission. Supporting the naval veterans of the Emergency and Confrontation would be an important concern for Hudson in his retirement. Following his appointment in Vendetta, he was promoted, becoming the Training Commander at the premier naval training establishment, HMAS Cerberus.

Hudson returned to Vendetta in 1970, this time in command. There he established a reputation as a highly effective captain and this stood him in good stead during later commands of Brisbane, Stalwart and Melbourne. He was soon ear-marked as having the potential to reach the highest rank of the Navy. This was reflected in the succession of shore postings he enjoyed, which ranged between key operational and planning appointments and higher military education overseas at the United States 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 promoted to Vice Admiral and appointed Chief of Naval Staff in 1985. In that capacity he built on the good work done by his predecessor, Vice Admiral David Leach, in the wake of the Labor Government's 1983 decision to abolish the fixed wing component of the Fleet Air Arm and to cancel the project for a new aircraft carrier. Whatever his personal views (he had been the last operational captain 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 with that precondition firmly in mind.

Hudson proved extremely skilful at adapting himself and his plans for the navy to the new strategic constructs which were being developed at the time. He operated effectively at the political level, particularly with the energetic Kim Beazley, and within the bureaucracy. However, his intent throughout was to refashion the Navy with the resources available to create a force that would provide the maximum flexibility to government irrespective of the form strategic policy took. Typical of the debates that took place was whether a 5-inch gun should be fitted in the new Anzac Class frigates. Although more expensive than the originally intended 76mm (3-inch) weapon, the 5-inch gun would give the ships much more operational flexibility, particularly in the naval gun fire support role. The decision to select the bigger gun was triumphantly vindicated by Anzac herself through the gunfire provided to assist the Royal Marines in their assault on the Al Faw peninsula Iraq, in 2003. There can be little doubt that the current structure of the RAN and its success in meeting the challenges of the early 21st century owe much to Hudson's foresight.

Hudson was convinced of the need for active strategic engagement by Australia within South East Asia and the South West Pacific. While he was prepared to accept the Defence of Australia as a force structuring mechanism, particularly if the implications of the distances involved were properly recognised (something that he did not think was necessarily the case on the part of all those involved in strategic planning), he firmly believed that Australia's strategic interests required a much more proactive military - and national security - approach to the region. This was reflected in the Navy's deployment patterns and a developing program of exercises with friendly nations, as well as Hudson's own initiative to complement the US led International Naval Seapower Symposium at Newport, Rhode Island with a regular Western Pacific Naval Symposium. In this, as in many other areas, Hudson was extremely successful at both supporting government policy and in assisting in its shaping.

He was insistent that the Navy existed to be one of the readiest and most effective tools for the government to use and it was clear that his period in office marked an increasing confidence on the part of the Government as to the RAN's utility and eagerness to serve. It was certainly increasingly called upon in contingencies - starting with the first Fiji coup in May 1987. The Gulf Crisis of 1990-91 saw the RAN providing the primary ADF response and Hudson worked hard to ensure that the Navy's forces were as well prepared and supported as they could be. He had to operate within the newly developed command arrangements that had given operational authority to the Chief of Defence Force and there were frequent tensions amongst the senior personalities involved. Hudson never wavered from his belief that, as CNS, he was both the person most qualified and the person most appropriate to provide service specific advice to the CDF and, in turn, to the Government.

Hudson also oversaw many changes in naval personnel. Some he championed himself, such as his efforts to align and integrate the Naval Reserve more efficiently with the Permanent Naval Forces. Other decisions he took more as a response to external pressures and in recognition of the Navy's need to change with society. The most critical of these proved to be the progressive integration of females into the seagoing navy and it was true that he, as with most in authority, did not recognise the profound challenges that this would create for the RAN in coming years.

Hudson had some obvious wins. The RAN's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 1986 were an extraordinary success, particularly the Fleet Review staged in Sydney Harbour. The navy's year long effort to re-engage with Australian’s as a whole paid immediate dividends in the consolidation of national support and in recruiting. The review itself set a standard for major national events that still applies. A fall and a broken hip meant that Hudson played a much less active role in the Bicentenary celebrations in 1988, but he ensured that the Navy took as prominent as part as possible.

During his naval service, Mike 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 not often well understood, particularly 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 properly consolidate under the new system which gave much greater internal primacy to the Chief of Naval Staff. He faced some unnecessary, if not self-indulgent resistance to his intent, which caused him justifiable irritation, but it was also true that he sometimes confused legitimate debate for dissent. He delegated effectively to people he trusted, but, in the event of a dispute or a mistaken assessment on his part, it was always important for his subordinates to give him space and time to change his own mind in his own way.

Hudson also disliked much about the way he had to operate within the Department of Defence to be a successful CNS and he kept his own counsel over many of the decisions that he had to accept and implement in his six years at the top - to the extent that many thought that he had supported some externally imposed measured which he in fact fundamentally opposed and which he had fought strenuously against within the Defence system. 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 for he was not selected to be the Chief of Defence Force. In many ways, however, he achieved the ideal of the loyal servant of the government and public. He took responsibility and he wore it well, but there was a price.

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 his wife 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 officer ashore. Those who were close enough to him in his administrative roles 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 and this was reflected in the attention that he devoted to many individual cases - generally without publicity or fanfare. His essential kindness and concern for others became much more obvious after his retirement and organisations such as the Naval Association of Australia received much support from him.

Retirement came in 1991, with the special recognition of promotion to full Admiral, a gracious gesture on the part of a grateful government. He was created an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1985 and promoted to Companion in 1987. Mike and Carla Hudson retired to the country, while maintaining a base in Sydney. He proved a very successful breeder of cattle and an energetic farm manager until his decision to sell up and spend more time in Sydney and at a much smaller property in Kangaroo Valley.

While he was always ready with advice and counsel he did not force himself on the contemporary Navy. He limited his direct involvement in naval affairs, particularly during the term of his immediate successor, Vice Admiral Ian MacDougal, but, in addition to his Naval Association and other charitable work, he took on part time posts such as the chair of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Cooperative Research Centre.

In his last few years, supported by Carla and his sons, he fought a valiant battle against lymphatic cancer. Admiral Michael Hudson passed away on 27 February 2005 at the age of 71.