VCDF’s tribute to Vice Admiral Ian Knox

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On 9 February a well-attended Memorial Service was held at the Naval Chapel, Garden Island for the late Vice Admiral Ian Knox. The Vice Chief of Defence Force, Vice Admiral David Johnston AC RAN, delivered the Service Tribute to his former commanding officer. VCDF has kindly given permission for it to be published.

It is my honour and privilege to be here today to pay tribute to the life and service of Vice Admiral Ian Knox. Had you told a much younger me that one day I would serve as Vice Admiral Knox’s Flag Lieutenant, I would have been very surprised. Because my first encounter with then Rear Admiral Knox was far from auspicious. It was on the Bridge of the Hobart and I was in a hurry.  The weather was rough, the deck was wet… And I knocked him clean off his feet! My naval career flashed before my eyes… But with unfailing courtesy, he restored both of us to our feet. And far from the dressing-down I expected, he seemed to find the whole episode amusing – telling the tale when I was later appointed to his staff. I was lucky to serve under his command.

Ian Knox’s Navy journey began at the tender age of 13 when he joined the Royal Australian Naval College which was then at HMAS Cerberus. Much of what he endured there would not be tolerated today – and rightly so. It is a measure of his character, and the character of others in that storied class of 1947, that they united in their resolve not to repeat the treatment they received.

After graduating, he began studies in the United Kingdom toward a future as an Engineer Officer, but a stint on the Training Cruiser, HMS Devonshire, convinced him to shift course.  His future, he decided, was to be a seaman. Intense years of training and promotion followed. There was useful service in Cootamundra, Jutland and Tobruk. And a joyful wedding to Margie marked the start of a wonderful marriage.

The Navy saw the promise in the young sub-lieutenant and in 1956 he was dispatched to London to undertake the Long Torpedo and Anti-Submarine Warfare course, followed by exchange service in the Royal Navy. The course was challenging and exacting. Notwithstanding any sleepless nights caused by the arrival of the infant Guy, he graduated top of the course, earning the Ogilvy medal.

Now began the great work of applying his knowledge to the advancement of capability, and on completion of his Exchange Service, he returned to Australia to join a secret project – Ikara, the Australian-designed ship-borne long-range anti-submarine guided weapon. This included working with scientists, industry and allies, and the experience stood him in good stead in senior roles, including as Vice Chief of the Defence Force.

Indeed, it was in the development, acquisition and deployment of weapons systems that he made a profound contribution to the potency and capability of navy. He brought great technical knowledge, but also the vision to see through the setbacks to the achievement of the objective.

In 1966 he was posted as second in command of the guided missile destroyer HMAS Perth and served in that capacity during the ship’s first deployment to Vietnam in 1967. He later wrote, “We were hit once when about 300 shells rained down on us – someone was looking after us that day as the ship was drenched by shell splashes and peppered with shrapnel for about 6 minutes – the longest six minutes of my life!”

In 1968 he was promoted to Commander and appointed Director of Underwater Weapons in the Navy Office, the first of a number of senior postings to Canberra in Navy or Defence positions. His judgment, and his calm and considered approach made him well-suited to work in Canberra and a fine representative of the navy and the nation overseas.

Then, in 1971 he achieved his career ambition, when he was appointed the commissioning Commanding Officer of HMAS Torrens. He was deeply conscious of both the authority and the responsibility of sea command – mindful, as he later wrote, that when you are in command, the buck stops with you.

Command of Torrens was followed by study at the United States Naval War College, and on completion he was promoted Captain and assigned command of the guided missile destroyer, HMAS Hobart. Afterward he served as the Defence member of the Australian Delegation at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference in Geneva and New York, followed by further study in London.

In 1979 he was promoted Commodore, followed by what he described as his greatest challenge – command of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. I am sure that had I asked Vice Admiral Knox about his most satisfying professional achievements, it would have been his periods of command. Not for the rank or the privileges – he was never boastful, never grand – but because command allowed him to bring to bear the full measure of his experience, intellect and skills, for the success of the mission, the safety of the ship and the welfare of its company.

From May 1985 to January 1987, he served as the Fleet and Maritime Commander – a key role as the nation celebrated the 75th birthday of the Royal Australian Navy. It was during this time that I served as his Flag Lieutenant. It’s in the nature of that role that you get to see a bit more of the personal life of your principal. He and Margie made a great team, and I was saddened to learn of her passing.

During my time on his staff I saw up close his meticulous attention to detail, particularly in relation to the Fleet Review. The anniversary celebrations also brought him the opportunity to drive in the Celebrity Race in the Australian Grand Prix. He said: “The adrenalin flowed almost as fast as being catapulted off an aircraft carrier, but lasted a lot longer”.

Promotion to Vice Admiral followed, and then the appointment as Vice Chief of the Defence Force, where he forged a very good working relationship with then Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Gration. He was also Commander Joint Forces Australia between 1988 and 1989, commanding 25,000 personnel during the largest combined exercise in the South West Pacific.

His service spanned a lifetime – 42 years. This immense contribution was recognised in 1989 when he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, after which he retired to undertake significant board appointments and enjoy many adventures with Margie and the family.

Some years later, as a Commodore, I was guest of honour at a Legacy event in Sydney. It was a formal arrival in the heart of the city, and who should greet me at the kerb but Ian Knox. Ever humble, ever gracious, and deeply committed to Legacy and his service as a Legatee, with his customary courtesy he set about enlisting my support for the cause.

It was a marker of the life of selfless service for which we give thanks today. Vice Admiral Ian Knox left the navy stronger and the ADF more capable. His service medals testify to the significance of his service. But his greatest legacy lies in those who served under his command, and in those who worked with him – from our naval bases to the corridors of Russell. For them, he was a lived example of leadership infused with the Defence values of integrity, excellence, courage, service and sacrifice.

Guy, Nicola and Sam, and all of Ian Knox’s grand-children and great-grandchildren: in your sadness today, you do not walk alone. The ADF family walks alongside you. You have our sympathy, you have our love, and you have our gratitude for the sacrifices you made to support Ian to serve navy and the nation.

Vale, Vice Admiral Ian Knox.

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