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David Willoughby Leach (1928–2020)

by Tim Barlass

Vice-Admiral David Leach, who served as Chief of Naval Staff from 1982 to 1985, is regarded by the current head of navy as the "catalyst that shaped the modern navy".

He came under fire as commanding officer on HMAS Perth (II) during its second deployment to the Vietnam War, got past the security of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in naval war games off Hawaii and oversaw the introduction of women into sea-going roles.

David Willoughby Leach was born on July 17, 1928, in the Perth suburb of Subiaco, to John and Grace Leach. With his father a veteran of the First World War, it came as no surprise when David, at the age of 13, entered the Royal Australian Naval College in Victoria during the Second World War in January 1942. By that point of the war, Pearl Harbour had been attacked and HMAS Sydney had been sunk. The Japanese were the following month to start bombing Darwin.

Discipline at the college was strict and payment one shilling a week, but Cadet Midshipman Leach soon made his mark. He was appointed Chief Cadet Captain and awarded the King's Gold Medal for exemplary conduct.

His first taste of life at sea came in 1945 at the age of 17 when he joined the cruiser HMS Newfoundland at Cockatoo Island. Returning from Manus Island to pick up a Royal Navy detachment, the ship ran into a full gale near Torres Strait. In huge seas, the Commander, a strict disciplinarian and reportedly an unpopular man, went forward with the Chief bosun's mate (CBM) to secure an anchor chain.

Admiral Leach, relaying the story in a speech in Melbourne, said: "Just at that time the ship was hit by a huge wave and the CBM was washed over the side of the ship to an almost certain death, but miraculously was thrown back on board in the after part of the ship by the next wave — although badly bruised and with several broken limbs.

"The Commander was not so lucky. He was thrown against the gun turret and killed instantly. I was on the bridge when the captain announced: 'It is with deep regret that I inform you of the death of your Commander'. From below decks you could hear the great cheer of the men greeting the news. That was my first lesson in the importance of good leadership and man-management."

Deployments followed to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan. In Hiroshima, completely destroyed after America dropped the atomic bomb, he saw the devastated city where bicycles were fused together and glass bottles melted by the heat.

In 1952 he returned to the Australian Naval College to teach seamanship to 13-year-old Cadets. He had the honour of playing rugby union for Victoria against the All Blacks in the first rugby union game at the MCG. His team lost.

It was during a specialist gunnery training course in Portsmouth, England, that he met and married his wife Pamela (nee Prentice). Married life in the navy was an itinerant existence and they moved house 28 times during his career. Frequent absences meant he did not meet his son, Michael, for the first time until the boy was five months old.

The important milestone of commanding a ship came for the then Captain Leach, aged 36, in 1964 when he took command of the destroyer HMAS Vendetta. It was a busy command with confrontation with Indonesia and conducting patrols off Singapore and Borneo to stop Indonesian terrorist raiding parties landing in Malaysia. The command also involved escorting the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney carrying troops to the Vietnam War.

His next command was HMAS Perth, a guided-missile destroyer, for a tour of Vietnam. With only five-inch guns and close to shore, the ship came under fire from Viet Cong shore batteries.

Leach recalled: "We had about 30 rounds landing around us which we managed to evade with full speed making smoke, zigzagging and counter-battery fire."

The ship rescued three US airmen who had bailed out after their aircraft was hit by missiles over Hanoi.

The ship's company was to receive the US meritorious unit commendation for service in Vietnam. Leach was personally recognised for his distinguished service and devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy and was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1969.

As something of a contrast in 1970, he was placed in charge of ceremonial arrangements for the Queen's visit to Australia to commemorate the bicentenary of Captain Cook's landfall at Botany Bay.

Protocol indicated that the Queen was not to step up a gangway with a gradient of more than nine inches nor down more than six inches. Much time was spent sorting out the rise and fall of the tides at the ports the Queen was to visit so that the Royal Yacht Britannia could position the gangway accordingly.

At the end of the visit, Leach was invited aboard Britannia to the stateroom where he was presented with the Royal Victorian Order for services to the Queen. Postings included Admiral of the Fleet, appointment as head of Navy and promotion to Vice-Admiral in 1982 with responsibility for all the young and women in the service.

He recalled one occasion when the RAN was engaged in war games with the US Navy battle group off Hawaii that involved a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with 5000 men on board.

"Our submarine crept inside the screening perimeter undetected and, to the embarrassment of the Americans, took a photo of the carrier through the periscope from a range of only one kilometre, proving to the Americans that we could have sunk her."

He wrote for the speech of "challenging times" as head of the navy serving under four defence ministers in three years. It was a time that, due to cost constraints, saw the decommissioning of HMAS Melbourne "without replacement and with it went all of our naval aircraft except helicopters".

He added: "There have been many advances in people and technology since my time, and nothing demonstrates this to me more than, for the first time, a woman has been made captain of a navy combat ship – the new HMAS Perth."

Chief of Navy Vice-Admiral Michael Noonan, said Admiral Leach was an impressive strategist with a forward-leading vision for the navy.

Speaking at the funeral at the Naval Chapel on Garden Island he said: "David's legacy expands across many of the Royal Australian Navy's capabilities and can be seen as the catalyst that shaped the modern navy.

"The disbandment of the Women's Royal Australian Navy and the introduction of women into sea-going roles cannot be underestimated. While initially, numbers were low, female sailor and officer participation would increase five-fold within the years following the decision as employment areas expanded. David's vision of full equality was inspired and our navy is richer for it."

On retirement in 1985, after a 43-year career, Leach served as a member of the council of the Australian War Memorial and as an alderman then-mayor of Woollahra. Fellow councillors would refer to him as "his warship" rather than "his worship" as a sign of endearment.

Vice-Admiral Leach is survived by his wife Pamela, son Michael and daughter Nicola.

Original publication

Citation details

Tim Barlass, 'Leach, David Willoughby (1928–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

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