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Graham (Rod) Taylor (1940–2002)

by John Farquharson

When he entered the Royal Australian Naval College in 1954 as a 13-year-old cadet midshipman, Vice-Admiral Rod Taylor’s great ambition was to command a destroyer. Once he had done that, he told an interviewer, ‘everything else was a bonus’.

Admiral Taylor, who died in Canberra on September 1, from lung cancer, aged 62, got command of his destroyer, HMAS Vampire, 25 years later in 1979. From there on, the bonuses flowed in a steady stream. These saw him go through a series of senior appointments until he landed the top Navy job – Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) in 1994, a post that, in a title change, translated to Chief of Navy shortly before he retired in June 1997.

The only cloud in a dazzling career spanning some 43 years, came in the last six months when an efficiency review commissioned by then Defence Minister, Ian McLachlan, created turmoil throughout the defence community. Among the hardest hit were the service chiefs, whose traditional command responsibilities were to be considerably reduced while more power was to reside in the Chief of Defence Force. The two chiefs most troubled by the reforms were Admiral Taylor, along with then Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General John Sanderson. In Taylor’s case, with Howard’s Coalition Government newly in office, there were the added difficulties of how work was to proceed on the troubled Collins submarine project.

Though he was able to win changes lessening the impact of some of the reform proposals, the submarine issue proved politically more difficult. This, it would seem, became a factor as he faced retirement. However, as the last serving officer to have joined the RAN as a 13-year-old cadet, he had the satisfaction of knowing that with him at the helm the Navy had become more efficient at the sharp, operational, end and ‘equal or better than any of the navies in the region’.

Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, on 11 June 1940, the second son of Len and Vera Taylor, he was the first of two sons and a daughter who would serve as officers in the RAN. At college he excelled academically as well as on the sporting field in rugby and cricket. On graduation in December 1957, he was awarded the Queen’s medal and the Grand Aggregate prize. After sea training in HMAS Swan, he was sent to Britain for further study at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, beginning an association with the RN that was to be renewed several times during his career.

Upon graduating from Dartmouth in 1959, he served in HMAS Quiberon and Anzac. While in Quiberon he began to specialise in navigation, becoming one of the Australian fleet’s top navigators. While in Anzac in 1963 he met Melbourne-born Judy Smith, a Qantas air hostess. They married the following year before travelling to Britain for the future Admiral to do the long navigation course. After qualifying the Taylor’s moved to Malta where Rod became the navigator of the RN’s Seventh Mine Counter Measures squadron. From there in 1967 Admiral Taylor was sent to the United States to be the commissioning navigator of and operations officer of the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane. His service in Brisbane included the ship’s first deployment to Vietnam and gained him a Mention in Dispatches. A short break from navigational duties came when he joined the staff of the Naval College at Jervis Bay. However, by early 1972 Admiral Taylor was back in Britain at the shore establishment HMS Dryad to complete the advanced navigation course. His navigational skills were then put to use in HMAS Sydney, then engaged in logistic support for Australian forces in Vietnam, and later HMAS Melbourne. Promoted commander, he was sent on second exchange posting to Britain as commander amphibious warfare, at the Joint Warfare Establishment.

Returning to Australia, he went to the Navy Office as director of tactics and navigation and did the Joint Services Staff College course before being appointed to command the destroyer Vampire. From the time he took command of Vampire where he was known to his happy, well-trained ship’s company as ‘Rocket Rod’, his focus was operations until he became Deputy Chief of Naval Staff in November 1991. Over those 12 years Taylor was Fleet Operations Officer, then Director of Naval Development, commanded HMAS Torrens and the third destroyer squadron, became Deputy Fleet Commander, then Commodore Flotillas. During this period came promotion to Captain, Commodore and then Rear-Admiral on being appointed Assistant Chief of Defence Force (Operations).

His role as Assistant Chief of Operations turned out to be a challenging one, as he was soon engaged in the planning and subsequent deployment of RAN ships to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm. With his branch operating on a war footing, he had to work in close relationship with Defence and the Executive arm of government becoming, in the words of then Defence Force Chief, General Peter Gration, ‘adept at briefing the PM, ministers and other VIP visitors to the ops room’. General Gration also recalled his ‘professionalism’, cheerful but cool approach to difficult matters’ and ‘the speed with which he and his staff could work when it was needed’.

The recently retired Chief of Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, who worked closely with Taylor for many years, said that what stood out was ‘the strength of Rod’s intellectual penetration on all key issues. Rarely was there anything that Rod had not thought about and carefully considered. At the same time he did not impose his thinking on others up front and thus stifle opportunities for others to show their stuff. He was a shining example to me’.

During his long service, Admiral Taylor saw a total re-shaping of the RAN – from reliance on the Royal Navy to a closer alignment with the United States – in his words ‘all adding up to self-reliance or standing on our own two feet’. Admiral Taylor made a significant contribution to that development, but warned on his retirement that the Australian forces had to be efficient in using the equipment they had and work hard at maintaining a technological edge in the region.  

With retirement, came a sea change. The Admiral exchanged his uniform for farm clothes. The Taylors bought a small property outside Canberra to breed alpacas.

His wife Judy, son Sean, brother Bill, and sisters Wendy (Mackay) and Elizabeth (Scarce), survive him.

Vice-Admiral Rodney Graham Taylor, born 11 June 1940; died 1 September 2002.

Original publication

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Taylor, Graham (Rod) (1940–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 31 May 2024.

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