On 17 March 2023 Rear Admiral James Goldrick died in Canberra. He was a naval officer of exceptional intellect and influence, who became Australia’s most internationally acclaimed naval historian. He was a longstanding Adjunct Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Sciences. James was known to be incredibly supportive to generations of young scholars and had profound influence on the teaching and study of naval history and strategy, across the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge and experience.
James was born in 1958 to Caroline and Peter Goldrick. Caroline studied history at Sydney University, while Peter was a naval officer who served in World War II as a midshipman and the Korean War as a Sea Fury pilot. He retired as a Captain. James and his sisters Frances and Philippa enjoyed a gregarious and intellectually stimulating household. A layer of naval discipline accompanied the frequent moves necessitated by service life.
In 1974, a fifteen-year-old James Goldrick joined the Royal Australian Naval College at Jervis Bay, as a cadet midshipman. From his earliest days in the Navy, James demonstrated academic excellence and a knowledge of the Navy beyond his years. In 1976 he and a small group of his class attended the University of New South Wales in Sydney to undertake an Arts degree. This was at a time when humanities degrees were viewed with some suspicion in the Service.
During this time he began writing his first book, The King’s Ships were at Sea: The War in the North Sea August 1914 – February 1915. In researching it, he established links with some of the leading international academics in this field. The King’s Ships was one of the first books on the topic to incorporate these insights when it was published in 1984 by the US Naval Institute. That the author was both an aspiring naval historian and a serving naval officer was most unusual. If naval officers entered this field, it was in retirement.
James Goldrick’s interests at university college were not confined to academics and he met his future wife, Ruth Wilson, who was then studying to be a librarian. Their friendship was maintained after university by post, leading to their marriage in 1989. In the words of classmate Commodore Roger Boyce, who helped move them into their first house, it was the meeting of two great libraries.
Maritime history and contemporary naval affairs continued to be a driving force in James’ life. By early 1980s he was a frequent contributor to the Australian Naval Institute Journal, US Naval Institute Proceedings and the British Naval Review. This included writing an annual Asian Navies Review from 1982-1991 for Proceedings with classmate Peter Jones. At this time, he was also on the Council of the British Naval Records Society as well as providing comments and corrections to that naval bible Jane’s Fighting Ships.
James Goldrick’s intelligence and remarkable powers of the pen did not go unnoticed. He was made Aide de Camp to the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, and was later Research Officer to the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Michael Hudson. He also served as Officer-in-Charge of the RAN’s warfare officer training.
During the 1980s and 1990s James fruitfully collaborated with contemporaries interested in naval strategic and historical thought. At various times he served on the Council of the Australian Naval Institute and in 1989 he and successive Research Officers Tom Frame and Peter Jones were the driving force behind an influential naval history seminar held at the Australian War Memorial which sought to promote a more in-depth study of the RAN’s history. This resulted among other things in the 1992 book Reflections on the Royal Australian Navy which James co-edited.
In 1992 year, unlike most high performing officers, James Goldrick did not attend a staff course. Instead, he became a research scholar at the US Naval War College. His time at Newport began a long and profitable association with that institution. While there Ruth gave birth to their first son Owen. The Newport time also resulted in his second book, No Easy Answers: The Development of the Navies of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which was published in 1997. By this time James Goldrick had positioned himself uniquely at the intersection of historical study, strategic and policy debate, maritime doctrine, and defence education. His contribution grew with his developing skills and expertise as a naval officer.
James Goldrick’s sea service included command of the Darwin-based patrol boat Cessnock, executive officer of the destroyer Perth and twice commanding the frigate Sydney. In 2002 he saw operational service commanding the multinational Maritime Interception Force in the Persian Gulf. He revelled in the complexity of that role and made important tactical contributions to the UN Security Council’s sanction enforcement against Iraq.
His senior shore appointments included Chief Staff Officer to the Chief of Navy, Director of the RAN Seapower Centre, Director General of Military Strategy, the Commander of Border Protection Command, twice Commandant of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Commander of the Australian Defence College. Between 2005-2008 he also found time to be President of the Australian Naval Institute.
While at the Seapower Centre James Goldrick wrote the Navy’s capstone document Australian Maritime Doctrine. He was also played a key part in the creation of both the Navy’s Seapower and King-Hall history conferences.
In all his naval appointments James Goldrick made important contributions, but it was at the Defence Academy and the Defence College that he had the greatest impact on the next generation of officers through his example and an interest in their individual development. James’ advice to them was to build an interior intellectual life sustained by wide reading, writing and critical thinking. He also observed that your first command is about proving yourself to yourself and that every subsequent command is about helping others prove themselves to themselves.
James Goldrick retired from the Navy in 2012 and soon was lecturing at the Defence College he once headed as part of the Australian National University’s instructional team. He regularly astounded Australian and international students with the breadth of his naval knowledge. He was also a founding member of the Naval Studies Group at the University of New South Wales (Canberra), the only such entity at an Australian university. James edited its yet to be published book on Australian Chiefs of Naval Staff and was a regular panelist in their Australian Naval History podcast series. Fittingly, James received the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causafrom his alma mater.
As noted, James was a longstanding Adjunct Professor at UNSW Canberra. In addition James was an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Wollongong University’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, an Honorary Professor at ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.
In 2015 James was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford. This allowed him to complete the first of two books he is most noted for. That was Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters August 1914 – February 1915. It was followed by, in 2018, After Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters June 1916 – November 1918. International recognition followed. Before Jutland was awarded the Anderson Medal by the British Society for Nautical Research and James was made a Fellow of that Society. In 2020 he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Two years later he was awarded the prestigious US Hattendorf Prize for distinguished academic achievement in publishing original research in naval history.
On his return from the US James Goldrick felt unwell and so began treatment first for lymphoma and then leukaemia. James met the successive medical hurdles with politeness to the caring staff and great fortitude. Professor Geoffrey Till of King’s College London wrote he had an indomitable spirit who deserved much better fortune.
Within the Royal Australian Navy and the national security and academic community more generally, James Goldrick was a towering intellect and the most articulate writer and speaker on the importance of seapower for Australia.
James is survived by his wife Ruth, sons Owen and Edmund and sister Frances.
This obituary is an edited extract from that prepared by Vice Admiral Peter Jones (Retired) for the Australian Naval Institute. It appears here with Peter’s kind permission. Read the original article.