Remembering Acclaimed Australian Naval Historian James Goldrick
By Peter Jones
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
On 17 March, Rear Admiral James Goldrick died in Canberra after a brave battle with illness. He was a naval officer of exceptional intellect and influence who became Australia’s most internationally acclaimed naval historian.
Goldrick’s service in the Royal Australian Navy included command of the Darwin-based patrol boat Cessnock, executive officer of the destroyer Perth and twice commanding the frigate Sydney. As a commanding officer he was competent and even-tempered with a sincere interest in the welfare and advancement of his officers and sailors. His ships were invariably happy ones. James could, however, be unintentionally intimidating because of his encyclopedic knowledge of all things naval. One of his officers remarked that it was like having Dumbledore as your captain.
In 2002, he saw operational service commanding the multinational Maritime Interception Force in the Persian Gulf. He reveled in the complexity of that role and made important tactical contributions to enforcing the UN Security Council’s sanctions against Iraq.
His senior shore appointments included chief staff officer to the chief of the navy, director of the RAN Seapower Centre, director general of military strategy, commander of Border Protection Command, twice commandant of the Australian Defense Force Academy and commander of the Australian Defense College. Between 2005 and 2008 he also found time to be president of the Australian Naval Institute.
While at the Seapower Centre, Goldrick wrote the navy’s capstone document, Australian Maritime Doctrine. He also played a key part in the creation of both the Sea Power Conference and the King-Hall History Conference. A particular aspect of this was bringing to these shores distinguished strategists and historians.
In all his naval appointments Goldrick made important contributions, but it was at the Defence Force Academy and the Defense College that he had the greatest impact on the next generation of officers through his example and an interest in their individual development. James’s 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.
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 UNSW 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 on the university’s Australian Naval History podcast series. Fittingly, James received the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa from his alma mater.
As a retired officer, Goldrick was a frequent writer and speaker on maritime and naval affairs. He gained a wide and appreciative readership. James was an honorary professorial fellow at the Wollongong University’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, an honorary professor at the ANU’s Strategic and Defense Studies Centre and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
In 2015, James was a visiting fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. This allowed him to complete the first of two books he is most noted for, Before Jutland: the naval war in northern European waters, August 1914 – February 1915. It was followed by, in 2018, its companion, After Jutland: the naval war in northern European waters, June 1916 – November 1918. International recognition followed.
Within the Royal Australian Navy and the national security community more generally, Goldrick was a towering intellect and the most articulate writer and speaker on the importance of sea power for Australia.
James was a mentor, shipmate and friend to many. His loss to the navy is irreplaceable.