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Sir Hugh David Stevenson (1918–1998)

by William Westerman

This article was published online in 2024

Sir David Stevenson, 1970s

Sir David Stevenson, 1970s

Australian War Memorial, P01093.003

Sir Hugh David Stevenson (1918–1998), naval officer, was born on 24 August 1918 at New Farm, Brisbane, third of four children of New South Wales-born William Henry Webster Stevenson, Anglican priest, and his English-born wife Katherine Sanmarez, née Smith. He spent his formative years in Brisbane, during which time his father held various positions within the local Anglican diocese before becoming bishop of Grafton in 1938. A gifted sportsman, David attended The Southport School, where he was a contemporary of (Sir) Arthur MacDonald, who would later be chief of the General Staff when Stevenson was chief of Naval Staff.

In September 1932 Stevenson entered the Royal Australian Naval College at HMAS Cerberus on Western Port Bay, Victoria. As a cadet midshipman, he stood out in a graduating year that included many future officers of high rank. He was awarded the Otto Albert prize for seamanship and the grand aggregate prize for his results in academic and professional subjects, and gained colours in cricket, rugby, tennis, and swimming. Posted to the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra in January 1936, the next year he undertook the customary exchange with the Royal Navy for sea training and professional courses. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant in January 1939 and returned to Australia to join the light cruiser HMAS Hobart.

During World War II Stevenson initially served in the Indian Ocean in Hobart, and was promoted to lieutenant in May 1940. In August the next year he joined the destroyer HMAS Napier deployed to the Mediterranean, where he participated in the ‘Tobruk Ferry’ run, and the escort of convoys to Malta. Napier took part in the Madagascan campaign in September 1942, with Stevenson joining the amphibious landing at Majunga (Mahajanga) by British commandos. In March 1943 he transferred to the destroyer HMAS Nepal, serving from June in the Indian Ocean.

On 18 April 1944 Stevenson married Myra Joyce Clarke at St Peter’s Church of England, Eastern Hill, Melbourne; they were to have two children, Jacqueline in 1948 and Philip in 1952. In April–June 1944 he completed the long navigation course in Britain, before resuming service in Nepal. He returned to Napier in March 1945 as flotilla navigating officer, spending the remainder of the war in the Pacific theatre. In 1946, in recognition of his service during the war, he was mentioned in dispatches.

Stevenson spent the decade after the war in shore and sea postings that included advanced training followed by instructional duties at HMS Dryad, the Royal Navy’s Navigation and Direction School, Portsmouth, England (1948–50); HMAS Australia (1950–52); and the light fleet aircraft carriers HMAS Sydney and HMAS Vengeance (1954–55). He was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1948 and commander in 1952. In 1955–58 he undertook the staff course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, England, and served with the Admiralty in the tactical ship requirements and staff duties division. Promoted to captain on 30 June 1958, he was given command of the destroyer HMAS Tobruk the following month. He completed exchange service with the Royal New Zealand Navy, during which he commanded the cruiser HMNZS Royalist (1960–61).

After leaving Royalist in September 1961, Stevenson moved to Navy Office as director of plans, taking the opportunity to make his permanent home in Canberra. In November 1963 he returned to sea in command of HMAS Sydney, which had been converted to a fast troop transport. Following the collision between the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and the destroyer HMAS Voyager, he was in April 1964 transferred to command Melbourne, and won praise from his seniors for having so readily ‘acquired his officers’ and ship’s company’s complete confidence’ (NAA A6769).

 Recognition from Stevenson’s superiors of his having ‘proved himself both as a planner and in command’ (NAA A6769), and consequent potential to fill more senior appointments, led to his attending the Imperial Defence College, London, in 1966. On his return to Australia, he was appointed in January 1967 as a commodore and jointly naval officer-in-charge, West Australia Area, and commanding officer of HMAS Leeuwin, the junior recruit training establishment at Fremantle. He was promoted to rear admiral and appointed deputy chief of Naval Staff in March 1968. In 1969 he was the Royal Australian Navy’s senior representative on the joint RAN–United States Navy board of investigation into the collision of Melbourne and USS Frank E. Evans. While Stevenson was aware that Evans’s officers had been at fault, he recognised that politically the captain of the Australian vessel would have to bear some of the responsibility.

In January 1970 Stevenson was appointed CBE, and became flag officer commanding HM Australian Fleet. On 17 August that year, two hundred sailors at Garden Island walked off their jobs for over an hour to protest against a group pay scheme that linked pay scales with specific civilian trade skills. They returned to their ships almost immediately after Stevenson addressed them and agreed to represent their grievances; pay increases were announced the next day. In April 1971 he returned to Canberra as chief of naval personnel. In June 1973 the Whitlam government announced his appointment as vice admiral and chief of Naval Staff, commencing 23 November. While he did not initially welcome his nomination, he eventually came to enjoy the role.

One of Stevenson’s biggest challenges was guiding the RAN through a period of contentious defence reorganisation. Just days before he became chief of Naval Staff, the secretary of the Department of Defence, Sir Arthur Tange, submitted a report to the minister for defence, Lance Barnard, recommending the merger of the departments of the Navy, Army, and Air Force; the abolition of the three service boards; and the centralisation of many administrative functions in the Department of Defence. Stevenson publicly supported these reforms, and deferred making his own organisational changes to the navy. The reforms saw increased statutory responsibilities for the service chiefs; Stevenson now unequivocally commanded the RAN, with responsibility for advancing its interests at a time of significant cuts to the defence budget, and official strategic assessments that Australia was safe from major threats well into the 1980s. He pressed the RAN’s case for retaining the Fleet Air Arm’s fixed-wing aircraft, and replacing the ageing Melbourne with two new carriers. The RAN, he thought, ‘should maintain organic air power,’ but ruefully added that ‘I do not think you could find an admiral who does not want more ships’ (Cranston 1974, 2). He also oversaw several important procurement decisions, particularly the purchase of Oliver Hazard Perry-class patrol frigates.

In January 1976, Stevenson was appointed AC for his ‘exceptional qualities of leadership, dedication of purpose and outstanding professional ability.’ Following his retirement from the RAN on 22 November 1976, he was elevated to KBE in December. In April 1978 Myra Stevenson died, and on 13 March 1979 Sir David married Margaret (Maggie) Lorraine Wright, née Wheeler, a real estate agent, at St Mary’s Church of England, Waverley, Sydney. Following his retirement, he was active in community organisations, including as a board member of the YMCA in Canberra, and chairman of the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Trust for Young Australians. He also became a consultant to the Australian Bicentennial Authority on the participation of tall ships in the 1988 bicentennial celebrations, ably assisted by Maggie. In the late 1980s they moved to the Gold Coast, where he continued to support his wife in her many philanthropic endeavours.

Personable, articulate, and intellectual, the short but strongly built Stevenson was also a pragmatist who acceded to political imperatives when required, notably during the difficult period of organisational upheaval imposed on the three services. He died on 26 October 1998 at Helensvale on the Gold Coast, survived by his wife, his two children, and two stepchildren. Following a full naval funeral service at the ANZAC Memorial Chapel of St Paul, Royal Military College, Duntroon, he was cremated in Canberra. A curriculum centre on The Southport School preparatory school campus is named in his honour.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Birch, Albert F. ‘Well Done Sir David: The Life and Naval Career of Vice Admiral Sir Hugh David Stevenson, AC, KBE.’ Naval Historical Review, June 1977, 2–7
  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris. ‘Navy Chief Steered a New Course.’ Australian, 6 November 1998, 16
  • Cranston, Frank. ‘An Uncaring Foe: The Navy’s Biggest Battle Won’t be Fought at Sea.’ Canberra Times, 29 August 1974, 2
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, STEVENSON H. D.
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, STEVENSON H. D.
  • Royal Australian Navy News (Canberra). ‘“Sailors’ Admiral” Served 44 Years.’ 19 November 1976, 3

Additional Resources

Citation details

William Westerman, 'Stevenson, Sir Hugh David (1918–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 21 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir David Stevenson, 1970s

Sir David Stevenson, 1970s

Australian War Memorial, P01093.003

Life Summary [details]


24 August, 1918
New Farm, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


26 October, 1998 (aged 80)
Helensvale, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations