Admiral Sir David Williams, who has died
aged 90, was an inspirational leader of men, a successful sea captain and wise senior
important appointment was as Director of Naval Plans in the MoD 1966-68 during
a period of turmoil in government policy.
Within weeks of Williams taking over, the Secretary of State for
Defence, Denis Healey, published a Defence review which included the abolition
of fixed-wing carrier aviation, and the Navy Minister, Christopher Mayhew, and First
Sea Lord, Admiral Sir David Luce, had resigned in protest.
Healey and Prime
Minister Wilson lauded their review as a blueprint for the rest of the century,
but within months it was clear that, given Britain’s financial penury, it was
only one more short-term attempt to meet Defence commitments from an inadequate
and declining budget.
The new First Sea
Lord, Admiral Sir Varyl Begg, set up the Future Fleet Working Party, of which Williams
was a key member, to advise on the shape and size of the Navy without carriers. The working party was given a clean sheet to
work on and six months in which to report: when the Foreign Office declined to give
an opinion on Britain’s overseas interests, the working party made its own
assessments. When it recommended a ‘through
deck cruiser’ which would deploy helicopters and vertical take-off fighters and
airborne radar pickets, Begg, who believed that missiles would replace all
aircraft, publicly rejected their report, and sacked its leader.
of the working party insisted that their recommendations were the logical
outcome of their study, and, despite subsequent arguments about whether the
‘through deck cruiser’ (the Invincible
class) was or was not a carrier, the working party’s recommendations on this as
on many other matters, stood the test of time and of war. All its members, including Williams, achieved
high rank and, just as important, were able to maintain a continuity of policy
for the next two decades.
David Williams was
born on October 22, 1921 in Ashford, Kent and was educated at Yardley Court
Prep and the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
His ambition to
join the Navy was fuelled by boyhood reading of the naval adventure stories by
Taffrail and Bartimeus. His headmaster
at Yardley was Eric Bickmore, and his school friends included Edward Ashmore,
the future First Sea Lord, his brother Peter, who would become Master of the
Royal Household, and Iain Gourlay, a future Commandant General of the Royal
Marines: years later, when Williams invited
their old headmaster to lunch, he greeted them with a brisk “Good morning, boys!”
to which in unison they rose and replied “Good morning, sir!”
at sea as a midshipman coincided with the outbreak of war and he was
continuously at sea for the next six years, apart from four months on sub-lieutenant’s
courses at Portsmouth. He served in five ships: in the old cruiser Emerald under the inspiring Captain Augustus Agar VC; in the destroyer Jaguar; three years in the battlecruiser Renown; and, at age of 23, as first lieutenant of two fleet
destroyers, Paladin in the East
Indies and Quadrant in the British
He recalled the
bitter cold of the first winter in the North Atlantic, on an open bridge with
inadequate clothing, and that war was “99% boredom, 1% acute fear.” By war’s end he had served worldwide and seen
service on the Northern Patrol, the blockade of Germany, Arctic convoys, the
bombardment of Oran, Churchill’s return from the Quebec conference, the
landings in North Africa, carrier aircraft attacks on Japanese installations at
Sabang and Surabaya, and the last attacks on the Japanese mainland before
Postwar he specialised
in gunnery in 1946, served in the Mediterranean as flotilla gunnery officer, and
took part in the Navy’s guided missile trails in the early 1950s.
In 1959 he
commanded the navigational training ship Jewel,
then attached to Dartmouth, and next he graduated from the US Naval War
College, Newport, RI, where, characteristically, he forged lasting friendships
around the world.
His time, in 1960,
as Commander (G) at the gunnery school on Whale Island, Portsmouth where he was
responsible for producing the highest standards of parade training and
discipline, is remembered for the ‘pachyderm on parade.’ A class
of sub-lieutenants smuggled an elephant on to the island and marched onto
parade with it in their midst. Williams’
vocal outrage at this desecration of his parade ground was modified by his
admiration and amusement at the young officer’s initiative.
promoted to captain and served as naval assistant to Admiral Sir Caspar John,
the First Sea Lord 1961–64, and, taking over from his friend Terry Lewin,
he commanded the guided missile
destroyer Devonshire 1964–66.
to Dartmouth as Captain of the College 1968-70, where he was respected, as much
for the warm relationships he developed with the community as for his success,
in a period of rapid change in officer recruiting, in integrating graduates
into the college’s training programme.
His purpose at Dartmouth, as he told all new, young officers was that
“here is that you should learn to act and react instinctively as officers.”
he was Flag Officer, Second in Command Far East Fleet 1970–72; as a vice-admiral
he was Director-General Naval Manpower and Training 1972–74; and as a full
admiral he was Second Sea Lord & Chief of Naval Personnel 1974–77.
knighted GCB and had retired to dedicate himself to his chosen charities, the Ex
Services Mental Welfare Society, the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the Missions to Seamen, and the Museums
and Galleries Commission, and he was a Gentleman Usher to The Queen, when he
was summoned to duty as Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Gibraltar. In the crucial years 1982–85 he was
responsible for the Rock’s internal security, its defence and foreign affairs, and
oversaw negotiations which led to the border with Spain being reopened. A contemporary newspaper described Williams as
the casting-director’s image of a naval officer, with ramrod straight back made
to stand on the bridge of a British man-o’-war:
it also revealed Williams’ love of literature and his habit of reading
fiction and non-fiction about whatever task he had in hand.
He was raised to
KCB in 1975.
A keen yachtsman,
Williams was a member of Royal Dart Yacht Club, the Royal Naval Sailing
Association, and the Royal Yacht Squadron, and for a quarter of a century raced
his boat in Dartmouth regattas.
He retired to
Stoke Gabriel in the South Hams, Devon. Asked
in old age which one job he had enjoyed most, his answer was that he had
enjoyed them all and in each one and at every level he had tried to make what
is called in the Navy ‘a happy ship’.
Williams, who died
on July 16, 2012, met Pippa Stevens in Halifax in 1943: they married in 1947 and she survives him
with their two sons.