Obituaries: Admiral Sir William Pillar

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The Independent Culture
NAVAL CAREERS class themselves largely according to whether the individual joined the Navy before, during or after the Second World War.

Lord Lewin fell - just - into the first group, William Pillar firmly into the second; the former had a great influence on the career of the latter. As one of the planners behind AFO 1/56 (the first Admiralty Fleet Order of 1956), Lewin was an architect of the new officer structure which perforce divided them all into "wet" and "dry" lists: would the executive officers exercise command at sea again or, however distinguished or promising, would the rest of their service be ashore? The seaman branch saw several deserving careers curtailed. The old specialist branches - Supply, Engineering, Electrical, for example - saw unexpected career prospects.

Now all shore appointments were open to the right men. The emphasis shifted from the branch to the service as a whole. Sir Peter White, the Chief Naval Supply and Secretariat Officer, was the first specialist to reach the Admiralty Board. Pillar was not far behind him. His career prospered because, like Terry Lewin, he liked his people in the old naval sense, and they returned his confidence; he was one of those Williams who are inevitably Bill, knighted or not. He was a classic example of the naval officer who was almost incidentally an engineer.

Pillar was born in 1924 and joined the Navy as a Cadet (E) in 1942. He qualified at the Naval Engineering Colleges at Keyham, Devonport, and Manadon, Plymouth, winning the King's Sword when he passed out. He did his sea time as a midshipman, and then as a junior engine-room watch-keeper (1946-48) in the old Illustrious, by then the Home Fleet trials and training carrier. Two years back at Manadon (Thunderer) on the staff and two more as Engineer Officer of Alert, the yacht turned despatch vessel of the Commander-in-Chief Far East during the Korean War, prefaced a three-year stint in the Dockyard at Gibraltar.

He was there when AFO 1/56 was published, went back to sea as Engineer in the Battle Class destroyer Corunna and in 1958 was promoted Commander and appointed to Lochinvar, the mine-sweeping base on the Forth. Shore service at Simonstown (1962-64) as Chief Staff Officer (Technical) to Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic was followed by a memorably agreeable flag-showing cruise around South America as Marine Engineer Officer in the cruiser Tiger, his last sea time. His last job as a Commander was a classic promotion appointment - on the staff of the Director of Officers' Appointments in the MOD.

Sure enough, promotion to Captain came in 1966, and his four appointments in that rank all pointed onwards and upwards. He did the 1967 Senior Officers' War Course at Greenwich, still safe in naval hands, and was then the Controller's representative in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1970, a year at the Imperial Defence College (IDC) followed and he went on to be Assistant to the Director-General, Ships before returning to Thunderer, this time in command (1973-75).

It was now that his prowess benefited from the 1956 reforms. Promoted Rear-Admiral in 1976, he became Port Admiral, Rosyth, and then Assistant Chief of Fleet Support. In 1979 he was promoted Vice-Admiral and Chief of Naval Support, and appointed Fourth Sea Lord on a strong Board under Sir Henry Leach, with John Fieldhouse as Controller. And in 1980 he was appointed KCB and promoted Admiral on appointment in 1982 as Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies (formerly the IDC). He retired, now GBE, in 1984.

And then, to crown that career, there were five delightful and splendid if less onerous years as Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in- Chief, Jersey. He was the first engineer officer to hold that post, just as he had been the first to sit at the Board in 1979 and to superintend the IDC in 1982.

He encouraged generations of his old specialisation to believe and remember that they were essentially naval officers who had specialised, and not the other way round. It sounds so obvious today; 40 years ago it was far from it to many, and heresy to some. He was modest about his success, for he showed no side to anyone he met. As Captain of Thunderer, he knew the name and the face of each of his juniors; there was never a trace of "You, there."

He was as keen on sailing as any naval officer; Commodore of the Royal Naval Sailing Association from 1980, a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron and an energetic supporter of the training ship Royalist.

His health had failed lately and he had to resort to a wheelchair. But he remained essentially the old Bill Pillar, and delighted in the presentation earlier this year of his portrait by Theo Ramos to the wardroom of HMS Sultan.

William Thomas Pillar, naval officer: born 24 February 1924; KCB 1980; Commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies 1982-83; GBE 1983; Lieutenant- Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Jersey 1985-90; married 1946 Ursula Ransley (three sons, one daughter); died 18 March 1999.

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