Obituaries: Captain John Mott

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The Independent Culture
JOHN MOTT played a role in the story of two historic but utterly different ships, HMS Exeter, which took part in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939, and the Royal Yacht Britannia. Then, after a long career in the Navy, he had another life as mandarin in charge of the National Trust for Scotland's most visited property, the beautiful castle and country park of Culzean on the Ayrshire cliffs.

Mott was connected with Britannia for 44 years. Appointed Standby Engineering officer for Job 691, as Britannia was designated in her infancy, he quickly became as he self-deprecatingly put it, "Her Majesty's marine plumber". Apart from the Duke of Edinburgh, Mott was the only person involved in the commissioning of Britannia in 1953, and occupied a place of honour at the decommissioning ceremony in 1997.

John Mott was the youngest of the three children of Major Sydney Mott, an officer of the Royal Scots Fusiliers who fought in France in the First World War. He went to the famous preparatory school at Sunningdale and then on to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, which he entered as a 13-year-old in 1930. He told me that Dartmouth in his day had been terribly tough, with a great deal of bullying, but that it was a make-or-break education, not only for the Royal Navy but for life, and he never regretted it.

As he had an aptitude for mathematics he was encouraged to go on to the Royal Naval Engineering College, then at Keyham in Leicestershire, where he studied from 1934 to 1938. On reflection he thought it was probably the best engineering training in the country outside Cambridge.

As a sub-lieutenant he was posted to HMS Exeter, one of the York class cruisers, 8,390 tons, built in 1928-29 with a speed of 32 knots, carrying six 8-inch guns, four 4-inch guns, six 21-inch torpedoes and two aircraft. Exeter was the flagship of the West Indies Squadron and found herself at the centre of one of the earliest and most remembered sea battles of the Second World War.

Mott was very modest about his war record. In January 1981 he drove me from Culzean to Tarbolton, where I had the daunting task for a man with a BBC accent of delivering the Immortal Memory at the Bachelors Club, than whom none in the world have a greater erudition about the works of Robert Burns. I said to him: "John, I've never been so nervous about anything since I was a national serviceman as a teenager. Nothing in politics has given me so many butterflies in the stomach. When did you last have butterflies in the tummy?" This chance conversation-making question uncorked an extraordinary story.

In December 1939, he was a 22-year-old engineer sub-lieutenant in the engine room of HMS Exeter. She led the two Leander class cruisers Ajax and Achilles (of the Royal New Zealand Navy) in a search group for a German pocket battleship known to be marauding in the South Atlantic, either the Deutschland, the Admiral Scheer or the Admiral Graf Spee.

These had been built in 1931-34 to the specification of 10,000 tons, the largest tonnage allowed to a German ship. They were capable of 26 knots carrying six 11-inch guns, eight 5.9-inch guns, six 4.1-inch guns and eight 21-inch torpedoes, plus two aircraft. They were truly formidable marauders and had wrecked havoc to British merchant shipping.

Mott was under the impression, he told me, that an all-together heavier force of British battleships would be brought into play if they located the battleship. This was not to be. On 13 December, what turned out to be the Graf Spee was sighted. Captain "Hookey" Bell decided to attack at 6.14am in the morning, but within an hour Exeter had come off the worse. Her bridge was badly damaged, all on it apart from the captain were killed and her gun turrets were one by one immobilised.

Mott in the engine-room received the order "Full steam ahead for ramming". He told me, "I thought it was a death sentence, as I coaxed the engines for a last frantic push. But, by heaven's special grace, Captain Hans Langsdorff, for reasons which will probably never be known, since he did away with his own life three days later, decided at that moment in time to head off for Montevideo."

For the rest of his life Mott thought that he was living on borrowed time. Having lost the power to manipulate the rudder, it was an engineering feat to set course and make Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Mott, who had escaped injury, was mentioned in despatches for his part in getting Exeter to a place of repair.

The year after he told me this story, in 1982, Mott wrote to me about the Falklands War and mentioned his great sadness that we were in conflict with Argentina as many of his friends on Exeter had been nursed back to health by marvellous Argentine doctors and nurses, sent to the Falklands from Buenos Aires.

Mott's next appointment on his return from the South Atlantic was as damage control officer on the 31,000-ton Queen Elizabeth class battleship Malaya, built in 1913 with eight 15-inch guns, twelve 6-inch guns, eight 4-inch guns and a capability of 24 knots. This relatively slow ship assigned to the protection of Atlantic convoys was torpedoed off the Senegal coast in 1941. Thanks to Mott and his engineers they managed to steer the old juggernaut more than 2,500 miles to the Brooklyn yards, where it was the first Royal Naval ship to be repaired under Lend Lease agreement.

His next posting was to the destroyer Jamaica. Promoted engineering lieutenant, he was responsible for the hazardous and nerve-wracking work of protecting Arctic convoys. Mott recalled his pleasure in being on a more modern ship, albeit a smaller one of only 1,650 tons, carrying 4.7-inch guns. It had been built in 1937, a quarter of a century after the Malaya, and was capable of 36 knots.

Until 1943 Mott spent his whole naval service, as he used to say, "a below-stairs wallah". He was accepted for the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot at Goderich, Ontario, in 1944, and survived a crash which the court martial deemed was the fault of his flying instructor. While he was waiting for the court martial he stayed with American friends on Long Island. If anyone asked him where he was on D-Day, he would reply with that winning sly chuckle: "Well, actually, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange old boy."

After the end of hostilities Mott was put in charge of engineering instruction at the Royal Naval Engineering College at Manadon in Devon. Later he was chosen by the Director of Naval Training as an officer who should tour the public schools to persuade boys to make the Navy their career. He became Senior Engineer at the Royal Naval Air Station at Lossiemouth and when he reached the rank of commander he returned to the Admiralty to be the head of the Department of Aircraft Maintenance and Repair.

His colleagues thought him just the person to be put in charge of engineering during the construction of the prestige project which was to be the Royal Yacht Britannia. He was in charge both of trial and commissioning. In 1954 he was the engineer in charge when Prince Charles and the infant Princess Anne went in Britannia to Tobruk in Libya, bringing the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh back to Britain. Mott was made a Member of the Victorian Order in 1956 following the Royal visit on board Britannia to Canada, Oslo, Copenhagen, the West Indies and the Western Isles.

He was then given a post which he told me he did not care for at all. He was made manager of the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard in Belfast in 1958. He said to me as a Labour Member of Parliament that he was nonplussed both by trade union difficulties and even more by sectarian difficulties. "Although you know that I am an active member of the Conservative Party, I promise you that I did try with the Irish trade unions." I believed him. He went back to the Admiralty on promotion as captain in 1961 and to a range of command and staff appointments. From 1965 to 1967 he had the interesting job of naval attache in Belgrade. He got on very well with Marshal Tito.

In 1970, through a friendship with Brigadier Sir James Gault, the military assistant to the Supreme Commander Allied Powers in Europe, he was introduced to Sir Jamie Stormonth-Darling, director of the Scottish National Trust. For the next 12 years he was the administrator of Culzean Castle and country park, the trust's most visited property. Robert Adam's castle, built between 1772 and 1790 for David, 10th Earl of Cassillis, on a clifftop site associated with the Kennedy family since the late 14th century, is famous for its oval staircase, armoury and wonderful collection of pictures.

Stormonth-Darling told me: "Mott was the right man at the right time for the forging of the country park project." I know that William Ross, the Secretary of State for Scotland who had piloted the 1969 Act through the House of Commons for the establishment of country parks, was most happy that Mott and his wife Ann achieved such great success in Ross's native county of Ayrshire. Mott and his wife really integrated themselves into the Ayrshire community.

John Mott's greatest achievement in his time at Culzean was perhaps the imaginative work that he did with Elizabeth Beasley in restoring the house to what it would have been in the 1780s when Robert Adam built it. This has been a magnet for tourists.

John William Mott, naval officer and administrator: born Toddington, Gloucestershire 5 March 1917; MVO 1956; married 1945 Theophila Littleton, (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1963), 1963 Ann Slater; died Ayr 9 September 1998.

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