Obituary: Admiral Sir Richard Thomas

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RICHARD THOMAS joined the Royal Navy in 1951, when its distillation and digestion of the lessons of the Second World War were being interrupted by Korea. He left it 40 years later as the Cold War was ending.

The Cod Wars were the nearest he got to actual hostility, but he had a full, interesting and rewarding career, within the service for most of the time, but latterly as its representative - and that of the UK - in two key Nato posts. When he retired, he had the good fortune that another career, shorter but no less rewarding, was waiting for him at the Palace of Westminster.

The son of a naval officer, Thomas joined the Navy from Downside. He lived the rest of his life very much in accordance with the tenets of its teaching. He was one of the happiest husbands and fathers; his entry in Who's Who testifies that his only recreation was his family. He was soon at sea in the old Illustrious, of Taranto fame but by 1951 the Home Fleet training carrier, and then in another veteran of wartime building, the cruiser Gambia.

Five years into his career, he started his professional acquaintance with the world outside the Navy as Flag Lieutenant to the Commander-in- Chief of the old East Indies station. Then came a succession of small ship appointments - navigator of a frigate (Eastbourne), watchkeeper in a destroyer (Crossbow), command of a landing ship (Buttress), and, still a Lieutenant, a coastal minesweeper (Wolverton).

Then in 1962 came the benchmark of an appointment to HMY Britannia. An early tendency to acerbity and impatience had disappeared with years and experience, and an especially distinguished execution of his duties as second in command of the frigate Torbay led to swift promotion to Commander and to the command of the destroyer Troubridge (1966-68).

This had been a good start to a career, with an abundance of sea time, but Thomas's next three appointments, i.e. the remaining six years in the normal zone for promotion to Captain, were all to be spent largely ashore. The deployment and training of seaman ratings kept him busy - there were 13,000 of them in those days, and he made some improvements to the system.

Then came a stint on the staff of the Flag Officer Flotilla 1 (one of the three divisions of the Fleet), followed by a move to Rosyth as Staff Officer Operations to FOSNI, the Flag Officer, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That job was dominated by the second Cod War of 1972, a large-scale and serious fishing dispute in Northern waters, ironically between two Nato allies and involving alas several collisions as nets were cut or ships manoeuvred to avoid such an offence.

Thomas was much involved, and revealed a steadiness under pressure and an attention to current details which did not distract him from remembering to think of future probabilities; because of this, he was appointed OBE. Most important, he was promoted - there were too many deserving candidates to allow for many over-zone promotions in those days - and it was as a Captain that he went to the Ministry of Defence, of which he had happily seen little so far, to assist in the Polaris development.

Captain Thomas went to sea with the Commando assault ship Fearless before attending the RCDS course of 1979; he had passed the RN staff course in 1963 and the Joint Services counterpart three years later. It was then that he was wisely directed back to the personnel side of the Navy, first as Director of Seaman Officers' Appointments (1980-82) and then, as a Rear Admiral and the Naval Secretary, responsible for the selection, employment and promotion of officers of all specialisations.

His last command at sea was as Flag Officer Second Flotilla (1985-87), which he thoroughly enjoyed, especially in seeing whether his staff could be reduced to a number which could realistically accompany him to sea; this was a reflection of his second appointment as a Commander.

He could have retired then after a good career. There had been the long apprenticeship at sea, then, promotion assured, a series of testing and rewarding appointments, concentrated on the personnel side, which led to the flag list and a good command afloat.

For the Navy of those days, which was beginning to dwindle in ships and in people, that was good going. Their Lordships were still teased by Parkinson's Law, but at the same time were tasked with a steady number of posts of representational and inter-allied commitments for which good men had to be found. It is a tribute to the Admiralty Board's perspicacity that there were few occasions when it was whispered that perhaps there weren't enough good men to go round: it is a tribute to Thomas that although he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, he was with no doubt the right man.

Promoted Vice Admiral, he was Deputy Saclant (Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic) at Norfolk, Virginia (1987-89) and then, an Admiral, the UK Military Representative to Nato in Brussels. As the Supreme Commander was also C in C the US Atlantic Fleet, he delegated much of the Nato work to Thomas, who was hard pressed, especially as military resources were becoming scarcer while tensions did not diminish.

At Nato itself, Thomas had the singularly difficult task of being loyal to the British government without being disloyal to the Alliance to whose staff they had appointed him. Here again the times were against him; resources were scarce and diminishing, and the end of the Cold War brought a false optimism with which his military mind had to contend. Experience has already vindicated his appreciations and efforts.

Thomas was created KCB in 1987. In 1991 he left the Navy and was appointed Gentleman Usher to the Black Rod in 1992, a post which carried with it the appointment of Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Lords and Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain. All these offices he delighted in, though relieved that the second was more ceremonial than disciplinarian. The duties have extended since the 16th century, and now a staff of 80 deals with all administrative work in the House of Lords.

Richard Thomas was well suited to lead such a team, and in his tenure proceedings were modified and modernised. He had a stroke in 1993, which left him with something of a limp, but his mind and sense of humour were unimpaired, and when he returned to work his devotion to duty was an example of self-discipline much admired. It was the after effects which hastened his death this month, and shortened his first real retirement. He was appointed KCVO when he left Westminster in 1995, and the Catholic Church recognised his life's work with a papal knighthood in the Order of Pope Pius IX.

William Richard Scott Thomas, naval officer: born 22 March 1932; OBE 1974; Directorate of Naval Plans, MoD 1974-77; CO HMS Fearless 1977-78; Director, Office Appointments (Seamen) 1980-83; Naval Secretary 1983-85; Flag Officer Second Flotilla 1985-87; KCB 1987; Deputy, Saclant 1987-89; UK Military Representative to Nato 1989-92; Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, and Serjeant-at-Arms, House of Lords, and Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain 1992-95; KCVO 1995; married 1959 Paddy Cullinan (two sons, four daughters, and two sons deceased); died 13 December 1998.