Obituary: Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Fletcher

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The Independent Culture
PETER FLETCHER will be particularly remembered as one of the best of the RAF's Whitehall warriors.

Born in Durban in 1916, he was educated at St George's College, Southern Rhodesia, and Rhodes University, South Africa, where he read Law. He then joined the Southern Rhodesia Air Force, learnt to fly, and in 1941 transferred to the RAF.

Almost immediately he was on his way to India and in January 1942, with 135 Squadron, flew a Hurricane defending Rangoon against Japanese air attack. As losses increased, some of the airmen were pulled out and Acting Squadron Leader Fletcher found himself in Ceylon. Here he took command of 258 Squadron, some of whose men had escaped after the battle of Java, and his rapidly improvised squadron helped defend the island at what Churchill later called "the most dangerous moment of the war" - when the Japanese fleet's appearance in the Indian Ocean seemed to threaten a link-up with the Germans.

During the Japanese attack on Colombo on Easter Sunday, Fletcher led his Hurricanes against a formation of enemy dive bombers. To quote the citation for his subsequent DFC:

In the ensuing combat, when at least five enemy aircraft were destroyed, his own aircraft was hit and later when attacked by a hostile fighter burst into flames. He had to bale out. Throughout this haz-

ardous operation, in which he was wounded, he displayed fine courage and leadership and destroyed one of the enemy aircraft.

Fletcher remained with 258 for the rest of the year, standing guard over Ceylon, but then his brief war was over, for in 1943 he was posted back to Southern Rhodesia to command 25 Elementary Flying Training School at Belvedere. Two years later he accepted a permanent commission and after staff training returned to the flying training world at Feltwell, in Norfolk, where his work was eventually recognised by the award of the Air Force Cross.

Next came a spell in the Air Ministry's Directorate of Plans and in 1953 he became Air Attache in Oslo, an influential post in which he worked assiduously to keep on good terms with the Norwegian Air Force. His next posting, to the directing staff of the Imperial Defence College, showed that his staff talents were becoming widely recognised.

Now it was time for command experience and in 1958 Fletcher became Station Commander at Abingdon, the home of two of the RAF's Beverley squadrons and of No 1 Parachute Training School. Abingdon's transport operations at home and overseas made it one of the RAF's busiest stations and with much of the work entailing co- operation with the Army, Fletcher easily established the necessary rapport with his opposite numbers. This experience would pay off later when he was appointed AOC 38 Group at Odiham and became responsible to Transport Command for providing and controlling all tactical transport support operations, especially those required by the Army.

Before this, however, Fletcher had returned to the Air Ministry, where - but for the 38 Group interlude - he would spend the whole of his remaining career. First, in 1960, he served as a Planner; next he became Director of Operational Requirements at the time when the prospects of the aircraft on which the RAF was setting high hopes, the TSR2, were being increasingly questioned. Then in 1964 Sam Elworthy, recently appointed Chief of Air Staff, made him Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Policy). Elworthy, a fellow lawyer and kindred spirit, had recognised Fletcher's qualities - his writing talents, his articulacy, his analytical ability, his capacity for hard work, his skill in putting the RAF case - and wanted his help in the aftermath of the TSR2 cancellation and in the lengthy controversy with the Navy over the future of aircraft carriers.

Fletcher's success under Elworthy was marked when in 1967, after his short spell at Odiham, he returned to Whitehall as Vice-Chief of Air Staff, this time working for John Grandy but indirectly still under Elworthy as Chief of the Defence Staff. For the next three years the RAF's withdrawals from east of Suez, the end of its primary deterrent role, the cancellation of the F1-11 and - more encouragingly - the arrival of the Harrier and the decision to develop the multi-role combat aircraft (the future Tornado) were among Fletcher's many concerns. Then came his appointment as Controller of Aircraft, which in 1971 was converted into Air Systems Controller in the newly restructured Defence Procurement Executive. This post gave him a seat again on the Air Force Board, and his duties now included the financial and contractual aspects of aircraft procurement for all three services.

Not surprisingly, on retirement in 1973 his talents and experience were immediately in demand in the aircraft industry. In 1974 he became a Director of Hawker Siddeley; on the formation of British Aerospace in 1977 he became Director of Corporate Strategy and Planning; and from 1979 he also joined the Airbus Industry Training Board. In 1982 he finally departed the public scene.

Peter Fletcher was not widely known in the RAF; to most who came across him he seemed a private, somewhat cold, humourless and over-serious individual, not "an airman's airman". Those who worked with him and knew him well, however, not only saw the sense of fun and the kindly host, but also knew the quality of his brain, his judgement, his ability to take responsibility, his command of technology, the respect he received from the experts. The RAF owes him much.

Henry Probert

Peter Carteret Fletcher, air force officer: born Durban, South Africa 7 October 1916; DFC 1943; OBE 1945; AFC 1952; Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Policy and Plans) 1964-66; CB 1965, KCB 1968; AOC, No 38 Group, Transport Command 1966-67; Vice-Chief of the Air Staff 1967-70; Controller of Aircraft, Ministry of Aviation Supply 1970-71; Air Systems Controller, Defence Procurement Executive, Ministry of Defence 1971-73; Director, Hawker Siddeley Aviation Ltd 1974-77; Director, Corporate Strategy and Planning, British Aerospace 1977-82; Director, Airbus Industry Supervisory Board 1979-82; married 1940 Marjorie Kotze (two daughters); died London 2 January 1999.