Obituary: Captain Geoffrey Kirkby

Click to follow
GEOFFREY KIRKBY, a distinguished wartime destroyer captain, was a natural leader and an especially skilled seaman, even in that distinguished generation of destroyer captains. But though he was often the right man in the right place - three awards of the Distinguished Service Cross in three years speak for themselves - the times were not always right for him.

He got off to a cracking start as an acting Sub-Lieutenant in 1939; when the war ended he was still an acting Lieutenant-Commander. He had had what is now often referred to as a "good war", but when it ended so did many promising career prospects. That many of the deserving went no further than they did is often less a reflection on them and the fleet in which they served so well, than upon their times.

Kirkby was born in 1918 as one war was ending; when the next broke out he had just finished his Subs courses with distinction. He had joined the Navy from Taunton School in 1936, and as a midshipman, first saw sea service in the Mediterranean, in the old battleship Malaya. His prowess and promise were recognised by his appointment in 1939 to the new fleet destroyer Kingston, only launched that January. He was to serve in her until she was lost three years later.

Their short but ferocious association actively began in June 1940 and in the Red Sea, less than a fortnight after Italy decided to enter the war. Thanks to some excellent naval intelligence, which had already borne fruit, Kingston and her sister ships Kandahar and Khartoum were not surprised to encounter the Italian submarine Torricelli off Perim Island. Their attack was interrupted by an internal explosion in Khartoum - not due to any enemy action as is sometimes thought - but no less successful; Torricelli surrendered and Kirkby was sent across to seek her confidential books. The submarine began to sink under him and he just got out of her conning tower in time. This effort brought his first DSC.

A year later Kirkby and his ship were involved in the evacuation first of Greece and then of Crete, when Kingston had the dubious distinction of operating north of the island where she was hit by a specialist German bomber squadron but earned the particular praise of the legendary Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, then Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet.

Kingston then saw some service in the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean against the Vichy French before taking part in the Second Battle of Sirte in March 1942 when Rear-Admiral Philip Vian and his 15th Cruiser Squadron and four destroyers so nobly and notably put to flight a nominally far superior Italian force. Kirkby in Kingston got within three miles of the Italian battleship Littorio which retaliated with a 15-inch salvo, narrowly missing the destroyer and forcing her to retire to Malta. There she was sunk in dock by an air attack on 11 April, her hull ending up as a blockship. These further efforts against Italy brought Kirkby his second DSC.

Kirkby then had an unusual and interesting attachment to the Long Range Desert Group, teaching them celestial navigation before coming home to join Melbreak, one of the improved Hunt class of light destroyers, of which he found himself in command at the age of 24 in the summer of 1943. He saw intense service in the Channel and the Western Approaches, the ship sinking five E-boats and six coasters before taking an inshore role off Omaha and Gold beaches in June 1944; Kirkby was mentioned in despatches. His third DSC was earned for spirited interference with German efforts to evacuate Le Havre, harrying them as far as Dieppe.

Kirkby went to the Far East in time for the liberation of Singapore and to become Staff Officer Operations to Flag Officer, Malaya, which reminded him of his first ship, and where he met the WRNS officer Daphne Spiller whom he married in 1946. He had three promising destroyer commands which pleased him. He was a legendary ship handler: he was encouragingly promoted early to Commander in 1950 but his purely naval appointments were limited. Even so, his promotion to Captain came in December 1957.

After two years as naval adviser to Pakistan and nearly three as Director of Naval Equipment at Bath, he got his final seagoing command as Captain of the cruiser Tiger, which became an accommodation ship at Gibraltar for the fruitless discussions about Rhodesian sovereignty between Harold Wilson and Ian Smith in the autumn of 1966. Kirkby superintended the naval funeral of Viscount Cunningham, his wartime Commander-in-Chief, was appointed CBE and then, suddenly, it seemed to the many who had assumed that he would reach the Flag list, was retired early in 1967.

Geoffrey Kirkby later joined the administrative staff of the new Bath University, where his officer-like qualities were an example to his colleagues, though at times he may have sighed for the Naval Discipline Act.

Geoffrey Kirkby, naval officer: born 26 August 1918; DSC 1940 and two bars 1942, 1944; CBE 1966; married 1946 Daphne Spiller (two daughters); died 24 October 1998.

When Kirkby went on board the surrendered Italian submarine Torricelli she began to sink under him; he just got out of her conning tower in time