Obituary: Vice-Admiral Sir Fitzroy Talbot

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The Independent Culture
FITZROY TALBOT enjoyed the 88 years of his life, half of which he spent in the Royal Navy.

His first ambition had been to be a soldier, and a cavalryman to boot, which was not perhaps altogether surprising since his mother had been named after the 1864 Derby winner, Blair Athol. But his father was a distinguished Captain RN and two cousins were admirals: Sandhurst lost to Dartmouth and he entered in 1923. He passed out in 1926, much nearer the bottom than the top of his term - nearly four-fifths of the way down. And yet he - and a contemporary one place even lower - were the only two who rose to the flag list. This seemingly capricious outcome characterised his naval career. He was fortunate in his ability to ride out the changing patterns in his life so philosophically - "That's life, and you can't please everyone all the time," as he wrote in his memoirs, Old Rope.

This was just as well, for Fate dealt him some hard knocks to start with, some of them positively unfair, as opposed to merely unfortunate. Otherwise he typified that generation who were very junior officers in 1939 and who were lucky to end the war as commanders - and who then were fortunate in their appointments in a shrinking service and an uncertain peace.

He first went to sea in 1927 as a midshipman in Royal Oak, in time for the legendary courts-martial which resulted from a misguided remark about the quaintly named bandmaster of the ship by the Rear-Admiral flying his flag in her. These in turn involved two officers and their commander-in- chief, whose careers all went awry. Talbot's captain reported pointedly that his "only redeeming feature is his sense of humour".

Life as a sub-lieutenant was no less problematical. He went to the China station in the new county class cruiser Cumberland and returned to the older light cruiser Centaur whence, to the regret of his seniors and the wrath of his relations, he opted out of general service for the Fleet Air Arm. This was an unfortunate diversion; another aircraft collided with his and, though he survived, it was with a permanently damaged ankle that ended his flying career.

Rejoining the Fleet, he was appointed again to Royal Oak in the Mediterranean and from her to Bryony, ostensibly classed as a despatch vessel (the remnant of an earlier vocabulary, still retained despite the existence of wireless telegraphy), and de facto the private yacht of the Commander-in-Chief. Here, for two happy years, he was officially required to combine business with pleasure, his principal duties concerned with providing polo facilities for senior officers.

Such virtue brought its own reward. While still a Lieutenant he was given his own command, albeit of the coal-fired 1918 minesweeper infelicitously named Stoke, displacing all of 710 tons and, though a year younger than Bryony, only half her size - but his own ship. She had an uneventful commission, which was perhaps just as well, for it led to Talbot's appointment to the new destroyer Imperial, as First Lieutenant. This took him to the Mediterranean again, and the Spanish Civil War; when the Second World War broke out he was removed, still a Lieutenant with seniority of 1932, to command the 10th Anti-Submarine Striking Force, a rather grandiloquent title for four trawlers taken up from trade but, again, a command.

He had little to report beyond survival, an achievement of its own in the memorably hard first winter of the war, until they were sent to the relief of the ill-found Norwegian expeditionary force at Andalsnes in April 1940. They lifted nearly 5,000 men in two runs a night until, on the fourth evening, Talbot's Cape Siretoko was bombed and her captain wounded in his left arm and hand. He demonstrated style by pausing to have a public shave between beaching his ship and ditching any confidential books on board. He came home in Glasgow, with King Haakon of Norway, the king's son and much of his nation's gold reserves. Talbot was awarded the DSO, unusual for a Lieutenant, and after his wounds were healed, was sent with a half stripe to command the 3rd MGB flotilla at Fowey.

He soon saw action off the French coast, and nearer home in July when his own MGB46 made a high-speed transit of Plymouth Sound and the Hamoaze to detonate acoustic mines which were closing the port. Surprisingly this feat received no official recognition and it may be significant that, after a riotous party soon afterwards in Fowey, a board of inquiry was critical of Talbot's leadership. This was bad enough. But soon after that, he was found ashore, while his boat was at sea, by a visiting staff officer (a VC of the First World War who Talbot described as "a slightly unbalanced fire-eater") who advised their lordships that he was "unfitted for any type of command". This was palpably unfair, but matters were made worse by an explanatory letter from Talbot's own Flag Officer to the Admiralty being destroyed in an air-raid. His hopes of a destroyer disappeared and he was sent to Edinburgh as a supernumerary watch-keeper.

This was something of a public rebuke, but fortunately she was a happy ship with a good captain who soon appreciated Talbot's zeal and appointed him as First Lieutenant. This demonstration of professional recognition and a glowing report, accompanied by a letter to the Second Sea Lord based on the experience of a convoy to Cape Town, two to Malta and being torpedoed on the way home from Murmansk - again carrying foreign gold - led to Talbot's first destroyer command, of the old Whitshed with the 16th Destroyer Flotilla at Harwich.

In December 1942 he led a spirited but little-known and seldom- reported night attack against a German convoy off Dieppe in which a mine destructor ship was sunk and for which he was awarded a bar to his DSO. Now he went on, a Lieutenant- Commander, to command the new destroyer Teazer, supporting the Allied advances in Italy and the landings in the South of France in 1943 and 1944. In 1945 he was promoted Commander and his last wartime appointment - as onerous as any he had held, in its own way - was as Chief Staff Officer to Vice-Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson, who was serving as Commodore Western Isles and was better-known in Tobermory as "Monkey".

When the uncertain and troubled peace came, Talbot was lucky in his various appointments. It in no way belittles him to say that he became a classic example of the right man being in the right place at the proverbial right time. He was commanding another despatch vessel, Alert, in China, when Amethyst escaped. Promoted Captain in 1950, he had the challenging, if shore-based, job of Naval Attache in Moscow, then Helsinki, before a year at the Imperial Defence College in 1954.

As Captain (D) in Saintes he saw the Cypriot troubles of 1955 and took part in the futile Anglo-French attempt to retrieve the Suez Canal the next year. Then he had one of the then much fewer broad pennants as Commodore RN Barracks Portsmouth before promotion to Rear-Admiral in 1960, after 10 years as a Captain.

He expressed modest astonishment that a man with no staff training and no Whitehall experience, but with a propensity to upset civil servants, should be employed on the flag list, but nevertheless found himself a CB and FO Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.

As a Vice-Admiral in 1962 he became one of the last Commanders-in-Chief South Atlantic and South Africa, much of his attention directed to Simonstown. In all the appointments, his relaxed and diplomatic manner was apparent, and successful. His last appointment was as Commander-in-Chief Plymouth 1963-65, where he was appointed KBE in 1964.

He had a happy life, and was proud of his career and contented in retirement, which he spent farming in Somerset. He rode with the Taunton Vale foxhounds of which, like the Taunton Vale Polo Club, he was the Chairman. He was a Deputy Lieutenant of Somerset from 1973, and served the Crown as cheerfully, willingly and philosophically as he had done the Royal Navy.

Arthur Allison Fitzroy Talbot, naval officer: born 22 October 1909; DSO 1940, and bar 1942; CB 1961; KBE 1964; married 1940 Joyce Linley (died 1981; two daughters), 1983 Lady (Elizabeth) Durlacher (died 1995); died 16 June 1998.