Obituary: Vice-Admiral Sir Ronald Brockman
Monday 13 September 1999
Over the last two centuries, pursers have become paymasters, and paymasters have become supply officers, and now all officers, men and women, are nominally one company. But there is an ancient sub-species of the purser, the secretary to a senior officer and their independence is enshrined in their tribal name - the Supply and Secretariat Officers. The traditional association of a supply officer acting as secretary to a particular Captain or Admiral through a number of successive appointments has been abolished - wrongly, it seems to some - but one of its best examples was the classic case of Ronald Brockman and the Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
When Ronald Brockman, the elder son of a Rear-Admiral, entered the Royal Navy in 1927 from Weymouth College, it was as a Paymaster Cadet. After his sub-lieutenant's sea time in the beautiful but ill- armoured battle-cruiser Hood, the younger Enterprise, fastest cruiser in the Fleet, and the older Caledon, he had brief appointments in the twin battleships Nelson and Rodney.
It was then that his secretarial career took off. As a Paymaster Lieutenant he became Assistant Secretary to the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Backhouse, in 1938; an instructive appointment since Backhouse's temperamental inability to delegate caused his Chief of Staff to resign and led to his own premature death. His successor, Dudley Pound, retained Brockman and for four years the young Paymaster Lt-Cdr served that remote man loyally and patiently, increasing in experience through trying to protect the tiring Admiral from the sometimes unrealistic exhortations of an unnecessarily demanding Prime Minister.
Pound died four years after Backhouse, to some extent another victim of high office, and in 1943 Brockman, now a Paymaster Commander and, unusual for his rank and seniority, a CBE, was taken up as Secretary by Acting Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, recently appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command. For the next 22 years they were to serve together, each developing as they went abilities and sensitivities sometimes particularly helpful to the other, and demonstrating the wisdom of letting a professional pair develop as a team. The indefatigable secretary worked no less hard than the born supremo.
This political awareness was invaluable to Brockman as Private Secretary to the last Viceroy and first Governor-General of India, but the strain was enormous and for a time Brockman's health was threatened. But he recalled what had happened to his previous masters and all was well. The range and weight of responsibility was great, especially for one so junior; he was not promoted Captain until 1953.
His health and professional advancement benefited from his continued attachment to his Admiral who rejoiced at the resumption of his career afloat: reverting to his substantive rank of Rear-Admiral, he became commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron, in the Mediterranean, defined by his Secretary as "a wonderful holiday after nine years flat out".
In 1950 Mountbatten returned to become Fourth Sea Lord, perhaps not the most exciting post on the Board of Admiralty and certainly the least spectacular for the rising Admiral. But again he was sustained by the loyal friendship of his Secretary, and rewarded by promotion to Admiral and the command of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1952, his responsibilities enhanced the next year by the Nato command of that theatre. Here he owed much to Brockman's delicacy and success in furthering a better and easier relationship between his Admiral and the senior American Admiral.
Mountbatten's appointment as First Sea Lord in 1955 realised an ambition to hold that office which he had cherished since 1914 when, as a cadet, he had seen his father displaced from it on the grounds of his Teutonic birth - he who, when chided by the Kaiser for preferring to serve in the Royal Navy than in the German, had courteously but clearly pointed out that when he had joined the former, the latter did not exist. Brockman found himself back where he had been when his war started in 1939.
Mountbatten went on with effortless ease to become Chief of the Defence Staff in 1959, when Brockman was promoted Rear-Admiral. They had weathered Suez and the reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence, Brockman designated Principal Staff Officer to the CDS, and active still in curbing the occasional political urges of his chief within and without the Services, until both retired in 1956 when Brockman was created KCB. He had also received several prestigious foreign awards.
He became a Gentleman Usher to the Queen, his Lord High Admiral, in 1967 and served until 1979 when he was made CVO and appointed an extra Gentleman Usher.
After the Navy, Brockman's principal interest was rugby. This might seem a strange pursuit for a bespectacled pusser, but he was a member of the game's governing committee for over 40 years.
Ronald Vernon Brockman, naval officer: born 8 March 1909; Assistant Secretary to First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Backhouse 1938-39; Admiral's Secretary to First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound 1939-43; CBE 1943; Admiral's Secretary to Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten in all appointments 1943-59; CIE 1946; CSI 1947; Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of Defence Staff, Ministry of Defence 1959-65; KCB 1965; married 1932 Marjorie Jean Butt (died 1994; one son, three daughters); died Lympstone, Devon 3 September 1999.
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