Rear-Admiral Hugh Balfour

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The Independent Culture
WHEN CAPTAIN Balfour took Exeter into the Falklands War in May 1982 he was no stranger to the South Atlantic. Five years earlier, as a junior captain in command of Phoebe, he had led Alacrity and the Royal Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine, Dreadnought, to trail their coats, showing the flag as a warning to the agitated Argentinians not to do anything provocative, such as testing the 200-mile fishing zone around the islands to which they were becoming prone, under their new junta led by General Galtieri.

Covertly despatched, the ships' sudden, silent and overt presence had the desired effect until the ill-considered defence review initiated five years later by John Nott, the Secretary of State for Defence. This withdrew the traditional naval presence, manifest by the Navy's ice-patrol ship Endurance, which suggested to the Argentinians a total surrender of British interests and seduced them into an exhilarated invasion of the islands whose sovereignty they had long claimed.

Balfour was then in command of the West Indies guardship, tasked to reassure British troops in Belize and other ex-patriots in that part of the world, to entertain the deserving at the traditional cocktail parties and generally to show a benevolent flag. It is not certain whether he had been given any guidance and if he hadn't it is all the more credit to him for showing officer-like qualities in perceiving the likely diversion of his ship to join Admiral Woodward's Task Force and acting accordingly in anticipation by working up her company to a war footing via a series of exercises in air defence and damage control while still leading the diplomatic life. These seamanlike precautions paid off at once when she was redeployed on 5 May.

Inexplicably she took 17 days to reach her new station during which Sheffield and Antelope were sunk and Glasgow disabled. But on her way Exeter met the tanker British Esk, taking home the survivors from Sheffield from whose captain, Sam Salt, Balfour had a most useful tactical briefing.

Exeter joined the Task Force on 22 May, two days after the amphibious assault had started, and at once demonstrated her abilities, enhanced by her Type 1022 radar which did much to retrieve the critical situation in aircraft detection. She played a notable role in repelling an attack to which the Argentinians had committed their last airborne Exocet missile. This was calmly dealt with by the smaller frigate Avenger, perhaps almost more perturbed by Exeter's first firing of a Sea Dart missile which came roaring low over her, disconcerting her patrolling helicopter before bringing down an escorting enemy Sky Hawk at five miles.

This was the legendary occasion when Balfour called for a drink, which came on a silver tray borne by his steward to the operations room, where he thoughtfully sipped it slowly to the diversion of his watch-keepers. Some thought he might have spliced the mainbrace: it is possible that elsewhere others may have thought differently, for it seemed singularly unreasonable to many outside his ship's company that their captain was not even mentioned in despatches when - eventually - the campaign honours list was published. His final action had been to shoot down the most senior enemy pilot killed in that short war.

Hugh Balfour was born in 1933 in Malta, the home of many naval officers and their families between the two world wars: his father was serving in the Mediterranean Fleet. He went to Kelly College at Tavistock and entered the Service in 1951 when the Montague Committee on Cadet Entry and Training was reporting on the selection and training of junior officers. Osborne had closed in 1922, Dartmouth was very different from what it had been; there was restless uncertainty about aims and means.

Balfour went on to specialise in signals and qualified in 1959. He went to Rothesay, a Type 12 frigate, as a watch-keeper (1960-62) and in 1963, still a lieutenant, received his first command, the coastal minesweeper (CMS) Sheraton. He went for the first time to the West Indies as Staff Officer Operations and Senior Communications Officer to the Senior Naval Officer West Indies (Snowi) in 1965-67 and on his return married Sheila Waldon in 1968; they had two daughters and a son.

He went to command his first frigate, Whitby, another Type 12, and did a spell on the Beira Patrol off Mozambique, notionally stopping the delivery of oil to Ian Smith's rebellious government which had unilaterally declared the independence of Rhodesia and who was in fact getting all the oil he needed from his southern neighbour.

Balfour was acquiring a reputation for driving his ships' companies hard in the pursuit of their efficiency but he never had an unhappy ship because he was firm but fair, thinking himself into the minds of his men and doing his best for their welfare. On one occasion he chased a fast liner bound for the UK and at 20 knots and 100 feet persuaded her captain to accept home mail by jackstay transfer.

This sort of practical leadership endeared him to his ship's company; his next appointment, as Commander (Communications) at Dryad, the RN Tactical School, emphasised his professional skills. He went on to become Commander of the Royal Yacht Britannia (1972-74), traditionally a "promotion" appointment; she took Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips to the West Indies and the Galapagos on their honeymoon, returning via Pitcairn Island and New Zealand on a voyage which included a mammoth tow by the Royal Yacht of her escorting tanker over more than 1,000 miles of the South Pacific.

Balfour was appointed LVO in 1974, promoted Captain out of the Yacht and appointed to command Phoebe in 1976 for another acquaintance with southern latitudes. After her diplomatic deployment he went to be Deputy Director of Command, Control and Communications and Chief Signals Officer (1979-81).

His successful advocacy of satellite communications for the Fleet paid off with great reward in the Falklands campaign. In that, Exeter was his last seagoing command, after it came his last employment in the Royal Navy as Director of the Maritime Tactical School (1983-85), to which he brought his recent practical experiences, essential for keeping charged the batteries of what can easily become a theoretical establishment. In this case experience was enhanced by his intellectual perceptions and original thinking, and he was promoted to the Flag List.

He went on, a rear-admiral, to command the Navy of the Sultan of Oman for five years, before turning it over to the Sultan's son in 1990. This hand-over symbolised the end of an unusual exercise of British seapower. Since 1853, when local sheikhs of piratical propensities were coerced into signing a General Maritime Truce, a naval presence had been guaranteed in the troubled waters of the Gulf, in parallel to one in the field exerted by the Trucial Scouts, traditionally commanded by a British officer.

Balfour's was a small force of small craft but it was by far the best trained and led force in that area, which is dominated by the Straight of Hormuz, a passage essential for a great proportion of the world's oil supplies. His command ensured the respect of his employers through his loyalty and dedication to the service to which he had been seconded.

After that he found no naval future. He was appointed CB and his name transferred to the Retired List in 1990, distinguished by the addition of the Order of Oman to his post-nominals. He was a sound student of men and a good communicator in the widest sense. He seemed happier and more at home bare-headed in his woolly pully than formal dinner jacket and under a cap. When the going got rough he could cope at the time and reflect fruitfully afterwards. He was a good man, a good officer, and a good example.

Hugh Maxwell Balfour, naval officer: born 29 April 1933; LVO 1974; CB 1990; married 1958 Sheila Weldon (one son, two daughters); died 29 June 1999.