Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Mackenzie: Obituary

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On 28 August 1996, at the Clyde Naval Base, the Prime Minister unveiled a plaque (soon to be placed in the RN Submarine Museum at Gosport) "dedicated to the men, both at sea and ashore, who kept the Polaris deterrent at sea" on a total of 229 patrols between June 1968 and May 1996. Simultaneously (and it was his last public duty), Vice- Admiral Sir Hugh Mackenzie unveiled a similar plaque. As Chief Polaris Executive from 1963 to 1968 he had brought the force into being, and it was fitting that the words, and the honour, should be his.

Hugh Stirling Mackenzie joined the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in January 1972, aged 13 and a half, as a naval cadet. That celebrated establishment - Alma Mater of the Royal Navy's officer corps of two world wars - was at its zenith, testimony to the vision of "Jacky" Fisher: catch them young, then educate and train them together, so that they shall become "all of one company". Competition for entry to the College was keen, and to ensure that no boy with the required potential should be excluded special terms were offered to, inter alia, "the sons of impoverished Highland gentlemen". Dr Mackenzie, though not impoverished, met the other criteria. Hugh, the youngest of his three sons (there was also a sister), was on the small side, with reddish hair. They were a close-knit family, brought up well and happily in the Highlands, within sight of the Moray Firth.

Soon known to his term-mates - and in due course to everyone else - as "Rufus", Mackenzie's naval career prospered. Like many young officers of his day, the prospect of continuing service in battleships appalled him, so despite a leaning initially towards the Fleet Air Arm, he volunteered for service in submarines, with the possibility of early command, and the attractions of, as he put it, "an independent way of life".

It was during the Second World War, in command of HM Submarine Thrasher in the Mediterranean (1941-43), and later of Tantalus in the Eastern Fleet (1943-45), that in a series of highly successful patrols Mackenzie made his name. Perhaps the highlight was on 29 June 1942, when, having maintained patrol in the precise position ordered, off Tobruk, he succeeded in torpedoing the Diana, Mussolini's fast, destroyer-like yacht, known (though not to Rufus Mackenzie) to be carrying hundreds of tons of cased petrol, without which Rommel's tanks could not advance further. For this and many other contributions to the campaign Mackenzie was awarded the DSO in 1942 and a bar in 1943. He was also awarded the DSC in 1945.

During his first post-war appointment, to the RN/RAF Joint Anti-Submarine School at Londonderry, Mackenzie met, fell in love with and married third officer WRNS Maureen Bradish-Ellames. Thereafter, with her devoted support, his naval career went from strength to strength, leading in 1962 to his appointment as Flag Officer Submarines, the head of the Submarine Service. This, as he wrote, "more than fulfilled every wish or ambition" he may have had professionally.

But on 2 January 1963, as Rear Admiral Mackenzie, he found himself in an empty room on the ground floor of North Block of the Admiralty building, having been required to take leave abruptly of his staff at Fort Blockhouse and become Chief Polaris Executive.

"I now began," he recalled, "the most strenuous five years of my whole career, but also in the end the most satisfying, because of their direct contribution to the ultimate defence of this country." Many talented and energetic people, both naval and civilian, were directly involved in the British Polaris project; and the willing support of the US Navy's Special Projects group was indispensable.

But Mackenzie's quietly authoritative leadership and professional grasp were exactly what was required. As recorded by Rear Admiral Shepherd, Deputy Controller (Polaris): "We planned in 1963 to fire our first missile at 1115 EST (Eastern Standard Time) on 15 February 1968; we failed by 15 milliseconds. We were told in 1963 that there must be a continuous deterrent from July 1968; this was achieved." And within budget.

The Sword of Damocles was the title chosen by Mackenzie for his memoirs (1995). As they reveal, his retirement from naval service in 1968 was far from inactive. Chairmanship of The Navy League engaged him in promoting the well- being of British youth; and Directorship of the Atlantic Salmon Trust was most congenial to so keen a fisherman as well as helpful to the conservation of the species. In 1982, only his exceptional bravery and presence of mind enabled him, when badly burned himself, to rescue his wife from their blazing car, just in time to save her life, after an overtaking vehicle had hit them.

In the preface to his book Rufus Mackenzie, hitherto reticent on such matters, hopes that it will "demonstrate that certain principles, particularly a sense of service and acceptance of duty and responsibility, remain an essential part of an evolving world, and can play their part without detriment to a full and happy life", and he affirms that "faith and belief in a Christian manner of thinking" were basic to the way in which he tried to conduct his own.

Hugh Stirling Mackenzie, naval officer: born Inverness 3 July 1913; DSO 1942 and bar 1943; DSC 1945; CB 1963, KCB 1966; Chief, Polaris Executive 1963-68; married 1946 Maureen Bradish-Ellames (one son, two daughters); died 9 October 1996.