Admiral Sir Hugo White: Commander who fought off Exocet attacks during the Falklands War and was later Governor of Gibraltar

The naval officer wanted to join the Navy from the age of nine after a school trip to a frigate

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The Independent Online

Hugo White commanded the “Fighting Fourth” frigate squadron in Britain’s naval task force in the Falklands war, and his ship, HMS Avenger, proved a lucky one. She escaped both an unidentified projectile that skimmed five feet above her deck, and an air-launched Exocet missile apparently making straight for her.

In return Avenger destroyed three shore-based gun batteries, a mobile radar station, an Argentine Skyhawk aircraft, and two Argentine encampments, and came through the war unscathed. Two of White’s squadron’s seven Type 21 frigates were sunk, however: HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope.

Various accounts exist of the Exocet attack, on 30 May 1982, when the Argentine High Command was striving to sink or disable the Task Force flagship HMS Hermes or her fellow aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. Many, including newspaper reports at the time, are plainly wrong, though in all of them admiration shines through for White, a much-loved captain.

One has him, before his astounded crew, personally calculating bearing and elevation with lightning mathematical ability, and with the perfectly-timed firing on his order of her single 4.5in gun, blowing the Exocet, at eight miles’ distance, to pieces. In fact Avenger downed an Argentine Skyhawk among four following behind two Super Etendards, of which one had fired the Exocet. White’s own account, as remembered by his family, was that Avenger’s decoy “chaff” diverted the Exocet. Two of the aircraft circled overhead, then sped back towards Argentina. Another ship, probably the destroyer HMS Exeter, was behind Avenger.

The Task Force commander, Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward, recorded in his 1992 memoir One Hundred Days his belief that a Sea Dart missile from HMS Exeter travelled close past Avenger, and that either Exeter’s second Sea Dart or Avenger’s 4.5in gun destroyed a Skyhawk. “Meanwhile,” Woodward added, “the Exocet, either poorly aimed or unserviceable, passed harmlessly mid-way between Exeter and Avenger... The other two Argentinian pilots .. went for Avenger... Their bombs, however, missed.”

White’s frigate squadron distinguished itself by blowing up an Argentine ammunition dump on Mount Harriet as the British land forces under Brigadier Julian Thompson began their final main offensive on 12 June. The well-aimed shot on this occasion was from HMS Active, under Commander (later Captain) Paul Canter, who died in 2006. Woodward assigned Avenger and Arrow, with the frigate Yarmouth and the destroyer Glamorgan, to support the land forces with naval bombardment. Arrow was also ready to assist special forces if need be.

The war won, Avenger took the surrender of an Argentine infantry regiment and some engineers at Fox Bay on 15 June. White sent her Lynx helicopter with his first lieutenant, Tony Bolingbroke, and a handful of comrades armed only with pistols, while she lay at anchor, taking across her bow the heavy seas whipped up by a force nine gale.

White had experienced clashes at sea in the decade before the Falklands, when he commanded the frigate HMS Salisbury during the 1976 cod wars with Iceland over territorial waters and fishing rights. Salisbury was slightly damaged in a collision with the Icelandic gunboat Tyr, and the following month had two collisions with another Icelandic vessel, Aegir.

His seagoing prowess, which included command as a submariner as well as a surface captain, was to lead to high office, setting him on land and at the centre of decision-making. He rose to be Commander in Chief, Fleet, between 1992 and 1995, as well as Allied C-in-C, Eastern Atlantic, Allied C-in-C, Channel, and Naval Commander, North-West Command.

Immediately after the Falklands war he was appointed principal staff officer to the Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Sir Edwin Bramall. He was to have one last taste of sea salt in command of the destroyer HMS Bristol, and be Flag Officer Third Flotilla, then Commander Anti-Submarine Warfare Striking Force, before becoming Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff between 1988 and 1991.

He helped to direct the 1991 Gulf War from headquarters at High Wycombe, and was knighted that year, going on to be Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland before assuming his ultimate Nato Atlantic and Channel commands. Britain rewarded him with the governorship of Gibraltar (1995-97), also raising him from KCB to GCB.

Hugo Moresby White was the great-great grandson of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Fairfax Moresby, after whom various places including Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea are named. In early childhood he was brought up by the staff of Mrs Marsham’s School, Coddington, near Ledbury, Herefordshire; his father was in the Colonial Service and his parents were posted during the Second World War to Nigeria.

The Dragon School, Oxford, which he later attended, stirred his naval blood when a housemaster arranged a visit on board a frigate, and he determined from that day, aged nine, that he would join the Royal Navy. He went on, by way of Pangbourne College, Berkshire, to Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth. His decision to become a submariner owed something to his maternal grandfather, Frank Brandt, captain of the cruiser HMS Monmouth under Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914.

Brandt, who went down with his ship – her turret ablaze, in one of the Royal Navy’s most poignant defeats, the British ships greatly outnumbered by more powerful German attackers – had happened earlier to command one of Britain’s first submarine flotillas.

White served in HMS Tabard, Tiptoe and Odin, and by 1967, after taking the long navigation course at HMS Dryad, Portsmouth, was navigation officer in one of Britain’s first nuclear-powered boats, HMS Warspite. He went on to be first lieutenant in HMS Osiris, then took command of HMS Oracle before joining the staff of BRNC Dartmouth until 1972. He was then on the staff of the Royal Navy’s Sea Training, and in 1975 took command back on the surface with HMS Salisbury. This was the ship in which his family joined him for their first visit together to the Rock that would be their future home.

Hugo Moresby White, naval officer: born Torquay 22 October 1939; CBE 1985, KCB 1991, GCB 1995; married 1966 Josephine Mary Lorimer Pedler (two sons); died Buckland Monachorum, Devon 1 June 2014.

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