Admiral Sir John Bush: Naval officer who saw distinguished action in the Mediterranean

American refusal to help Churchill capture three Aegean islands gave him 'the sharpest pangs'

Winston Churchill's last quixotic attempt to follow an independent British policy at sea in the Second World War was the theatre in which John Bush, a future Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff and Commander-in-Chief Western Fleet, proved himself three times a hero.

The Dodecanese Campaign of September to November 1943, when Britain grasped at the Aegean islands of Kos, Samos and Leros only to lose them, was the young naval officer's finest hour, adding a second Bar to his DSC. Night after night, Acting Lieutenant Commander Bush took his first command, the Hunt class destroyer Belvoir, into perilous waters under German artillery and beneath the bombs of Ju87s and 88s and Me109s to deliver ammunition, stores, Jeeps, guns and soldiers in the race with Germany for control of the islands, which had been held by Italy, after Italy's surrender to the Allies.

"It seemed to me a rebuff to fortune not to pick up these treasures," Churchill says of the islands in his memoir The Second World War. "If we could use the Aegean and the Dardanelles the naval short-cut to Russia was established." But US refusal to help gave him, he says, "one of the sharpest pangs I suffered in the war" ... The American pressure to disperse our trained assault shipping from the Mediterranean was very strong."

The letter informing Lt Cdr Bush of his latest decoration in April 1944 says it is awarded for his "courage, determination and skill", and the typed recommendation signed by Captain Levant, says, "HMS Belvoir has carried out two sweeps into the Aegean during which time troops and stores have been landed at Leros. Kos was also bombarded where a petrol dump was set on fire. During one of these sweeps Belvoir was hit by a bomb which fortunately failed to explode."

On the reverse of the flimsy Admiralty paper, the handwriting of that officer's superior, Vice-Admiral Algernon Willis, declares: "Recommended for Decoration. HMS Belvoir has done many more than two sweeps into the Aegean." Indeed, under Bush's command Belvoir made 16 sorties out of Alexandria, Limassol and other harbours, according to the official account of the campaign. She operated under cover of darkness and was frequently bombed.

The original plan, " Accolade", begun in September for a swift capture of Rhodes, strategically the most important island, was cancelled in October under American insistence, and Admiral Willis, in his address to be read out to ships' companies on 17 October, as Germany rushed forces to the area to foil the British, put a brave face on the dwindling chances of success given the minimal air support: "You are being called upon... to undertake a task which involves a most strenuous routine ...The scale of enemy air attack is considerable."

The next day, 18 October, Belvoir was boarded by Turkish officials and Bush had to resort to deception: "It was untruthfully explained that she had a defective boiler and the officials seemed satisfied." As the enemy invasion force assembled and looked likely to win, the "increasingly stiffening attitude of the [neutral] Turks" became a problem for the British ships. Leros finally fell to the enemy on 17 November, and the campaign, which some observers believe inspired Alistair MacLean's 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone, was over by 22 November. A small military party was left on the island of Kastellorizo while Belvoir returned to Alexandria.

Bush gained his first DSC for an action on 16 April 1941, when as a Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Nubian he had helped to sink an Italian convoy of five merchant vessels and three destroyers between Sicily and Tripoli. The recommendation says he receives the award "in his capacity as Executive Officer and Gunnery Control Officer, for the efficient manner in which the Ship was fought and the accuracy of the gunfire."

He won his Bar in the Battle of Crete between May and June 1941. The recommendation, dated 2 June, cites "outstanding courage and initiative in taking charge after the ship had been hit by a bomb, and the depth charges had exploded. He personally led a party between decks in the face of heavy fumes and smoke, with the knowledge that the magazines were in grave danger of exploding, and extinguished a fire." During May 1941 he was also Mentioned in Dispatches.

John Fitzroy Duyland Bush was educated at Clifton College, Bristol and joined the Royal Navy in 1933. He joined the Plans Division of the Admiralty in 1946, having been promoted Commander at the age of 32, after commanding the destroyers Zephyr and Chevron. He graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College in the US in 1949, commanded the destroyer HMS Cadiz, was promoted Captain in 1952, and became Deputy Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

By the time of Suez in 1956 he was Captain (F) of the Sixth Frigate Squadron on HMS Undine, a destroyer converted to an anti-submarine frigate. After a spell as Commodore, RN Barracks, Chatham, he became Director of Plans at the Admiralty and was promoted Rear-Admiral in 1961. He was Flag Officer Flotillas (Mediterranean) in 1962, then, having been promoted Vice-Admiral, became Commander, British Naval Staff and British Naval Attache, Washington.

As Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff from 1965-1967 he planned the Navy's future against competition for resources from the RAF and in January 1967 travelled to Cape Town to take part in the renegotiation of the 1955 Simonstown Agreement. He was knighted in 1965.

From 1967 he held the Nato posts of Commander-in-Chief, Western Fleet, C-in-C Eastern Atlantic, and C-in-C Channel, becoming Admiral in 1968. After his retirement in 1970 he held the honorary positions of Rear- and then Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom and Lieutenant of the Admiralty. He was also a director of the hospitals development company Gordon A Friesen International in Washington from 1970-73, and served from 1974-76 on East Hampshire District Council.

Anne Keleny

John Fitzroy Duyland Bush, naval officer: born Beach, Gloucestershire 1 November 1914; DSC 1941 and Bars 1941, 1944; CB 1963, KCB 1965, GCB 1970; married 1938, Ruth Kennedy Horsey (died 2013; two daughters, three sons); died East Tisted, Hampshire 10 May 2013.

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