Willie Waters had a lucky night on 13–14 August 1940. Disorientated when flares went out during a low-level torpedo attack on German shipping at Augusta, Sicily, he ploughed his "Stringbag" into the harbour and was fortunate to be pulled out unhurt by Italians: "the Germans," he recalled, "would have shot us."
Imprisonment on Poviglio island, near Venice, found him and his fellow-prisoner Michael Kyrle Pope (later rear-admiral) enjoying evenings with the Italian commandant, a pre-war philosopher with a Polish wife, and borrowing his books – though "execrable French" was Waters' only means of communication. With Pope – a junior officer of the submarine Oswald – he also headed off the near-linching of its captain and first lieutenant, whose crew mutinied in camp after falling into enemy hands, with three dead, through command incompetence.
Waters, Pope and two other men were later caught hiding in a roof, aiming to steal a boat for Yugoslavia: they were instead roughed up and marched in handcuffs to Sulmona. Cattle-truck shipment to Marlag O, the German naval camp near Bremen, followed in 1942; Waters ended the war there as a lieutenant-commander, studying and teaching history using books supplied through the Red Cross.
David Waters was born in Cornwall in 1911, the younger son of a naval engineer-lieutenant killed in 1915 when HMS Formidable became the first warship loss to submarine-launched torpedo in the First World War: his aviator brother William died in 1943, falling into the sea from HMS Illustrious.
Their widowed mother raised the boys in a poor area of Plymouth and in 1925 David followed William (hence "Little Willie") to Dartmouth Royal Naval College, which they attended free as naval orphans, but where illness delayed his progress. In 1929 he joined the battleship Barham as a cadet. He was on the cruiser Berwick from 1930 in China and Japan, and was made lieutenant in 1934, in the Achilles at home.
The following year he trained as a Fleet Air Arm pilot and in 1937, as adjutant of 824 Naval Air Squadron, returned to the Far East in HMS Eagle. There he resumed his earlier study of Chinese junks, on which he published a number of original papers, and while convalescent ashore at Weihaiwei in 1938, had various scale-models built there by a Chinese team under Tung Ya, a local carpenter. Several, including two he donated in 1939, are in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (NMM), uniquely accurate records of the now-vanished types they represent.
In spring 1940 he was a flying instructor in Fairey Swordfish – training near Toulon but also making June bombing raids on the Italian coast – until the fall of France prompted a hazardous night escape to Algeria, then Malta. Risk of obstruction meant the French were not told; the only map available was a school atlas and, to save the ground crew, five men packed into three-seater aircraft. Malta's apparent air reinforcement briefly foxed Axis reconnaissance and it was from there (in 830 NAS, or Naval Air Squadron) that Waters flew his last sortie.
In 1936 Waters won the Admiralty Gold Medal for Naval History and in 1946, back on home flying duties, gained a further Special Award. An offer to read Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, met naval refusal to release him but led indirectly later that year to his transfer into the new Naval Historical Branch, to help research the Naval Staff history of the war at sea.
In 1950 he turned civilian, as Admiralty Historian (Shipping Defence), and was principal author of The Defeat of the Enemy Attack upon Shipping (1957), which he rated his most important work. Classified for 30 years and reprinted in 1997, it was a strategically influential study of the North Atlantic convoy war, a topic on which he was fascinating. At the same time he began his still-standard Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times (1958).
This was a personal project supported by Henry C Taylor, an American collector, who paid school fees for the family Waters had gained in 1946 when he married his brother's widow, Hope, who already had a son and adopted daughter. A long-standing joint interest with her was the breeding and judging of Salukis, a field in which both became well known, not least as co-authors of The Saluki in History, Art, and Sport (1969).
From 1960 to 1976 Waters was at Greenwich as Head of Navigation and Astronomy at the NMM, where his high standards and organisational abilities had an enduring effect, and he played a key part in converting the old Royal Observatory for full museum opening in 1967. He was, in addition, NMM Secretary (1968–71) and then Deputy Director to 1978, continuing to oversee historical work, encourage new talent and maintain his own research output.
Exceptionally for a civil servant, he retired at only 67, then held two visiting professorships in Canada and the US, an early Caird Fellowship at Greenwich and a final one at the John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island, in 1990. Among many specialist affiliations, he was long-serving Vice-President (1972–81) of the British Society for the History of Science, and its President from 1976–78. His last book was his catalogue of English maritime books printed before 1801 (1995, with Thomas R Adams) but he also worked on a sequel to his Art of Navigation (itself reissued in 1978): this reached an edited draft but remains unpublished.
Waters and his wife separated in his retirement, when she went to pursue dog-judging interests in Canada. He then lived, latterly in the Cotswolds, with his cousin Marilyn Reynolds until 2003, when both joined her children near Christchurch, New Zealand. A small, fierce-looking figure, his hair white by the late 1960s, Waters could be lively company, especially with a female audience susceptible to his wicked smile and drinks going round. While his short-term recall faded, his longer memory did not and he gave lucid advice on Chinese junks for a specialist article printed just before his 100th birthday.
For a man whose variable early health included TB caught in prison camp, and who survived pneumonia in his late nineties, he remained – though frail – resilient and in good spirits to the end.
David Watkin Waters, sailor and naval historian: born St German's, Cornwall 2 August 1911; married 1946 Hope Waters (died 2009; one stepdaughter, and one stepson,deceased); died Christchurch, New Zealand 28 November 2012.