Lt-Commander David Waters: Authority on the Atlantic convoy war

 

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

Part Time SEN 1:1 Teacher

£40 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experience SEN Te...

KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Shropsh...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits