Nicholas Hunt: Naval officer who commanded Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines and later headed the Channel Tunnel project


Nicholas Hunt's mettle was tested not by war, but by innumerable human and mechanical scrapes in which he showed the wisdom either to be conciliatory, or remain aloof. As Commander-in-Chief, Fleet and Allied C-in-C, Channel and Eastern Atlantic, from 1985-87, and operational commander of Britain's Trident nuclear missile-carrying submarines, he witnessed at close hand the beginning of the end of both the Cold War and the government of Margaret Thatcher.

What under-the-surface arguments he must have known of, in 1986, the year the Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine stormed out of Cabinet, is hinted at by a waspish reference to the Royal Navy three years later from the diarist Alan Clark, who was Mrs Thatcher's Minister of State for Defence Procurement from 1989: "I am impatient with the sluggish pace, the caution and derivativeness of our warship design... clever and original naval architects... are feared and disliked by the huge overstaffed troglodyte Admiralty settlement at Bath."

Hunt's period as C-in-C coincided with the height of the controversy over anti-submarine ship design when a report advocating "short, fat" hulls for future warships was followed by an inquiry, the issuing of writs and questions in Parliament, while orders were being placed for the Royal Navy's Type 23 destroyer. The controversial hull design was known as the S90, and appears to have incorporated water-jets and ideas from aerodynamic disciplines.

Hunt's views on the matter are not known, but his acquaintance with its issues was extensive, his early commands having been anti-submarine frigates and destroyers. One of the Parliamentary questioners was his predecessor in high naval appointments, Admiral of the Fleet Lord (Peter) Hill-Norton. Eventually the Navy stuck with the traditional long, thin shape.

Hunt went on in retirement to remain calm at the centre of another fray, in one of the most contentious grands projets of the era, the Channel Tunnel. From 1987-89 he was deputy managing director, organisation and development, of Eurotunnel, the company which gave out the construction contract. Keeping his feet dry despite a career launched in the cold, grey waters of the North Sea in his first command, the 1952-built Ton class minesweeper HMS Burnaston, was a destiny that crept up on him with promotions demanding a capacity for charm and human warmth at which he excelled. His appointment as assistant private secretary to the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina, in 1959, followed command of the anti-submarine frigate HMS Palliser, launched in 1956.

His royal duties included attending to the children of the Greek-born duchess whose husband, the Duke, was killed in 1942 flying with the RAF. Hunt accompanied Marina's daughter Princess Alexandra when, at 24, and not yet married, she represented the Queen in tiara and sparkling, full-skirted tulle dress, with an escort of mounted lancers, at the celebrations for Nigeria's independence in 1960.

Hunt then commanded the T-class destroyer HMS Troubridge, which had been converted to an anti-submarine fast Type XV frigate. She formed part of the 27th Escort Squadron, and on her new commissioning in September 1964 operated mainly in the Mediterranean.

During his command, members of the ship's crew of 189 provided the landing party in the 1963 film of William Golding's Lord of the Flies that rescues the schoolboys stranded on an island. At this time Hunt, the son of Indian Army Brigadier John Montgomerie Hunt of the 2nd Punjab Regiment, met his wife, Meriel Givan, a naval nurse serving in Malta. They married in 1966 and had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy, and two sons, one of whom is the current Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt.

In 1969 Hunt encountered the mindset of a superior who was heading, as he was himself, towards captaincy of corporations in the civilian world. This was Captain Raymond Lygo of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, later a full admiral and, in the 1980s, chief executive of British Aerospace. Hunt was Lygo's executive officer on Ark Royal, and the two of them headed into an international incident in November 1970 when the ship was holed 4ft above the water line by Bravyy, a Soviet-guided missile destroyer shadowing her off Crete. A number of Russian sailors fell overboard, the raised propeller guard of Bravyy having a "tin-opener" effect on Ark Royal's steel stem contour plate. On-the-spot repairs were made to prevent flooding from her bow wave. A Naval Board of Inquiry exonerated Lygo. Two Russians died; Royal Navy vessels picked the others up.

Hunt's ascent was via the Royal College of Defence Studies and command of the amphibious LPD (Landing Platform, Dock) HMS Intrepid, followed by the post of Director of Naval Plans from 1976-78, then Captain, Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth – where he had been educated from the age of 13 – and Flag Officer Second Flotilla, 1980-81.

He missed going to sea during the 1982 Falklands War, spending 1981-83 as Director-General of Naval Manpower and Training. From 1983-85 he was Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland and Port Admiral, Rosyth.

The capsizing in 1987, with 193 lives lost, of the Herald of Free Enterprise car ferry that sailed from Zeebrugge with bow doors open caused interviewers to seek Hunt's opinion, and he later served as Director-General of the Chamber of Shipping (now UK Chamber of Shipping), which represents Britain's merchant fleet. He took over for six years from 1991, and after the IRA bombed its headquarters at the Baltic Exchange building in the City of London late on 10 April 1992, he helped pick up the pieces, including library books, that had landed in the street. His wife Meriel stood at his side next morning armed with supplies of hard hats and croissants for all. He was Rear Admiral of the United Kingdom in 1994, and from 1997-2001 Vice Admiral of the UK.

Nicholas John Streynsham Hunt, naval officer: born Hawarden, Flintshire 7 November 1930; married 1966 Meriel Eve Givan (two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); DL, LVO 1961; KCB 1985; GCB 1987; died Shere, Surrey 25 October 2013.