Obituary: Admiral of the Fleet Sir William Staveley
Thursday 16 October 1997
William Staveley joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1942 and retired in 1989 as Chief of the Naval Staff and First Sea Lord, in a conspicuously successful career which reflected Milton's comment about "virtuous Father, virtuous son". Staveley's father had retired as an Admiral; his maternal grandfather was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Doveton Sturdee, who had avenged Craddock's disastrous defeat at Coronel by sinking von Spee's battle cruisers off the Falklands in 1914.
With such ancestry, William Staveley's career seemed inevitable in both pattern and achievement. It had a singularly promising start - an early appointment as Flag Lieutenant to the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, a tour of duty in the Royal Yacht and then two years as an officer at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, by whose standards even the young Staveley was outstanding. In all those appointments he impressed his seniors and his juniors, albeit in different ways, by his unflagging zeal, dedication to duty and determined purpose, growing more and more into the manner born.
He was promoted early to Commander at the age 32, and saw active service in command of a mine-sweeping squadron deployed as coastal patrol craft off Brunei in 1982 and Malaysia in 1983. His appointers did him well and he returned their compliments. A shore appointment at the Portland Training Base in Dorset, as Commander Sea Training, kept his hand and eye in, and then after command of the frigate Zulu he was promoted Captain in 1967, after barely seven years as Commander.
His next job was in the Naval Plans division, the first of several in Whitehall, but he was given two more seagoing appointments, commanding Intrepid, one of the two assault ships, and Albion, the commando carrier, before a second planning post, this time as Director of Naval Plans, led with apparent inevitability to the Flag List in 1977. His peers continued to observe his rather solitary path to further promotion - his efficiency seemed fantastic to some and almost depressing to others, but it sustained him, unabated, throughout his career.
He flew his flag as Rear- Admiral Carriers and Amphibious Ships, by then the Navy's major conventional warships, which was his first experience of a coterminous Nato appointment, as Commander Carrier Strike Force Two. Then appointment as Chief of Staff to Commander-in-Chief Fleet introduced him to the headquarters at Northwood.
Meanwhile he was promoted Vice-Admiral in 1980 and appointed Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff under Sir Henry Leach as Chief of the Naval Staff and First Sea Lord. Staveley was not to see service afloat again, though his service ashore was no less turbulent. Those were the days of John Nott's lamentable defence review and of Command 8288, that fantastical White Paper. Staveley did well to help retrieve the situation, and the Falklands campaign was a fortunate opportunity for the Navy to demonstrate the need for a more realistic balance of capabilities than Nott had envisaged. His heart must have leapt at the possibility of one more command afloat, but the task force needed only one flag officer at sea, and that a Rear- Admiral. Staveley was denied the opportunity to emulate Sturdee.
He was perhaps consoled in 1981 by being appointed KCB, though again many reflected that unlike some, he did not have to shed a nickname or an affectionate diminutive to return to the formal given name that was required. He was always thought of as William by most people. But he returned to Northwood, as an Admiral, Commander-in-Chief and Allied Commander-in-Chief Channel and Eastern Atlantic. With customary honesty, and irrespective of political popularity, he urged on the Government his appreciation of the Allies' serious deficiency in the number of small craft needed because of the Soviet threat.
He succeeded Sir Henry Leach, with whom he had much in common, as First Sea Lord in 1985. No single or particular event characterised his time in office, and the culmination of his naval career may thus seem less memorable than others. But he fought forcefully and fruitfully in defence of the Navy's case for the resources it needed for its national and international tasks.
He had more to do with the integration of the WRNS and the employment of women at sea than is generally realised. Partly because of a perceived manpower shortage but partly because of the notion of political correctness which was beginning to influence policies, the Navy had to go further and faster than Staveley thought right. He envisaged women serving afloat in due course, but thought it wiser that they should first serve in, perhaps, the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries or the surveying ships, so that lessons might be studied before they embarked in other warships.
He retired from the naval staff in 1989 in the rank of Admiral of the Fleet. He was no less energetic or dedicated and did much good work on many fronts. He was prominent in the NHS and particularly successful as Chairman of the Chatham Dockyard Historical Trust where his role may in time be seen as equal in importance to that of Sturdee, in the preservation of HMS Victory. But the Royal Horticultural Society, Trinity House, English Heritage and the council of the University of Kent at Canterbury, the Kent Lieutenancy, his local Hunt and the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights all benefited from his energetic support, and his last years were as useful and as satisfying as those he had devoted to the Navy.
In retrospect, it is sad that he was one of the less approachable admirals and that as a more junior officer he did not relax enough to reveal more of the man and less of the officer. He never courted popularity and his chosen style did not attract it. But he might have earned more, especially if he had been able to unbutton what sense of humour he had. He was however a remarkably dedicated man who will be remembered with very great respect if, alas, with somewhat less affection.
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