Obituary: Admiral of the Fleet Sir Varyl Begg

Varyl Begg was decorated for gallantry in both the Second World War and the Korean War and became the first product of a public school to be appointed professional head of the Royal Navy. A big, good-looking man, he was blessed with great presence and was respected as one who tempered determination with tact.

Begg became First Sea Lord at one of the least propitious moments in naval affairs this century. His predecessor, Admiral Sir David Luce, had resigned - seven months before Begg was due to succeed him - in protest at the Labour government's rejection in the Defence Review of February 1966 of the proposed aircraft carrier CVA-01.

The decision of Denis Healey, the Defence Secretary, marked the tacit abandonment of the Navy's East of Suez role. Morale in the Service was at an extremely low ebb but Begg took up the challenge, saying simply: "It is my duty to get on with it." Healey was greatly impressed with Begg, describing him later as "my outstanding Chief of Naval Staff who was a paragon of inter-service objectivity". This objectivity, however, did not endear him to those - including some on the Admiralty Board - who saw the First Sea Lord's role as protecting the interests and traditions of the Navy whatever logic or the times demanded.

The grandson of a naval officer, Varyl Begg was born in Kensington, London, in 1908. He was educated at Malvern and joined the Royal Navy as a Special Entry Cadet in 1926. He first went to sea in Delhi in 1927 and spent the next three years on the China Station and in the West Indies and Mediterranean in Durban, Marlborough and Shropshire. In 1934 he specialised in gunnery and subsequently served in Cossack during the evacuation of refugees to Marseilles.

At the start of the war Begg was a Lieutenant-Commander and Gunnery Officer of the destroyer Glasgow. He fought in the Norwegian campaign and in the Battle of the Atlantic where Glasgow was an escort for merchant shipping in the North Atlantic Convoys. The ship was badly damaged in December 1940 when she was torpedoed by two Italian aircraft whilst at anchor in Suda Bay, Crete.

Begg was transferred to Warspite - the "Grand Old Lady" of the fleet which had seen action in both world wars - again as Gunnery Officer. In March 1941, Warspite was Admiral Cunningham's flagship in the Mediterranean when an Italian force sailed to intercept a British military convoy on passage to Greece.

In the ensuing Battle of Cape Matapan five Italian ships were sunk while the British lost a single aircraft. Begg was awarded the DSC for displaying "exceptional ability, energy and personality" in bringing Warspite's main armament "to a high state of efficiency which enabled her to cripple two cruisers and probably one destroyer in the shortest possible time". The citation continued: "During the action he carried out the duty of Principal Control Officer with conspicuous ability, coolness and success."

Begg was appointed to the Admiralty in 1943, promoted Commander while developing gunnery radar, and then Captain in 1947. Shore command of the Gunnery School at Chatham was followed by his first sea command as Captain D of the 8th Destroyer Squadron in Cossack, successor to the ship of the same name in which he had served before the war. Cossack saw action in the Korean war and Begg was mentioned in despatches and awarded the DSO.

He returned to the UK to command of Excellent, the Alma Mater of the Gunnery Branch at Whale Island. As the officer responsible for naval ceremonial, Begg marched at the head of 1,000 officers, men and women in the Coronation procession in May 1953.

In October 1954 he was commanding the Cadet Training Ship Triumph when she was flagship of the first group of ships to visit the Soviet Union since 1946. The goodwill visit to Leningrad had been arranged by Eden and Bulganin in an attempt to help thaw East-West relations; six Russian ships visited Portsmouth at the same time.

Promoted Rear-Admiral in January 1957, Begg served as Chief of Staff to Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth before becoming Flag Officer Second-in- Command of the Far East Station. As a senior Captain, Begg had believed that his career was about to end but in May 1960 he found himself a Vice- Admiral and Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty holding the pivotal post of Vice-Chief of Naval Staff. In 1963 he played a key role in Anglo-American talks in London and Washington on the British Polaris programme.

Begg returned to the Far East the same year as a full Admiral and Commander- in-Chief Far East Fleet just as Indonesian "Crush Malaysia" operations were being stepped up by President Sukarno. For two years he was in overall command of British, Malaysian, Australian and New Zealand forces during a period of unbroken joint operations involving all three services. His patience and imagination welded together British, Malaysian and Australian politicians and commanders and earned him the sobriquet "the Royal Navy's Eisenhower".

After only six months as Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth, Begg suddenly found himself as First Sea Lord in circumstances which tested his skills of leadership and realpolitik to the limit. His patience was also tested when in 1968 a young Labour MP called David Owen became Minister for the Navy. Lord Owen remembers Begg as "an Admiral with salt both in his ears and his tongue . . . he did not suffer fools gladly and on my first day he told me straight out that he was still recovering from the shock of having a 30-year-old put in charge of the Navy."

Begg correctly recognised that the air defence of the fleet of the 1970s and 1980s should depend as much on surface-to-air missiles as naval air power. But he did extract one crucial concession on airpower from Healey when the order was placed for three "through-deck cruisers" - small aircraft carriers in all but name. The Invincible-class carrier was to preserve the Navy's fixed-wing capability. This proved to be vital in the South Atlantic in 1982 when the Sea Harrier jet played an important role in the liberation of the Falkland Islands.

Begg was promoted Admiral of the Fleet in August 1968 and appointed Governor of Gibraltar the following year. The governorship was no sinecure: Spain was making life as difficult as possible for the inhabitants of the Rock and two extra companies of troops were stationed there as a precaution. The appointment of an admiral rather than a general broke a military tradition of over 250 years but Begg's wide experience in sensitive political-military jobs made him eminently suitable.

He was widely respected as a wise and statesmanlike governor; just before his retirement in 1974, Julian Amery, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, drew a highly complimentary comparison between the admiral and one of his predecessors, General Sir George Elliot, who was the commander who held off the Spaniards during the Great Siege of 1779-82. Sir Varyl, said Amery, had "conducted the present siege with as much skill as Elliot and far fewer casualties".

In his off-duty time, Begg was President of the Combined Services Winter Sports Association and Royal Navy Cricket. He fished and gardened during a happy retirement in Hampshire before being struck down with Alzheimer's disease.

Varyl Cargill Begg, naval officer: born London 1 October 1908; DSC 1941; DSO 1952; Rear- Admiral 1957, Vice-Admiral 1960, Admiral 1963, Admiral of the Fleet 1968; Chief of Staff to C-in-C Portsmouth 1957-58; Flag Officer Commanding Fifth Cruiser Squadron and Flag Officer Second-in-Command Far East Station 1958-60; CB 1959, KCB 1962, GCB 1965; a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and Vice-Chief of Naval Staff 1961- 63; C-in-C, British Forces in the Far East, and UK Military Adviser to Seato 1963-65; C-in-C, Portsmouth, and Allied C-in-C, Channel 1965-66; Chief of Naval Staff and First Sea Lord 1966-68; Governor and Commander- in-Chief of Gibraltar 1969-73; married 1943 Rosemary Cowan (two sons); died Headbourne Worthy, Hampshire 13 July 1995.

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