Obituary: Admiral Sir Richard Fitch
Tuesday 22 February 1994
RICHARD FITCH will be remembered as a fine naval officer who, despite cultivating the image of a gifted amateur, was a thoroughly professional operator whether at sea or in Whitehall. Ruddy-faced and an habitual smoker of small black cigars, he was a big man in spirit as well in size: cheerful, generous and deeply caring about those under his command. Fitch's toughness and reliability meant that throughout his career he was often used as the man to plug holes where other people had failed.
The son of a Naval Instructor Captain, Dicky Fitch was born in Blackheath in 1929. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13 and was educated at the Britannia Royal Naval College during its wartime evacuation to Eaton Hall in Cheshire. He went to sea as a Midshipman in the cruisers Frobisher and Norfolk and served in Bigbury Bay before being appointed to Consort where he was a bridge watchkeeper during the Korean war. He specialised in navigation and navigated Narvik during the British nuclear trials in the Pacific in 1957.
Fitch was the archetypal Navigator - self-assured, unflappable and adept at making important decisions quickly. He was Second Navigator of the carrier Victorious and Executive Officer of the destroyer Camperdown before being promoted Commander in 1966 and appointed Commanding Officer of the frigate Berwick. His ship was a notably happy and efficient one.
He left Berwick to join the staff of Rear-Admiral (later Admiral of the Fleet Sir Edward) Ashmore, then Commander-in-Chief Far Eastern Fleet. Ashmore, probably the most formidable officer of his generation, had sacked his previous Staff Operations Officer but Fitch made a conspicuous success of the job. In November 1967, Task Force 318, under Ashmore, managed the British withdrawal from Aden after 128 years of colonial rule. Ashmore's small staff, led by Fitch, handled the evacuation without loss of life before the handover to the Yemeni National Liberation Front.
Fitch's sense of fun endeared him to many and he followed that old naval maxim of 'work hard, play hard'. When Ashmore left the Far Eastern Fleet, Fitch organised a 'run ashore', accompanied by two Hong Kong policemen, and took the Admiral around his old haunts in Kowloon. As Ashmore remembers, 'If circumstances allowed anyone to be amusing then Dick would always lead the way.'
Fitch's first tour in the Ministry of Defence came in 1969 when he worked in the Directorate of Naval Plans on the West of Suez desk where he covered Soviet maritime policy. Fitch was an innovator and this, coupled with his intelligence, marked him out from his contemporaries. He was promoted to Captain in 1971.
After command of the frigate Apollo, Fitch was hand-picked by Ashmore, now First Sea Lord, to be his Naval Assistant. As personal aide to the Chief of Naval Staff, Fitch was an important figure during the period of Roy Mason's Defence Review. Ashmore, supported by Fitch, fought successfully to procure the Invincible class through- deck cruiser and the Sea Harrier jet fighter, both vital for a continued blue-water capability.
As Captain of Hermes, Fitch tenaciously developed the concept of helicopter Anti-Submarine Warfare operations in addition to the carrier's amphibious role. He then returned to MoD as Director of Naval Warfare before being promoted Rear-Admiral in 1980 and made Naval Secretary. Fitch was tailor-made to be the officer corps' appointer and career manager. A renowned amateur flag plotter (one who attempts to predict who will go where in the higher echelons of the navy), he judged people in terms of ability rather than background.
As a Vice-Admiral and Flag Officer Third Flotilla, Fitch was a great success with the United States strike fleet commander and cemented close links with the Americans who had initially been unsure about how to take this distinguished and flamboyant Englishman. This impressive performance earned him promotion to Admiral in the post of Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel.
It was as Second Sea Lord that Fitch faced his greatest challenge. Against a background of severe financial restraint, there was enormous pressure to save on manpower in order to preserve ships and equipment. The Treasury-imposed Review of Allowances (ROA) involved a comprehensive examination of service pay. In a sense, it was an unwinnable battle but Fitch fought a fierce rearguard action on the Principal Personnel Officers' Committee to make sure that the particular circumstances of each seagoer were recognised. One notable success was the introduction of the Long Service at Sea Bonus but Fitch himself was desperately disappointed with the final result of ROA - so much so that he considered his position on the Navy Board on more than one occasion. The outcome for the sailors, however, might have been significantly worse without Fitch's valiant efforts. Fitch also commissioned the West study into the future of the WRNS which led, in 1990, to the decision to send women to sea.
While Second Sea Lord, Fitch greatly enjoyed his subsidiary role of Admiral President of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. An active liveryman with the Coachmakers' and Coach Harness Makers' Company, Fitch was assiduous in flying the Royal Navy's flag in the City of London. He was also particularly happy to live with his family in the Naval College where his father had been Dean.
Fitch retired in 1988 to West Sussex. He was President of the Middleton Conservative Association as well as Chairman of the Regular Forces Employment Agency which helps ex-servicemen and women to find second careers. Sadly, having had a lifelong interest in stocks and shares, he became a Lloyd's Name, investing his money in the two highest-risk syndicates. He was a meticulous businessman, and his financial worries, accompanied by physical ill-health, weighed heavily on his mind latterly.
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