Obituary: Air Chief Marshal Sir John Thomson
Wednesday 13 July 1994
JOHN THOMSON was a vigorous front-line air commander and a successful staff officer in a number of key appointments in the Ministry of Defence. At the time of his death he had only recently relinquished command of Royal Air Force Strike Command and United Kingdom Air Forces. He had just been appointed Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces North-western Europe, Nato's newest major subordinate command headquarters and its first joint command to be based in the United Kingdom.
An upright man and model of military correctness, Thomson had a keen sense of humour that softened the formidable impact of his personality. He was noted both within his own service and in wider defence circles for his intellectual toughness and formidable stamina - qualities which enabled him to master the most complex issues with swift analysis and to provide solutions to problems that were invariably sound and often striking in concept. However, in character and in his love of flying he remained the eternal fighter pilot. A skilful aviator, he was an airborne leader of the highest quality, whose example was an inspiration to all who served under his operational command.
Born in 1941, Thomson spent his youth in Northern Ireland. He was educated at Campbell College, from which he entered the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, directly. His skills as an aviator gained early recognition in the award of the Groves Memorial Prize and the Kinkead Trophy.
After commissioning in 1962 he flew Hunters in Aden and the Gulf for the next three years, which included the Radfan action of 1964. There followed a further three years flying Hunters, this time from RAF Gutersloh, Germany, in the reconnaisance role. For some time he was also aide-de-camp to the then Air Officer Commanding in Chief RAF Germany. It was during a three-year tour on exchange with the United States Air Force at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas that he met his future wife, Jan.
After Staff College in 1973 Thomson led the Jaguar Project Team at HQ Strike Command and served in Air Plans. He then formed No 41 Squadron with Jaguars in 1976, newly assigned to the North Norway area in both attack and reconnaisance roles. He led the first Jaguar transatlantic deployment to Exercise Red Flag in 1978. From then on his career followed a rapid and steady upward path with successive appointments as Personal Staff Officer to the Chief of the Air Staff in 1979 and command of RAF Bruggen in Germany, then comprising four squadrons of strike/attack Jaguars, from 1981 to 1983. The Royal College of Defence Studies course in 1984 was followed by a period as head of the newly formed tri-service Defence Concepts directorate in the Ministry of Defence and then two years as Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group, which then encompassed all UK-based offensive air, tanker, transport and support helicopter units.
In March 1989 he returned to the Ministry of Defence as Assistant Chief of the Air Staff during a particularly important period in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Much of the groundwork for Arms Control matters, and the capabilities and structure of the Royal Air Force as it is today are directly attributable to Thomson's extraordinary drive and flair throughout a difficult time.
He then moved to command RAF Support Command, responsible for all training and logistics support to the front line and again found himself at the forefront of change which lead eventually to extensive re-structuring. From November 1992 he became Air Officer Commanding in Chief Strike Command, the top operational post in the service, where again he steadfastly held out for what he regarded as the right course for the modern air force. Only last week he moved on to become the first Commander-in-Chief of Nato's newest command, Allied Forces North-western Europe. Within a few days he was taken ill; his death ends the career of an officer widely tipped to reach the highest position within the service.
John Thomson was a man who managed to combine an intense dedication to the Royal Air Force with outstanding abilities in the air and on the staff. All of this was carried off with a light touch, an admirable sense of humour and a predilection for practical jokes - including a wicked talent for mimicry, which on more than one occasion reduced telephone communication among his colleagues to chaos.
Despite all the demanding and time-consuming appointments that he filled so ably during his career, Thomson was above all a family man, with deep religious convictions, traits which gave him great strength, particularly during the loss of his much-loved first daughter, Catherine, who died aged three in 1977. He is survived by his other two daughters, Clare and Annie, and by his devoted wife Jan.
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