Obituary: Antony Trew

Antony Trew, the author of 16 novels and a volume of short stories, was a modest man who rarely spoke of the war record which earned him the Distinguished Service Cross for commanding a South African Naval Forces whaler carrying supplies to Tobruk, and a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Walker, principally employed in protecting Russian convoys in the Arctic.

His career as a writer of naval adventures and thrillers began late, three years before his retirement from the Automobile Association of South Africa, of which he was Director-General, with the publication of Two Hours to Darkness in 1963. It was a best-seller, with 3.5 million copies in print in 16 languages. On the back of it he settled in Surrey, and steadily built a reputation as a fine story-teller whose work at its best recalls the tense cat-and- mouse games of warship and U-boat, icy waters, human frailty. He writes simply and with authenticity, drawing on his own experiences at sea and in southern Africa, which he loved.

Born in Pretoria in 1906, Trew left school at 16 to go to sea as an officer cadet with the Union Castle Line. A commission in the South African Naval Service followed, from 1926 to 1929. During the Depression he took a series of civilian jobs, and in 1933 became the Transvaal Secretary of the fledgling Automobile Association of South Africa, with a membership of a mere 6,000. When the call-up came at the outbreak of the Second World War he commanded various mine-sweeping and patrol vessels, then, from December 1940, served for a year as Lieutenant-Commander in the 22nd A/S Group, the first South African armed forces unit to enter the Mediterranean theatre.

The next two years were spent in a staff job, overseeing the repair of naval vessels in Cape Town, after which, anxious to get back to sea, Trew asked to be seconded to the Royal Navy; after another spell in the Mediterranean he attended the Senior Officers' Staff Course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Destroyer experience on HMS Versatile led to his own ship, HMS Walker, based on the Clyde, which between October 1944 and May 1945 he commanded on four convoy missions and on escort duties to Iceland and the Western Approaches. From May to July 1945 he commanded the six-gun Bird class sloop HMS Cygnet. After the war he rejoined the Automobile Association of South Africa as Secretary-, and later Director-General. Membership had grown to more than 300,000 by the time of his retirement in 1966.

I first met Antony Trew in 1987 at the offices of his publisher, Collins (now HarperCollins), where as a new editor I inherited him from my overloaded boss, Marjory Chapman, and soon regarded him as a friend. His immaculate scripts arrived promptly and needed little work; he was a craftsman, whose skill at building character, plot and dramatic suspense in novels such as Yashimoto's Last Dive (1986) had not dimmed with age.

Spry for his years, and endearingly courtly in his manners, Trew was lively company. Having spent some time in Mozambique (formerly Portuguese East Africa), he revealed a compassionate understanding of black Africa's problems, and described movingly his son Antony's imprisonment for activities in the South African resistance. (He is now a civil servant in Nelson Mandela's private office.) His wife Nora was his lynchpin, and he spoke with pride of his other sons, Peter (Conservative MP for Dartford, 1970- 74) and Robert, an architect.

Part of Trew's charm was his good-humour, and he seemed wrily aware of his diminished status at Collins now that his book sales were in decline as fashions in thrillers changed. Lunching an author is the traditional way a publisher shows appreciation, but with Trew's wide-ranging sympathies and air of mischievous amusement the treat was invariably mine.

Antony Francis Trew, naval officer and writer: born Pretoria, South Africa 5 June 1906; DSC 1945; married 1931 Nora Houthakker (three sons); died Chertsey 12 January 1996.