Obituary: Marshal of the RAF Lord Elworthy
Tuesday 06 April 1993
LORD ELWORTHY is best remembered as Chief of Air Staff and then Chief of Defence Staff during the era when Britain made the crucial decision to relinquish its military role east of Suez and concentrate its main defence effort within Nato. Working in the 1960s alongside Denis Healey, Secretary of State for Defence in Harold Wilson's government, Elworthy exercised immense influence on the consequent changing shape of both the Royal Air Force and the British services as a whole.
Sam Elworthy was born in New Zealand in 1911. He read Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, and joined the RAF in 1935 after a spell in the Auxiliary Air Force. His wartime career was spent entirely in Bomber Command. Having previously been aide-de-camp to its Commander-in- Chief, Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, he flew Blenheims on operations over north-west Europe in 1940-41, gaining the DSO. 'By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard of danger,' his citation read, 'he brought his squadron to the highest peak of war efficiency.' In 1942 he worked as Group Captain Operations under Sir Arthur Harris. He then commanded RAF Waddington, one of the great bomber stations, and in 1944 served as Harris's representative at General Eisenhower's Headquarters, helping ensure that Bomber Command's operations were fully integrated into the plans for the Normandy invasion. By the end of the war, when he was Senior Air Staff Officer in 5 Group - still in Bomber Command - he had held the rank of Air Commodore for almost a year, yet was aged only 34.
Elworthy's post-war career was marked by several key appointments. He was sent to India as a Group Commander in 1947 and after Independence became the Air Force Member of the Pakistan Defence Council. In 1953 he commanded RAF Odiham at the time of the Queen's Coronation Review. He was Commandant of the Bracknell Staff College in the later 1950s. Then in 1960, at the specific instance of Lord Mountbatten, Chief of Defence Staff, he went to Aden as Commander-in-Chief of the first post- war integrated command. Here, having initially met considerable resistance to the new organisation, he brought about a remarkable degree of co-operation between the three services and the civil administration; this paid off in July 1961 when a carefully prepared plan to protect Kuwait against attack by Iraq was successfully put into effect.
Elworthy had thus demonstrated one of his greatest talents: the ability to achieve harmony between the three services and handle political intricacies. In Whitehall, however, to which he returned as Chief of the Air Staff, he encountered entrenched attitudes and constant controversy. While he and Healey had great respect for each other and generally got on well together, there were inevitably differences on some issues, and one of the important questions to come to a head was the future of the TSR2 - the new strike and reconnaissance aircraft on which the RAF was setting much store. With costs escalating rapidly, the numbers to be purchased being steadily cut, and the only prospective overseas purchasers - the Australians - deciding against, Elworthy agreed to accept its cancellation, given the Government's declared intention to order the American F-111 instead. The new transport aircraft HS681, which he saw as over-ambitious and almost extravagant, was also dropped in favour of the C-130 Hercules, which he rightly saw as a good buy for the RAF. This marked the end of the peacetime policy of always buying British aircraft. The one large British project that did survive was the P1127 Harrier, which was ordered after the abandonment of the supersonic P1154 and became an important part of the RAF's front line.
Another preoccupation was Britain's worldwide role, especially east of Suez. The confrontation with Indonesia demanded considerable attention and Elworthy visited the Far East several times, not least in order to defend the RAF in face of unfair Army criticism of the performance of its helicopter squadrons. Moreover, these operations provided a reminder of the extent to which all three services were now stretched and much time was spent considering how far such commitments should be retained and by what means. Among these issues was the aircraft-carrier controversy which led to the resignation in 1966 of Sir David Luce, the First Sea Lord; Elworthy was not opposed to large carriers per se, but since he thought it no longer practicable to provide sufficient of them, he believed the job must be done in different ways.
Other issues were the evacuation from Aden and the possibility of military intervention in Rhodesia, which he strongly opposed. More domestic concerns included the withdrawal of the RAF's first V-bomber, the Valiant, the planned reorganisation of the RAF's home command structure, and the decision to end the cadet entry at the RAF College, Cranwell, which he thought essential in the light of national changing patterns of education.
Elworthy became Chief of Defence Staff in April 1967; having been favoured for the post by Lord Mountbatten and having worked under both him and Field Marshal Sir Richard Hull, he was very much the heir apparent, and over the next four years he exercised much influence on defence policy under both Denis Healey and Lord Carrington. This was in his view a period of great and alarming Soviet expansion, marked particularly by the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1968, and he accompanied Healey to many of the Nato meetings, where the new policy of flexible response was being worked out.
Several times he visited Northern Ireland, where the emergency had just begun to cause severe problems, particularly for the Army and its garrison in Germany. He was bitterly disappointed, too, at the cancellation of the F-111 in 1968 against the advice of the Air Staff. On a more constructive note, however, the nuclear deterrent role was successfully transferred from the V-bomber force to the Polaris submarines, planning was started for the multi-role combat aircraft eventually to be known as the Tornado, and the position of the Chief of Defence Staff was gradually strengthened.
Elworthy handed over in April 1971 after eight years in the innermost councils of the nation's defence affairs, and the life peerage he received soon afterwards was the first to be awarded to an RAF officer since the high commanders of the Second World War. The RAF recalls him as one of its most distinguished Chiefs. A man of impressive bearing, great personal charm and gentle modesty, he possessed the knowledge and intellect necessary to take on the politicians and civil servants, not to mention his contemporaries in the other services, in an era of great change and challenge. Some may criticise him, especially over the TSR2, but for him 'the art of the possible' was always the final guideline.
Only a few years ago I discussed with him the later stages of his career and was deeply impressed by his balanced views and still accurate memory. My fondest recollection, however, is of the chat we had only two years ago in a quiet corner in the Leander Club at Henley Royal Regatta, where, as a former Cambridge oarsman, he was a Steward for many years. The memories now were dimmed, the kindliness remained. For me, he was one of the great gentlemen of the Royal Air Force.
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