An army marches on its stomach, the saying ascribed to Napoleon goes, and so proved in November 1944 when supply planning by the new Staff Captain Patrick Kay, a Royal Marine officer serving in 4 Special Services Brigade, ensured victory at Walcheren Island.
Bad weather around the sand-dune girt fortress containing the town of Flushing in the River Scheldt on the approaches to Antwerp meant that the Brigade, part of the forces trying to capture it, were without their follow-up supplies because the Royal Navy could not deliver them. The commandos drawn from the Army and the Royal Marines, pushing forward the Allied advance after D-Day, had to carry through their assault using only what they had brought themselves.
"This might have been a very serious consequence for the whole operation", the recommendation for the award of Kay's MBE, dated 5 February 1945, says, "had it not been for Captain Kay's foresight and care in the preparation of load tables, which enabled the force to carry on with its initial supplies and without seriously impairing its efficiency, until the enemy were finally eliminated from the island."
During the crucial week in which "Pat" Kay did the vital "Q" planning, to supply and equip a force that was twice as big as a normal Commando Brigade, the recommendation records, he was struggling against a bad attack of "gastric-enteritis" [sic] , made worse by overwork and lack of sleep. "In spite of this handicap, he never relaxed his efforts and insisted on taking part in the assault landing, carrying on without relief, until wounded and forcibly evacuated." Kay sustained a broken back when he was blown up in an amphibious landing vehicle.
Winston Churchill, may never have known how much he owed to Kay's ability to keep mind over matter for him to be able to exult about Walcheren in his account of the Second World War (1959), "in this remarkable operation the extreme gallantry of the Royal Marines stands forth. The Commando idea was once again triumphant."
Kay was to spend his career emphasising the importance of elements in that "Commando idea": amphibious capability, efficiency in hostile environments, and combined operations. He had already seen service in the "lucky ship", the battle-cruiser Renown, from 1941-43, sailing in the Mediterranean and in the Arctic, and in November 1943 carrying Churchill to Alexandria for a meeting at Cairo.
As a Lieutenant he had been 4 SS Bde's Liaison Officer with 41 Commando at the D-Day landings. He waded ashore at 08.45am carrying a bicycle; four hours later, after 41 Cdo losses on Sword Beach interrupted communications, he used his wheels to call in vital artillery support by riding at speed to 8 Brigade HQ.
Two and a half months later, as the Allies made their break-out from the Normandy bridgehead, Kay, sent forward to 46 Commando by 4 SS Bde's chief, Brigadier "Jumbo" Leicester, found himself plugging a gap after a mortar bomb wounded five 46 Commando officers.
The commanding officer, Lt Col Campbell Hardy, asked him: "Are you armed?" He replied, "Yes". Hardy told him: "You will lead Z troop this evening." The objective – "Hill 13", from which the enemy had earlier ejected the British 5th Parachute Brigade – was taken. Later, crossing the Seine, Kay was on a pontoon that capsized, and all his life he kept the photograph that had been in his pocket of his wife, Muriel, whom he had married weeks before the landings.
At war's end he went to Combined Operations HQ until 1948, when he joined the staff of the Commandant-General, Royal Marines, in two two-year stints, with Staff College in between. From 1954-57 he was in 40 Commando, the detachment that led the assault on Port Said on 6 November 1956 during the Suez campaign.
A policy decision to expand water-to-land capabilities took him to the Royal Marines' Amphibious School at Poole (renamed the Joint Services Amphibious Warfare Centre in 1956), the object of his formidable organising talents until 1959. He left it so well established that it stayed at Poole until this summer, when it transferred to Royal Marines Tamar at Devonport.
Three years at the Plans Division, Naval Staff (1959-62) preceded his appointment in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel as Commanding Officer, 43 Commando between 1963 and 1965, a time when the effort to reform it "to contribute to the force's availability for seaborne operations" demanded all his planning ability. He went on to be Commanding Officer of the Royal Marines' Amphibious Training Unit (1965-66), and for a year following, Assistant Director (Joint Warfare) Naval Staff.
He was then Assistant Chief of Staff to the Commandant-General, Royal Marines, and the next year, 1969, attended the Imperial Defence College. Four years as Chief of Staff to the Commandant- General, Royal Marines, followed: to General Sir Peter Hellings, and then to General Sir Ian Gourlay, a lifelong friend and fellow former pupil of Eastbourne College in Sussex.
During that time Kay is credited as bringing about, with his Dutch counterpart, the UK/Netherlands Amphibious Force, formed in 1973. The affiliation of 3 Commando Brigade, RM, and the Netherlands Marines Amphibious Combat Group is now considered, according to the Royal Marines, "one of the best examples of military teamwork in European defence". Kay was made CB in 1972.
He retired in 1974, but the same year stepped into the breach after the sudden death of Colonel Jack Macafee, Director of Naval Security. He made several security studies for the Ministry of Defence, and from 1982 stood in for Whitehall's D-Notice secretary after extra work imposed by the Falklands war had shown the need for an extra officer. From 1984-86, when that secretary retired, Kay filled the gap as Acting Secretary of the body that issues D-Notices, the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Committee.
News stories to the handling of which Kay applied his wisdom and dry humour included the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, the publication of the identities of the heads of MI5 and MI6, new information about the Second World War "Ultra" code-breaking and the affairs of Northern Ireland.
The son of a country doctor, and the youngest of five siblings, Kay enjoyed golf and had a passion for growing vegetables, causing his wife to plead: "No dear, I don't think it would be a good idea to have yet another deep freeze." A family joke was the clipboard he used for arranging gatherings, and his three sons and daughter remember being given precise orders about tent-pitching when on holiday. Kay died five months after his wife, Muriel.
Patrick Richard Kay, Royal Marine officer: born Blakeney, Norfolk 1 August 1921; MBE 1945, CB 1972; married 1944, Muriel Austen Smith (died 2913; three sons, one daughter); died Fleet, Hampshire 19 September 2013.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies