Tribute – Admiral Sir Hugo White GCB CBE DL

Admiral Sir Hugo White GCB CBE DL died 1 June 2014 aged 74 after a battle with cancer. Sir Hugo was CO of Avenger 1981-82 and was the first Captain of the 4th Frigate Squadron which contained all the Type 21s. He went on to lead the “Fighting Fourth” in the Falklands campaign and rose to become Commander-in-Chief Fleet and the Governor of Gibraltar. He accepted the appointment as Life President of the T21 Club soon after it formed in 2010.

His Thanksgiving Service was held at St Eustachius’ Church, Tavistock on 14 June 2014 and was attended by several hundred people, many of them Club members who knew him and served with him. Admiral Sir Jock Slater gave a superb tribute which he kindly gave us permission to reproduce here.

An obituary can be found at

Tribute by Admiral Sir Jock Slater at the Thanksgiving Service for Admiral Sir Hugo White GCB CBE DL at St Eustachius’ Church, Tavistock Saturday 14th June 2014

60 years after the death of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Fairfax Moresby, C-in-C Pacific 1850-1853, his great-great grandson, Hugo Moresby White, was born in Torquay on Trafalgar Day +1, 1939. How proud his maternal grandfather, Captain Frank Brandt, would have been but sadly, 25 years earlier, he was killed as captain of HMS Monmouth at the Battle of Coronel. So Hugo had the Royal Navy in his genes from day one and, as we all know, was destined for high office.

Hugo’s father, Hugh, was in the colonial service and, with his mother, spent the war years in Nigeria, leaving young Hugo in the care of Mrs Marsham’s school near Malvern. After the war, Hugo’s parents returned to live in Jersey, from where, aged 8, he was despatched alone across the Channel each term to spend a happy few years at the Dragon School and then on to the nautical college at Pangbourne where Hugo was clearly a front-runner – Chief Cadet Captain, Captain of Fencing, First XV colours (surprisingly he was a second row forward and even more surprisingly, described by a school friend as the “Adonis of the rugby field”), gaining many other school distinctions, and was even a talented drummer in the marching band! What better preparation for the Royal Navy when Cadet HM White entered the Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth in 1958?

His first year in Blake division was my last year in the same division and I remember well his early energy and enthusiasm – a natural seaman, gifted, utterly reliable and vigorously competent – characteristics that were to mark him out throughout a career spanning nearly 40 years in which he was to hold a wide range of demanding appointments including 4 sea commands and 5 on the flag list. But back to 1960 – after 7 terms at Dartmouth, latterly as a Divisional Midshipman [head of house] and passing out 4th in his term of 47, Hugo’s initial training was a year in the frigate HMS Blackpool with his first character-forming taste of east of Suez [including the Kuwait crisis of 1961]. At that stage, like so many young officers of his generation, Hugo was volunteered for flying duties, but his heart was already set on the submarine service – so when a member of the Admiralty Board visited his ship he exercised his right [by some quaint old naval custom] to demand a private audience and state a grievance. Hugo’s persistence and personality won the day and submarine training soon followed!

A year later he was serving in HM Submarine Tabard on the Australia station where he spent a happy 18 months learning his trade, proving to be a most popular, industrious and accomplished messmate. Furthermore, it was reported that, with his good looks and wavy blond hair, he “cut a swathe a mile wide through the Sydney girls”. The next challenge was how best to get back to the UK and only someone like Hugo could fix a merchant navy liaison voyage in the P&O liner Himalaya all the way home.

The ship had, I gather, many pretty Australian girls onboard and, after a run ashore in Aden, who should be sitting next to Hugo in the returning launch but – Josephine Mary Lorimer Pedler – Jo to all of us – and the rest is history! 9 months in HM S/M Odin followed and plans to return to Australia thereafter were thwarted by their lordships who, conscious of Hugo’s clear potential, determined that he should qualify as a specialist navigating officer and then join the nuclear submarine Warspite. This was to be Hugo’s only nuclear submarine experience – 18 months gaining a strong recommendation to be made a first Lieutenant and HM S/M Osiris was lucky enough to get him thereafter….. I say “lucky enough” because that is exactly what the Captain of that boat – in the congregation this afternoon – described himself. Indeed Hugo turned out to be a peerless Second-in-Command, meeting exceptionally high standards both personally and professionally and tipped to reach the very highest ranks of the service. How right the captain was. But let me digress briefly, 3rd Submarine Squadron families day, Faslane – how best to entertain the friends and relations? Hugo had the answer – he would sit on the snort mast in a city suit and bowler hat while the submarine dived! The boat proceeded sedately up the Gareloch just below the surface with Hugo sitting cross-legged on the snort mast Brolley raised to the accompaniment of great cheers from the shore! When the boat surfaced, Hugo had not even got his feet wet! Some submariners clearly walk on water.!”

The submarine Commanding Officers’ Qualifying Course followed – the so-called Perisher – at which Hugo excelled and now, as a Lieutenant Commander aged 30, he got his first command and made his mark in HM S/M Oracle. It was therefore not surprising that Hugo was then chosen to join the staff at Dartmouth – an appointment reserved for the very best officers – so I am told! Staff submarine officer, navigation instructor and divisional officer were tasks right up his street and young officers under training at the time spoke highly of Hugo as an inspirational mentor and outstanding role model who commanded the confidence and respect of all and a great asset to the college.

So it was, after 18 months in sunny Devon and, at the very early age of 33, Hugo was selected for promotion to Commander and took on the most demanding role as Commander Submarine Sea Training on the Clyde where he ably set up a new organisation and then became it’s cornerstone making a key contribution to submarine operational training. It was at this critical stage in his career that Hugo then had the choice of nuclear submarine command or frigate command. Seeing greater opportunity for sun, sand and palm trees on the surface, Hugo opted to turn his back on the submarine service and took command of HMS Salisbury – not one of Her Majesty’s newer frigates and one that apparently suffered from an excessive period of detached service. In no time, Hugo had the ship’s company eating out of his hand and by professional excellence and personal leadership, Salisbury went from strength to strength. But sun and sand were soon a distant thought as Salisbury found herself off Iceland in the third Cod War [April/May 1976] jockeying for position with Icelandic gunboats that were hell bent on cutting our trawlers nets. It was a great test of shiphandling at speed, often in adverse weather. Indeed the ship was involved in some pretty hairy incidents (including 7 minor collisions!) and I gather the sailors got to know their captain as “hard over Hugo”!

The Royal Navy has the most infuriating habit of extracting officers from command when they are just getting used to it – and so it was with Hugo that after a year their Lordships considered that a spell in Whitehall would do him good. So after a short period handling issues to do with officer career planning, he was promoted to Captain – at first shot aged 39 – and moved across the road to the Directorate of Naval Plans as an Assistant Director, mastering with ease the complexities and pressures of this most challenging appointment. Hugo must have been delighted that a second frigate command followed – this time as captain of the 4th Frigate Sand HMS Avenger in command. Within a year, the operation to retake the Falkland islands was underway and his squadron – the Fighting 4th – was in the thick of the action. Avenger was in dry dock at the outset but Hugo, determined to join his squadron, used every ploy in the book and much initiative to prepare his ship for war and dash south – and I do mean dash – averaging 28 knots all the way.

Soon the ship was in action, acquitting herself with great distinction and supreme courage not least fighting off determined Exocet missile and bombing attacks and, later, in the bombardment of Mount Longdon in support of 3 Para’s grim and bloody struggle – and much else besides. His First Lieutenant at the time called Hugo a brilliant boss and master delegator who, with a conspiratorial smile, effortlessly got people to do exactly what he wanted.

Shortly after the Falkands campaign ended, the Royal Navy was invited to nominate an alpha+ officer as the Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Bramall – and Edwin Bramall regarded himself as exceptionally fortunate to have landed Hugo. So started an excellent “partnership” lasting 2½ years where Hugo was a tower of strength and held in the highest regard not only for his intelligent grasp of the wider picture but also for his remarkable skill in gaining the trust and cooperation of all – no mean achievement in the “mad house” of the Ministry of Defence; an achievement that was recognised with a CBE.

Thereafter Hugo returned to sea in command of the unique guided missile destroyer HMS Bristol and as Flag Captain to the Flag Officer Second Flotilla, a performance that set the seal on his promotion to flag rank in 1987. …. but before moving up the ladder with him, it is right to ask what did Hugo have – that few others had – that set him apart? Why did his seniors praise him, his contemporaries admire him and his sailors revere him? There was no doubt that his charismatic leadership, ardent sense of duty, his professional calibre and his confident and calm style were at the heart of his success – but it was more than that. Hugo inspired others because he was a genuinely transparent person and absolutely straight in all his dealings, gaining their confidence and respect. Moreover, he was fearless and decisive in pursuing the important issues but at all times he was approachable, unflappable and thorough. Indeed he had a strong concern for the welfare of his people, and had a deep and sincere affection for them and the uncanny ability to get the best out of them. In return they would do anything for him. Above all Hugo was a most engaging, modest personality with a great sense of humour and unquestionable integrity. In fact I never ever heard a contrary word about him.

So, onto the flag list…appointed Flag Officer 3rd Flotilla and the Commander Anti-Submarine Warfare Striking Force, Hugo quickly built up excellent relationships with the Americans and his influence and standing ensured that British advice was regularly sought by the United States Navy. Moreover, he also proved to be a hugely capable Joint Force Commander during one of the biggest amphibious exercises since World War 2.
Although already selected for further promotion, Hugo was pegged at 2 star level from 1988-91 to take on the tough assignment as Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff, at a time of major change at the end of the cold war, when UK defence policy was under rigorous scrutiny. I personally recollect his skill, determination, and good humour as he drew the strands of the Navy Board’s deliberations together. He always seemed to be at the forefront of business and never failed to rise to the challenge.

By the way. Some wondered why Hugo arrived in the MOD one day with a black eye. His explanation was “vintage White”: “Well” he said “I was cycling home from work and walking away from me in the setting sun was a young woman and I could see from her silhouette, as the low sun shone through her dress, that she was only wearing 3 items of clothing – and 2 of the 3 were shoes! As I passed her, I was powerless to resist turning round and ran straight into the back of a taxi!” Yes – that was “vintage White” and we all remember his countless “bon mots”. He might, for instance, criticise someone in the nicest possible way saying, with a twinkle in his eye: “The trouble with Jones is that the trumpet is a bit too close to his lips!”

His final 6 months in that office were marked by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent highly charged activities and politically complex consultations leading to the opening of hostilities by the allies. Hugo’s strong leadership of the Naval Staff was greatly admired.

Promotion to Vice Admiral in 1991 followed with an appointment north of the border as Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland and associated NATO titles. Scottish politicians got hold of a leaked paper that Hugo had signed previously about the possibility of closing Rosyth dockyard and Donald Dewar, their leader, waved it in the house of commons prompting the Scottish media to have a field day about the appointment: “the Axeman cometh” or even worse: “putting White in charge of Rosyth is like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank!” To their surprise White turned out to be a jolly good fellow! – and thoroughly deserved his knighthood that year, later advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. 18 months later Hugo became a full Admiral and relieved me as Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet at Northwood. This appointment was triple hatted as a Major NATO Commander [CinC Channel] and a Major Subordinate Commander [CinC Eastern Atlantic] although shortly thereafter CINCHAN was abolished and Hugo became Commander Allied Forces NW Europe – a tricky transition that he managed with customary skill and tact.

This is not the time to describe the awesome responsibilities that he held at Northwood as the Royal Navy’s principal Operational Commander with the ultimate highly sensitive responsibility for the strategic nuclear deterrent. Suffice it to say that he was quickly into his stride and was famous for his hugely demanding schedule, punishing routine, amazing patience and equanimity and consistent good humour which would have been unthinkable in lesser mortals. However, I think it must be said that driving himself so hard – a hallmark of his career – was inevitably, at times, at the expense of his family.

After he had been the Fleet Commander for 3 years, the First Sea Lord informed the Defence Secretary that he much regretted that he had no further appointment for Hugo. Malcolm Rifkind, who greatly admired Hugo, was not happy to see him placed on the retired list so hatched a plan with the Foreign Secretary to send him out to Gibraltar as Governor and Commander-in-Chief remaining on the active list and thus available to succeed me as First Sea Lord if and when I rose to become Chief of the Defence Staff.

So it was that Hugo and Jo arrived in Gibraltar to take up residence in The Convent in late 1995. In just over a year in office, he oversaw a number of testing political issues not least a change in government and gained the complete confidence of the FCO where his sound judgement and diplomatic acumen were greatly admired particularly in tackling the drugs trade. Furthermore the Whites were highly respected by the residents and brought to the Rock a feeling of stability and optimism. In return they won their warm affection. After a year, the new defence secretary, Michael Portillo, and the Prime Minister accepted the advice of the incumbent Chief of Defence that he should be succeeded by another soldier, effectively thwarting the Rifkind plan for Hugo.

I immediately flew out to Gibraltar and, in a walk in the garden in The Convent, offered Hugo the chance to return home and relieve me to undertake the second half of my tenure as First Sea Lord. In his totally selfless way, he absolutely refused to consider such a proposal but requested to stand down from the governorship as soon as possible for personal reasons. So it was that in February 1997 Hugo and Jo finally left Gibraltar embarked in HMS Montrose [Captain Tim Laurence] to return to the UK. As the ship approached Plymouth sound, I flew out secretly (unbeknownst to the Whites) to join her and at a predetermined moment stepped into their cabin and invited them to come up to the bridge where they witnessed HMS Monmouth steam past, the side manned by sailors cheering their old Commander-in-Chief.

So the Royal Navy said farewell to the best First Sea Lord we never had; and in the tragedy, trials and tribulations that were to follow, Hugo’s saint-like rock is sitting in the front row this afternoon.