Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton, who died on Sunday aged 89, was a formidable Chief of the Defence Staff before becoming the senior military officer in the Nato alliance; he also had a reputation for being one of the rudest men in the Royal Navy.
Almost from the beginning of his career some considered him destined either to be court martialled or to end up as First Sea Lord. His reputation for ruthless efficiency and meticulousness, combined with good luck and an irritating habit of being right, took him to the top. This made it seem all the more strange when, as a retired officer in the House of Lords, he placed rather more credence on the possible existence of unidentified flying objects than did less talented individuals.
The son of a mining engineer who served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, Peter John Hill-Norton was born in South Africa on February 8 1915 and entered the Royal Navy as a Dartmouth cadet at 13. He did his initial sea training in the cruisers Frobisher and London, then served in the battleships Malaya, Rodney and Ramillies before qualifying as a gunnery officer in 1939. He was serving in the First World War cruiser Cairo, which had converted to an anti-aircraft ship on the outbreak of war.
Operating in the North-Western Approaches and in the North Sea, Cairo survived air and submarine attacks during the Norwegian campaign in April and May 1940 while landing troops and conducting an attack on German-held Narvik. Then, on May 28, she was damaged by a bomb and withdrawn for repairs.
Hill-Norton was transferred to the 8-inch gun cruiser Cumberland and saw action on the convoy routes to Russia, including the ill-fated PQ17 in 1942. The following year, he joined the Gunnery and Anti-Aircraft Warfare Division of the Admiralty, where he was promoted lieutenant-commander.
A year later, he returned to sea in the battleship Howe, which operated off Sumatra and joined the attack on the Japanese-held Sakishima islands in support of the American assault on Okinawa.
After the Japanese surrender of Hong Kong, Hill-Norton was transferred to the cruiser Nigeria, flagship of the South Atlantic Station; and on being promoted to commander in 1947, he returned to the Admiralty.
By now his reputation as an abrasive and short-tempered officer was well established. He was in the habit of answering the telephone with the words: "Gunnery Division. Hill-Norton. Kindly state your business briefly; we're busy men here." An inadequate response would result in the telephone receiver being slammed down.
In 1951 Hill-Norton was executive officer of the new aircraft carrier Eagle when it participated in Mainbrace, one of the first major Nato exercises. Promoted captain at the end of 1952, Hill-Norton went to Buenos Aires as naval attache to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. He then commanded the new - and somewhat unfortunately named - destroyer Decoy before he returned to the Admiralty as Director, Tactical and Weapons Policy.
In 1959 Hill-Norton took command of the carrier Ark Royal, which was beset with difficulties, including one caused by holes being bored in officers' baths five inches above their bottoms as part of a drive against water waste. Hill-Norton was caustic in recollection.
On being promoted rear-admiral, he became Assistant Chief of Naval Staff at a time when the Navy unsuccessfully argued its case for a new generation of aircraft carriers to replace Ark Royal and the others.
Hill-Norton's final sea appointment was as Flag Officer, Second in Command Far East Fleet, from 1964 to 1966. He continued on a meteoric path upwards when he returned to the Ministry of Defence as Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff with responsibility for personnel and logistics. The following year he became Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel.
Eight months later, Hill-Norton was appointed Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, where he laid some important foundations for what would later become the Invincible class. In 1969, he went back to the Far East as Commander-in-Chief.
The next year he succeeded Sir Michael Le Fanu, who had to retire as First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff on health grounds. This was Hill-Norton's seventh post in just six years.
However, after only eight months as the professional head of the Navy, he was appointed Chief of the Defence Staff, a post he retained for three years, thereby serving the Heath Government as its principal military adviser for most of its time in office. A key development during these years was the final commitment to Project Chevaline, the Polaris improvement programme.
In 1974 Hill-Norton became chairman of the Nato Military Committee, fulfilling a similar role for the Alliance to that which he had held in Britain as Chief of the Defence Staff. Nato was showing evidence of potential weakness in the wake of America's defeat in Vietnam, the oil crisis and the consequent economic recession throughout the industrialised world.
Hill-Norton made little attempt to disguise his belief that the military balance was sliding towards the Warsaw Pact and that our continental allies were not pulling their weight. He was particularly active in pressing for standardisation of equipment between the allies, and emphasised his concerns by revealing that during one exercise 60 Nato aircraft had been "shot down" by their own side.
After his retirement from the Navy in 1973, Hill-Norton set out his ideas on politico-military realities in his book No Soft Options (1978), and was a frequent contributor to defence debates in the House of Lords.
In 1981 he warned that the Government was taking a "gamble with security" in believing that defence could be bought like soap powder in a grocer's shop and in thinking only in terms of a short European war. When he launched his book Sea Power, the book of a television series which he presented in 1982, he roundly declared that the Defence Secretary John Nott "does not understand defence, and shows no apparent inclination to learn". Once the Falklands War broke out, he was outspoken in declaring that the islands must be blockaded.
He championed the introduction of a large home defence force and, to emphasise his concern about the growing Soviet threat, once appeared outside the Palace of Westminster in a fur hat posing as President Chernenko, declaring that Britain's defences were wide open.
The defence cuts ordered by Options for Change did not improve his view of politicians, whom he regarded as sufferers from sea blindness. He was scathing about proposals to economise on Armed Forces pensions, and most notoriously called the then defence secretary Michael Portillo "a little creep" for suggesting the sale of Admiralty Arch.
In addition, when he chaired a House of Lords' investigation into UFOs, Hill-Norton declared himself unimpressed on learning that the Ministry of Defence was in the habit of destroying accumulated evidence after five years. He was also president of the Sea Cadets' Association, the Defence Manufacturers' Association and the British Maritime League, and Vice-President of the Royal United Services Institution. He was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1973.
Although Hill-Norton was feared, hated and respected in equal measure he led from the front. His harsh manner and foul language belied a man who could, on rare occasions, demonstrate an otherwise well-concealed humanity. He was always receptive to sound arguments but would not suffer fools or those who weakened before his onslaughts. Hill-Norton was appointed CB in 1964, KCB in 1967 and GCB in 1970; he was created a life peer in 1979.
He married, in 1936, Margaret Linstow, whom he selflessly brought out of hospital to nurse at home himself in recent years. She survives him, with their daughter and son, Vice-Admiral Sir Nicholas Hill-Norton.