Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach passes away

Sir Henry Leach
Sir Henry Leach
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THE First Sea Lord who led naval forces during the Falklands War has died aged 87.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach, who lived near Winchester, died on Good Friday.

He is credited with persuading Margaret Thatcher that the Falklands could be regained by military means at a time the government was wary of sending forces into battle.

Sir Henry was dismayed when, on March 31 1982, he read government briefs about the Falklands that predicted the certainty of an Argentine invasion and advised that nothing could be done.

Still wearing his uniform from a function at Portsmouth, he returned to London by helicopter and directly confronted the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and defence secretary John Nott to convince them the Falklands should be recaptured using the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible.

Over the weekend a Task Force was prepared and sailed on the Monday morning, April 5 1982. The Falklands were recovered by mid-June.

Sir Henry, who had been appointed KCB in 1977 and GCB in 1978, was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet when he retired from active service at the end 1982.

In 2004, the new Navy Command Headquarters building of the Royal Navy at Whale Island, Portsmouth, was named the ‘Sir Henry Leach Building’ in his honour.

Born on November 18 1923 in Devon, Henry Conyers Leach was the third son of the future Captain John Catterall Leach.

Educated at St Peter’s Court, Broadstairs, Kent, he joined the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in 1937 and went on to have a glittering naval career.

Early in his career, an appointment to the battleship HMS Prince of Wales was cancelled when his father was given command of her.

Instead the young officer went to the cruiser HMS Mauritius, and when she went into refit at Singapore he became a plotting officer in the war room there. At this post he learned of the torpedoing of his father’s ship by the Japanese in the South China Sea on December 10 1941. His father was among those lost. Only two nights earlier, they had enjoyed a gin sling and a swim.

In October 1942 he was appointed as a sub-lieutenant to the battleship HMS Duke of York, flagship of the Home Fleet and took part in the battle of North Cape, off Norway, and in the sinking of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst on December 26 1943 .

He joined the destroyer HMS Javelin as navigating officer in 1944 and was duty officer at anchor off Rhodes on October 17 1945 when a mutiny broke out. Leach conducted himself well, but several ratings were court-martialled and the captain and first lieutenant were reappointed.

He next served in destroyer flotilla leader HMS Chequers before training as a gunnery specialist at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, where he impressed his superiors and was appointed Parade Training Officer at the establishment.

However, he turned down the chance to train the Portsmouth team in the naval field gun race at the Royal Tournament and was given a penal appointment as gunnery officer to the Second Minesweeping Flotilla based in the Aegean.

Despite this, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander in 1952, and attended the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich. He spent eight months as staff officer for the Naval Brigade in London for the Coronation.

He saw action at the end of the Korean War as gunnery officer of the 5th Cruiser Squadron in the Far East. In 1955, he took part in the Malayan Emergency when his ship, HMS Newcastle, supported the Army and Royal Marines.

On early promotion to Commander in 1955, he helped bring the Navy’s first area defence guided weapons system, Sea Slug, into service.

In 1958, he married Mary McCall, daughter of Admiral Sir Henry McCall, with whom he had two daughters.

The following year he took command of his first ship, the destroyer HMS Dunkirk.

High-profile appointments at sea and ashore followed, though his naval career was almost ruined by a car accident in the early 1960s that temporarily left him with double vision.

He later proved that he was cured by showing he could pot a red ball at the Commander-in-Chief Plymouth’s snooker table.

He went on to captain of the 27th Escort Squadron in the Leander-class frigate Galatea and then became Director of Naval Plans, a key appointment at the MoD, from 1968 to 1970.

While in command of the commando carrier HMS Albion between 1970 and 1971, Leach learned to fly helicopters before returning to the MoD as Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Policy).

In 1974 he became Flag Officer commanding the First Flotilla, principally in the cruiser HMS Blake. He also spent more time flying helicopters and jets, and broke the sound barrier in a Lightning of 111 Squadron.

His next appointment was Vice-Chief of Defence Staff in 1976 to 77, which he said he did not enjoy as it was a ‘non-job’.

He was promoted to Admiral in 1977 and took pride in flying his flag at sea, including in the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead.

Sir Henry was appointed First Sea Lord in July 1979 and publicly clashed with defence secretary John Nott over plans to slash the navy by a third.

After the Falklands war, Sir Henry fought hard for ships promised as replacements for those lost in the South Atlantic and was an outspoken critic of cuts to the navy.

In retirement, he settled near Winchester where he took up his passion for gardening and kept many pets. He also enjoyed shooting, fishing and restoring antique furniture.

In 1993, he published his memoirs, Endure no Makeshifts, and continued to be outspoken in the media on defence issues.

Among his many public and charitable roles, Sir Henry was president of the Sea Cadet Association from 1983 to 1993 and chairman of St Dunstan’s, the charity supporting blind ex-service personnel, from 1983 to 1998.

His wife Mary died in 1991. Their two daughters survive them.

- Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach. Born 18 November 1923; died 26 April 2011.