How this Waterlooville grandad's 60-year career in MOD helped defend the UK

At 77, Hugh Clay takes huge pride in putting on his suit and turning up for work each morning.

Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 10:06 am
Hugh Clay at DSTL headquarters, Salisbury.

During his 60-year career with the Ministry of Defence – where he has climbed the ranks from apprentice to senior manager – this Waterlooville grandad has travelled the world while building equipment and systems which have helped and defended our armed forces in combat and on patrol.

‘When I look back, I like to think I have contributed to the defence of the nation,’ says Hugh. ‘It’s been fantastic.’

And he has no plans to stop just yet.

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Hugh examining an electronic warfare system.

Now working for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) which is based in Salisbury, Hugh currently manages RAF research programmes such as his Air Survivability Concepts project, which seeks to enhance the survivability of all air platforms, from the rotary wing to new generation fast jets.

However it all started when Hugh enrolled as an apprentice in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1959.

He explains: ‘I was born in Prince Albert Road, Milton, in September 1943 during the Second World War. Growing up in the late 1940s was, compared with modern times, quite hard for all families. Food was scarce, rationed and only purchased by coupons issued by the government.’

After attending Wimborne Road Junior School, Milton, Hugh completed his secondary education at Mile End House School.

Hugh as a five-year-old in a toy military vehicle at his Portsmouth home.

Hugh, who has lived in Waterlooville for 45 years, says: ‘Like many other school leavers of that era, I was encouraged by my school to take various national exams including the then Central Generating Board, The Post Office and the Naval Dockyard Apprenticeship scheme as practice and possible career direction.

‘Apprenticeships were very popular because it seemed wise to get a trade behind you.

‘My father really wanted me to be an accountant because I was pretty good at maths. But I remember going to an accounting office for some experience and just watching the clock tick. It wasn’t for me.’

When the exam results were released for the Naval Dockyard Apprenticeship, Hugh came 21st out of 500 applicants.

He explains: ‘Much to my father’s reluctance, I joined the dockyard as an electrical fitter apprentice. The first two years years were spent at the electrical engineering training school in Conway Street.

‘At 19, I remember walking through the dockyard gates and they would close behind you. I was assigned to work on the original HMS Victorious aircraft carrier.

‘At that time, around 19,000 people worked in the dockyard. You would meet various characters but it could be a pretty harsh environment. You had to be strong because people would bully you. I managed to get my head down in my books though.’

At the end of Hugh’s five years in the dockyard and in addition to his ordinary and higher national ceritificate in electrical engineering, he was selected to attend the prestigious full-time radar and radio electronic techniques course.

‘I successfully completed it. The outcome of this led me on my long career path within the Ministry of Defence,’ says Hugh, proudly.

After finishing his apprenticeship, Hugh worked alongside other engineers at HMS Dryad, Southwick, to work on and maintain the futuristic combined naval tactical trainer system.

He says: ‘This involved an initial three years of training at HMS Collingwood which resulted in me becoming one of the first civilian naval weapon combat system engineers with expertise in computerised systems being introduced to the next generation of warships in the “digital age”.’

In 1978, he was made project manager for all future operational naval tactical training systems. Just five years later, Hugh was overseeing submarine electronic warfare systems that would be widely fitted across the nuclear submarine fleet.

‘This was a very demanding project, given that in the mid-’80s the Cold War was still running and submarine deployment and operations were paramount,’ says Hugh.

‘I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this project and being part of the submariner’s world which totally differs from that of the surface fleet. Deploying on several S and T-class nuclear submarines, as a civilian, was an experience not to be missed.’

Continuing his passion for assisting the Royal Navy, Hugh shifted his focus to submarine periscope systems in 1988. He says: ‘I was the first civilian to take on the role of project manager of submarine periscope, which was first established in 1915.’

During the 1990s, Hugh continued his work with naval surveillance and navigational radar systems based at ASWE, Portsdown.

‘I was fortunate enough to deploy twice to the Arabian Gulf. It was great to work so closely with the Royal Navy and serve as a civilian,' he adds.

In 2000, Hugh celebrated 40 years of service with the MOD and his retirement loomed. ‘I decided to return to a project management role at DSTL. I requested and was granted an extension of service until the age of 65, and as it happens subsequently beyond that,’ he says, laughing.

‘I like being with my colleagues and learning from their intelligence.

‘I was only meant to work for a couple of years after 60 but if the company still wants me, I will carry on working. The day my team says I have done something wrong or I can’t do it any more is the day I will finish.’

For the past 20 years – which most retired individuals would have spent relaxing – Hugh embarked on a multi-national task as manager of the naval surface defence and security operations which took him from the Arctic Circle to the South Atlantic, Europe and most of the US on weapons trials.

But in 2015, Hugh decided it was time for a change.

After 55 years of working on naval projects, Hugh was asked to switch to support Royal Air Force programmes, such as the one he manages today.

‘I supported the Royal Navy for decades and it was wonderful. I have great admiration and respect for everything they do,’ says Hugh, smiling.

‘I am proud of my work during the past 60 years. I hope that I can serve on for a little longer, learning something new every day, and continuing to rise to the challenge that the MOD and DSTL offers.

‘I think some people believe working in the civil service is boring but there is such a range of jobs to do, from the cabinets office to MOD.

‘I came from humble beginnings and have worked from apprentice level to a senior role. I wouldn’t change a thing.’