Good Company

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Good Company

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A dying breed of warrior

Obit for Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Austin:
Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Austin, who has died aged 84, was a Fleet Air Arm pilot for 30 years and a Whitehall warrior during the Second Cod War; he was also at the centre of a Yes, Minister-style dispute over a special unit parachuted alongside the QE2 after a bomb hoax in 1972.

As the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Operations and Air), responsible for dispatching men from the Special Boat Service and an Army bomb squad to the cruise ship in mid-Atlantic, he was first faced with the security services' assessment that further terrorist threats were expected.

The Ministry of Defence suggested permanently placing armed Royal Marines on board. But lawyers warned that, if they opened fire in another country's territorial waters, they might be liable to murder charges. Austin robustly replied that this was "most absurd". He agreed with the Foreign Office that a marine could not be expected to sit still just because an attack took place in a foreign port.

Eventually a New York shoe-repairer, who had been trying to extort $350,000 (£140,000), was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Austin concluded that the only consequence to the QE2 was that dinner had been a bit late...When the Second World War broke out, he was a midshipman in the cruiser Cornwall, and he sat his examination for lieutenant during the blitz at Portsmouth, fire-watching by night instead of revising. Between 1941 and 1945 he served aboard destroyers in the Atlantic, on Russian convoys and in the Mediterranean.

In 1943 he came across his father, who had taken a demotion to serve as a convoy commodore at Taranto, the Italian port. After a bibulous evening, young Peter found himself in command of three surrendered Italian ships in a Mediterranean storm. He knew just enough Italian to realise that the crew was plotting to shoot him but, fear of his father's wrath, persuaded them to plough on.
Fair winds, Admiral, fair winds.

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