Rear-Admiral Sir Nigel Cecil, the last Flag Officer Malta
Rear-Admiral Sir Nigel "Os" Cecil, who has died aged 91, epitomised Palmerston’s judgment that whenever he wanted a thing well done in a distant part of the world, a man with a good head, a good heart, lots of pluck, and plenty of common sense, he would send for a naval officer.
From 1971 to 1973 Cecil was the Senior British Naval Officer, South Africa, where the political and social situation called for tact, intelligence and charm.
The route round the Cape was vital for shipping while the Suez Canal was closed after the Arab-Israeli war; Britain was blockading Beira in Mozambique to prevent oil reaching Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, and, despite antipathy from the Labour government at home, the South African Navy still looked to Britain for leadership.
Through the good relations he established with P W Botha, the defence minister, Cecil averted many difficulties in a tense political environment and made himself a great asset to the British mission.
His next test came in 1975, when, promoted to rear-admiral, he was appointed Flag Officer Malta at a time when the Maltese prime minister Dom Mintoff was seeking to break centuries-long ties with Britain.
The following months were filled with complex negotiations, but Cecil succeeded in bonding with Mintoff, who warmed to his amiable style and good judgment. So much so that when the Cecils were due to depart in 1977, Mintoff himself rang the prime minister Jim Callaghan to ask that Cecil remain a further two years until the final withdrawal of British forces.
A Foreign Office dispatch from 1979 recorded that the Maltese people lined the bastions of Valletta four deep to witness Cecil’s departure in the destroyer London. For his deft handling of the situation he was appointed KBE, but the Navy had no more work for him.
In 1980 he began five years as the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man, and the last to preside over Tynwald, the Manx parliament. He fulfilled his duties with great diplomatic acumen, and he and his wife made Government House a welcoming place for the Manx people.
Oswald Nigel Amherst Cecil – universally known as “Os” – was born in Kent on Armistice Day 1925, the son of Commander Henry Cecil and a direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief counsellor.
His education at Ludgrove in the 1930s would have ensured him a place at Eton, but his father decided that with war imminent Dartmouth would be more relevant and young Cecil entered the college in 1939.
He spent the rest of the war at sea, serving in the battleship Anson on Arctic and Atlantic convoys, and the destroyers Inconstant and Serapis in operations in support of the Normandy landings. On completion of training and promotion to sub-lieutenant, Cecil was sent to the Far East to join the cruiser Swiftsure, flagship of the British Pacific Fleet, under Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Aged 21 he was reported on as “outwardly calm and unruffled under adverse conditions, never appearing to exert himself, a delight in the social round and a good raconteur”.
After a year commanding Motor Torpedo Boat 521 in home waters, he was chosen in 1950 to be flag lieutenant to the Chief of the British Naval Staff in Washington, where he made many friends. His next appointment was to Hong Kong where he commanded a motor launch patrolling the colony’s waters to deter Communist intrusions. In harbour between patrols, he lived in barracks where he dressed his Chinese steward in a tail coat and addressed him as “James”.
Further seagoing, operational and training appointments in destroyers followed, including appointment as first lieutenant of the fast minelayer Apollo after a mutiny in 1958; it is said that within days he changed the ship’s mood and inspired her people.
Rewarded by early promotion to commander, Cecil enjoyed several frigate and destroyer commands including missile-firing trials in the destroyer Corunna (1961-63). His style and leadership were well suited to him being chief of staff of the London RN Reserve division (1959-61), and commanding the Navy’s leadership school at Corsham (1963-65).
Promoted captain in 1966, he first served in the MoD before commanding the Dartmouth Training Squadron. His final appointment as a captain was as director of Naval Operational Requirements (1973-75), a post he took up at short notice after the previous incumbent suffered a heart attack. For two years he made the most of this demanding job.
He retired to the Isle of Wight where, as a Knight of St John, he was president of the island’s St John Council, and vice-president of the Royal UK Beneficent Association.
In 1986 he triumphantly returned in the frigate Brazen to Malta to celebrate an anniversary of a wartime convoy.
In 1961 Cecil married Annette Barclay, who survives him with their son.
Rear-Admiral Sir Nigel Cecil, born November 11 1925, died March 10 2017
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Old, male, and pale.