September 19, 2000
Naval air operations from the Second World War to Suez
FLYING more than thirty different types of aircraft in peace and war, Peter Compston had a varied career in both the RAF and Fleet Air Arm which was crowned by command of the aircraft carrier Victorious in the Far East and, as a vice-admiral, by the Nato post of Deputy Supreme Commander Atlantic.
His early life was difficult, his father having died when he was seven. He ran away from Epsom College to sign up in The Hampshire Regiment as a private soldier, but his family disapproved and bought him out. Two subsequent years as an embryo stockbroker convinced him of the need for something more exciting in life.
He was commissioned into the RAF in June 1936, gaining his wings in 1937. He then went to Iraq as part of the RAF presence there, flying Vickers Valentia biplane troop carriers which could also be modified for bombing practice. After that he had a tour based at Boscombe Down in Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers before transferring to the Royal Navy in 1938.
His first Fleet Air Arm posting was to Gibraltar, where he flew Swordfish floatplanes, towing targets and marking gunnery shoots. Shortly after the outbreak of war he transferred with 810 Squadron to the Ark Royal, flying anti-submarine patrols and bombing German aircraft on an ice lake in Norway.
His career was nearly ended by one of the tragic events of the ultimately disastrous campaign which failed to counter the German invasion of Norway. On May 15, with three other Fleet Air Arm officers and accompanied by the 1st Battalion The Irish Guards, he was on his way up the fiords to Bodo in the 11,000-ton Polish motor-ship Chobry to help the RAF in setting up much-needed airfields ashore, when the ship was sunk by the Luftwaffe with great loss of life.
Compston was so impressed with the courage, discipline and steadiness of The Irish Guards that he wrote to the colonel with a full account of the event; how he himself was woken by "the most deafening roar I have ever heard or want to hear". He described how the guardsmen waited patiently to embark in the lifeboats without the slightest sign of panic, obeying every order calmly given by their NCOs, and noted their generosity in sharing dry clothing in the bitter cold. Survivors were rescued by the destroyer Wolverine and the sloop Stork.
Compston then spent more than a year as a test pilot at the naval air station at Donibristle in Fifeshire until appointed in April 1942 to the battleship Anson, Admiral Bruce Fraser's flagship in the Home Fleet. Here he had the vital task of operating Anson's scouting Walrus amphibian during Allied convoys to Russia.
In June 1943 he went to HMS Cormorant II, the airfield at Gibraltar which provided a multitude of services to the fleet, including anti-aircraft gunnery target towing and logistic and technical support for the growing number of air bases around the Mediterranean. He joined the newly built light fleet carrier Vengeance in October 1944, but was sent to another shore appointment at Middle Wallop before her deployment to the Far East. He saw out the war organising mobile naval air bases for the Pacific theatre.
In 1945 Compston transferred to a regular naval commission and joined the carrier Warrior, at that time serving with the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1948 he was appointed air weapons officer to the carrier Theseus, which from October 1950 served in the Korean War. During operations on the west coast of the Korean peninsula he was mentioned in dispatches.
He was next selected as a member of the directing staff of the RN Staff College and then took part in the ill-starred Suez campaign as naval operations officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Charles Keightly.
His first sea command was the destroyer Orwell and as Captain (D) Plymouth. In 1959 he was a student at the Imperial Defence College, after which he had two years in Paris as British naval attaché.
His next tour, in 1962, as captain of the recently modernised large carrier Victorious, was his professional apogee as an aviator, although his own flying had ceased after jet aircraft familiarisation courses in 1955. Victorious had a testing commission: she was the first to operate the heavy Buccaneer strike aircraft, with very narrow margins for error, and during 1964 she was part of the large naval commitment to maintaining the security of the newly established state of Malaysia against the political claims and military incursions of Indonesia.
After promotion to rear-admiral in 1965, Compston was appointed to Washington as chief of the British naval staff and subsequently as second-in-command of the Western Fleet. His talents as a diplomat and strategist, ably supported by his socially skilful wife Angela, were much in evidence on his final tour as Deputy Supreme Commander Atlantic, based at Norfolk, Virginia. In this post he reported to the American Supreme Commander, who also doubled as C-in-C US Atlantic Fleet; thus much responsibility for the transatlantic cohesion of this important aspect of the Nato alliance fell to the deputy.
Compston was appointed CB in 1967 and advanced to KCB in 1970. In retirement he was a tireless fundraiser for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
He married first, in 1939, Valerie Bocquet; he is survived by their son and daughter. This marriage was dissolved; in 1953 he married Angela Brickwood, who died in 1994.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov