Gunnery officer whose influence was felt both in sea training and in the improvement of communications in the submarine service
The defining moment in the life of Admiral Sir Horace Law occurred when, as a young midshipman aboard the battleship Valiant in 1931, he attended an evening church service on the Rock of Gibraltar and underwent a religious experience which confirmed his Christian belief. This remained with him throughout his service career. “The gunroom – or junior officers’ mess – of a battleship,” he wrote later, “is not the most promising ground for developing a religious experience… nevertheless, the light, feeble at times, never went out…”
Born in Dublin in 1911, the son of a surgeon, Horace Rochfort Law was a direct descendant of Horatio Nelson’s elder brother, the Rev William Nelson, through his great-great-grandmother, Charlotte, Duchess of Brontë. A sickly child, he failed to enter Dartmouth naval college at the age of 13, later succeeding in 1929 as a public school entrant after four years at Sherborne School. He specialised as an advanced, or “dagger”, gunnery officer, graduating in July 1939, not long before the outbreak of war.
As a gunnery officer of the old cruiser Cairo, which had been refitted with modern anti-aircraft armament, Law took part in East Coast convoy operations until the start of the melancholy Norwegian campaign. With Allied forces endeavouring to combat the German invasion, Cairo circled the fjords expending a large amount of ammunition against high-level bombing. Law paid tribute to the unsung heroes of the Naval Armament Service who, in unarmed ships, attended the warships, repeatedly supplying them with ammunition.
Perhaps typical of early British difficulties in waging an efficient war, Cairo, with light cruiser Effingham and the South Wales Borderers embarked, set out for an ill-conceived landing at Bodø. Steaming too fast in rock-infested waters, Effingham tore out her bottom, causing the operation to be called off. Law recalled the commander of the combined services, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery, when splashed by a stick of bombs on Cairo’s bridge, unconcernedly shaking off the water and repolishing his monocle. Cairo had 19 sailors killed.
After Cairo was damaged off Narvik, Law went to the Mediterranean as gunnery officer in the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry, escorting the first convoy to Malta after the Italians declared war. This was Operation Hats in August 1940, in which there was also a major reinforcement of Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean fleet. With no let-up, Coventry and her sister anti-aircraft cruisers – described by Cunningham as “grand little ships” – escorted convoys all over the Aegean and along the North African coast to Tobruk.
The arrival of German forces to aid the Italians in early 1941 resulted in many naval sinkings from the Luftwaffe’s vastly more efficient dive-bombing, a threat which revealed inadequacies in the naval anti-aircraft fire control systems of the day. Nevertheless, Coventry, despite being damaged by a torpedo, played a gallant role in the British landings in Greece, and the subsequent evacuations of Greece and Crete, mostly under intense air attack. Law was awarded the DSC.
After a hard-fought action against the Vichy French off Syria, Law was sent home by troopship round the Cape and on arrival married Heather Coryton in December 1941. A feature of the wedding was a large cake made by Groppi’s of Cairo, “the like of which had not been seen in England for a year or two”.
Law’s experience led him to the light cruiser Delhi where he was in charge of trials of an American anti-aircraft gunnery system which the US Navy wanted to be tested under action conditions. The war caught up with the Americans before the trials were complete, but Law’s lavish praise of their superior system caused him to be reproved by British development authorities.
A tour as gunnery officer of the cruiser Nigeria completed Law’s war service. After his promotion to commander in 1946, his first command was the frigate Modeste, the gunnery training ship, followed by an Admiralty tour and appointment to the Far East as Fleet Gunnery Officer. This coincided with the first 18 months of the Korean War, during which Law was heavily involved ashore in arranging the operational methods for naval gunfire support of the South Korean army. He was appointed OBE for this.
In 1951 he was appointed in command of the destroyer Duchess and after promotion to captain, the light fleet carrier Centaur, in 1958. This was succeeded in 1960 by that unmistakable stepping stone to flag rank, captaincy of the naval college at Dartmouth.
In 1961, as a rear-admiral, Law was appointed Flag Officer Sea Training at Portland, bringing an austere professionalism to this important task with its responsibility towards each ship’s fighting efficiency. His ship handling skills were held in awe by many a young officer of the watch on those occasions when he took the con himself to demonstrate how things should be done.
Although normally awarded to sub-mariners, the post of Flag Officer Submarines followed in 1963. Here, Law’s encouragement in the submarine community of modern information handling techniques with which he was familiar in surface ships demonstrated the benefits of his appointment. He was appointed CB in 1963.
From 1965 to 1970 he managed the Navy’s equipment programme as Controller of the Navy. On his arrival there were the ambitious plans for the new aircraft carrier, triggering the “carrier battle” that resulted in the phasing out of the Navy’s fixed wing aviation to the dismay of those concerned about the future of the fleet. It prompted the resignations of the First Sea Lord, Sir David Luce, and the Navy Minister, Sir Christopher Mayhew. Law believed that the deplorable performance of British shipbuilding and budgetary realism should have indicated earlier that the navy was “crying for the moon”. He was appointed KCB in 1967.
He retired from the navy after a final tour as C-in-C Naval Home Command and was advanced to GCB in 1972. A busy second career included chairmanship of marine engineers R&W Hawthorne Leslie & Co, membership of the Security Commission and presidency of the Officers’ Christian Union and the Church Army. From 1970 to 1972 he was First and Principal Naval ADC to the Queen. He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown (Netherland) in 1972. He was chairman of the governors of Sherborne School, 1973-78.
His wife died in 1996, and he is survived by their two sons and two daughters.
Admiral Sir Horace Law, GCB, OBE, DSC, Controller of the Navy, 1965-70, was born on June 23, 1911. He died on January 30, 2005, aged 93.