General Sir Peter Whiteley,
of the Royal Marines, who has died aged 95, probably fired some of the last
shots of the Second World War, and held three key appointments at the height
of the Cold War.
From 1972 to 1975 he was chief of staff at Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe (AFNORTH), based at Kolsås outside Oslo, the most northerly of the Nato commands. In the event of war with the Soviet Union, AFNORTH would have assumed supreme command of all Allied forces in Norway, Denmark, northern Germany and the adjacent seas, and the Royal Marines, who were specialised in Arctic warfare, would be used to reinforce Norway.
Whiteley was an outstanding success in this appointment, realising that more would be achieved by encouragement and suggestion than by direction, and his Nato subordinates responded to his friendly and open approach. They recognised his abilities as a soldier and his tri-service experience, and gave him their trust and confidence. He was also able to establish close relationships with the military leaders of Norway, Denmark and Germany and with their political masters.
Whiteley returned to Britain to be commandant general, Royal Marines (1975–77), and upon the death in office of General Sir John Sharp, he was a unanimous choice by the countries concerned to be the commander-in-chief Allied Forces Northern Europe.
In this role he showed a sure touch in dealing with his Nato subordinates, a politically sensitive process since they remained under national command in peacetime. He was on excellent terms with the various national authorities, and did not hesitate to speak frankly with them when the occasion demanded, but he was always able to do so without arousing rancour.
He was frequently required to deal with the ambassadors of Nato countries and was politically sure-footed at handling government ministers of all ranks, who instinctively trusted him for his obvious sincerity. Whiteley imbued a sense of confidence and common purpose in a command which was often seen as the Cinderella of the Allied command structure.
Peter John Frederick Whiteley was born on December 13 1920 at Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, where his father was a solicitor, and educated at Bishop’s Stortford College, Bembridge School, and L’Ecole des Roches, Normandy. He won a Newspaper Proprietors’ Association scholarship to London University, but on the outbreak of war volunteered for the RAF, which rejected him for poor eyesight, and instead he was commissioned into the Royal Marines in January 1940.
By 1943 he had served in the battleship Resolution, the battlecruiser Renown, and had joined the light cruiser Gambia, which was soon lent to the newly formed Royal New Zealand Navy. Gambia deployed with the British Pacific Fleet, searched for blockade runners in the Cocos Islands, supported carrier-borne aircraft raids on oil installations and airfields, and bombarded the Japanese ironworks at Kamaishi on August 9 1945.
Whiteley in a light helicopter
Whiteley, as the gun direction officer in Gambia, was at the controls when she was attacked by Japanese aircraft just as news of a ceasefire was received, and could claim to have fired some of the last shots of the war. As a Royal Marine he was still expected to keep watch on the bridge, and his watchkeeping certificate was signed in Tokyo Bay on the day of the Japanese surrender, September 2 1945.
In 1946 he qualified as a fixed-wing pilot and flew Seafires, Fireflies and, in 807 Naval Air Squadron, Sea Furies until 1950. Later he requalified as a helicopter pilot and flew the Wessex troop carrier and various light helicopters, while he rapidly rose through the Royal Marines, starting as troop commander and then as adjutant in 40 Commando in Malaya (1950-51).
As a student at the Army Staff College in 1954, Whiteley showed that he possessed a clear and concise brain, considerable speed of thought and a gift of lucid expression. By 1957 he was brigade major 3rd Commando Brigade, and as rising star in the Royal Marines returned to Camberley on the teaching staff in 1960–63.
During this period he was given the task of re-designing the Commando Brigade, which was then oriented towards small-scale raiding tasks and lacked the supporting arms and logistics needed for sustained operations. He proposed a number of infantry battalions with their supporting arms – logistics, artillery and aviation – held at brigade level and he was delighted to have his ideas accepted – “Probably my most lasting achievement,” he said later.
Whiteley had shown that could delegate to subordinates while still retaining control of the task in hand, and he next commanded 42 Commando, 1965–66, in Malaysia during the Konfrontasi with Indonesia. When his brigade commander was injured in an air accident and the next one fell ill, Whiteley readily assumed greater responsibility. He bought an orphaned Malaysian “honey” bear from a trapper and trained it to behave like a dog, sitting and walking to heel.
Armed only with a walking stick and the bear on a lead, he would enter a village and sit at a table at the inevitable coffee shop until curiosity, led by children, brought out the inhabitants to investigate. Over coffee and a can of Tiger beer for the bear, friendships were formed and intelligence would flow.
Quick-minded and decisive, as acting brigade commander Whiteley was mentioned in despatches for repelling Indonesia’s last effort, known as the Tebedu Incursion, to overrun Sarawak. Next he led the Commandant General’s staff (1966-68), and then attended the Nato Defence College in Rome.
In 1968 he was promoted brigadier and commanded 3rd Commando Brigade. He excelled in this appointment, communicating easily with people at all levels and showing professionalism. These qualities earned him the respect of his marines and also of the commanders under whom he served.
In 1979-84 Whiteley was lieutenant governor and commander in chief of Jersey, where the local people warmed to his personal charm. He was regarded as one of most successful governors of recent times.
A linguist – he spoke French, Italian, Malay and Norwegian – and a lover of classical music, contemporary ballet and Mozart opera, he was an active vice-chairman of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. He held a very wide range of honorary and voluntary positions in London, in Devon and in Jersey, and was governor of a number of schools.
He was appointed OBE in 1960, KCB in 1976, GCB and Knight of Justice of the Order of St John in 1979, a chevalier of L’Ordre de la Pléiade in 1981, and deputy lieutenant of Devon in 1987.
Whiteley after flying a Sea Harrier
for his 80th birthday
Aged 80 Peter Whiteley flew with Captain Phil Kelly RM in a Sea Harrier.
He married Nancy Clayden in 1948; she survives him with their two daughters and two sons, both of whom followed him into the services.
General Sir Peter Whiteley, born December 13 1920, died February 2 2016
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