Admiral Sir John Treacher
© Peter Hore
Admiral Sir John Treacher, who had died aged 93, was a charismatic leader, as successful in the Navy and as in business.
Treacher was Vice Chief of the Naval Staff at a critical time for the Navy after another bruising round of Defence cuts, this one under an incoming Labour administration with Roy Mason as Secretary of State for Defence and his predecessor, Denis Healey, as Chancellor. The Navy was anxious about the future of the Royal Marines, Greenwich and the Royal Yacht, but an issue which also concerned Treacher was the Navy’s need for organic air power and the acquisition of the Sea Harrier ‘jump jet’.
Treacher skilfully brought his energy, charm and intellect to bear, made new friends in the Treasury particularly Leo Pliatsky, and cultivated his opposite number in the RAF, Ruthven Wade, and brought in British Aerospace to give an impressive display of the new aircraft to Mason.
The eventual decision to acquire the Harrier was an historic moment for the Navy and he mused, ‘In the long term turned out to have been as good for the RAF’.
John Devereux Treacher was born in Chile, his father was an Anglo-Argentine trader and his mother a Canadian, who had nursed on the Western Front in the First World War. The family lost their fortune in the crash of 1929 and returned to England to start again. Treacher was educated at Colet Court prep where he first met the future radio-presenter, Nicholas ‘Jimmy’ Parsons. He spent his first term at St Paul’s in September 1938 digging air-raid shelter trenches, and in his last term in 1942 he shocked General Montgomery, an Old Pauline, who while inspecting the CCF, discovered that Treacher, the parade sergeant, was about to join the Navy.
Treacher served as midshipman, still under training, in the battleship Nelson at the landings on Sicily and in Italy, and witnessed the surrender of the Italian Fleet. In the cruiser Glasgow he was at the D-Day landings off Omaha beach, and in the winter of 1944/45 he served in the destroyer Keppel on Arctic convoys, and later in the frigate Mermaid in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
Postwar he volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm, and during training flew many types of aircraft, before joining 800 Naval Air Squadron in the light fleet carrier Triumph in 1949, to fly the Seafire Mark 47, the last manifestation of the famous Spitfire. He flew fighter cover for a raid on airfields near Pyongynag on 3 July 1950, the first day of UN operations in the Korean War, and later he provided cover over the Inchon landings, and ground-attack on other sorties. Despite losses in 800 NAS (his wingman was shot down by friendly, US fire, and his CO was killed in a freak ground accident), the FAA reached a peak of operational performance, achieving higher sortie rates than hitherto considered possible. ‘This was’, Treacher wrote, ‘Very much the Navy’s air war’.
Treacher’s flying ability and experience were recognised and while still only a lieutenant, Treacher was chosen to bring into service the Skyraider airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, purchased in the USA, and to command 778 Naval Air Squadron. The Americans could not believe that a junior officer could be picked for such a responsible task and insisted on treating him as someone more senior. At the handover ceremony for the first aircraft he appeared in uniform to be greeted by a USN officer by ‘S**t, commander, you’re only a f*****g lootenant!’ Treacher demonstrated the effectiveness of the new AEW system when he searched for and found the hulk of the merchantman Flying Enterprise in 1952.
Treacher returned to general service second-in-command in the South Atlantic guardship ship Protector 1956–57, when he was also made aviation adviser, he insisted in qualifying to fly the ship’s Sikorsky S51 helicopter. A highlight of the commission was HRH the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Antarctica: the Prince frequently ‘glowered’ at a low cloud bases while his advisers, ‘beseeching him to keep calm’, declared it unsuitable for flying. Protector returned to Portsmouth with half a dozen King penguins bound for London Zoo, which Treacher insisted should be on deck, correctly dress in their white fronts, for ceremonial entry into harbour.
He rose easily through the Navy with a variety of flying and staff appointments in Britain and the USA. In 1961-62 he lead the team which successfully assisted the Indian Navy to commission the carrier Vikrant (ex HMS Hercules).
As a newly promoted captain in 1962 he was Naval Assistant to the Controller of Navy 1961–63, a formative experience, when he was ‘exposed to the senior management of a great number of companies with contracts to win and concerns about the future … It was a time when I switched my senses to “receive” only. Listening proved very valuable’. Next he commanded the frigate Lowestoft 1964–66 when his was the first ship to establish the Beira Patrol, the blockade of oil shipments to Rhodesia.
Over the next ten years, Treacher held all the key naval aviation appointments, including Director of Naval Air Warfare 1966–68, when his principal achievement was the purchase and introduction service of the Phantom fighter. As captain the fleet carrier Eagle 1968–70, he oversaw the deck-landing trials of the Phantom, hosted HM the Queen at the fleet review in Torbay, which included a hilarious mock ‘This is Your life on Lord Mountbatten, and a deployment to the Mediterranean.
Prompted to rear-admiral he was Flag Officer Carriers and Amphibious Ships 1970–72; and Flag Officer, Naval Air Command 1972–73.
Treacher became Commander-in-Chief, Fleet 1975-77, when as a major NATO commander at the height of the Cold War, at the table with US General Al Haig, he ensured that the UK punched well its weight. He was widely tipped to become First Sea Lord, but when he found that the incumbent had laid other plans, he retired, shortly before the Silver Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead which he had planned, avowing to secure the financial security of his family.
After Sir Donald Gosling appointed Treacher as chief executive of National Car Parks, he oversaw the company’s rapid expansion at Heathrow and then overseas. Gosling encouraged him to take on other directorships, which brought him to the Press Council 1978–81: he was sceptical about the Press’s response to criticism, except for a Bill Deedes’ leader in the Daily Telegraph ‘We Got it Wrong’. ‘Sadly’, he wrote, ‘Few editors reacted this way’.
Head-hunters began to gather round Treacher and ‘on a bad day in the office’ he was persuaded to join the Playboy Corporation. The major profits of Hefner’s worldwide organisation came from its London gambling business and, at risk of losing its licence, it wanted Treacher as its ‘Mr Clean’. Despite Treacher withstanding two days in the witness box defending charges of breach of the Gaming Act, Playboy lost its case, and Hefner sold the London operation.
Treacher was snapped up by Westland helicopter company where he was active on the board 1983-89. He understood the company’s strength and its importance to Defence, and he vigorously defended the company against what he saw as a Euro-centric and self-promotional bid by Michael Heseltine to divorce Westland from its American roots. In his autobiography he called the episode, ‘when Heseltine all but deserted the Ministry of Defence for six weeks’, as the Heseltine Conundrum.
Widely read himself, his autobiography Life at Full Throttle (2004) is a readable and entertaining, name-dropping, gallop through his years in the Navy and in business.
An experienced and skilled pilot who flew many hours in many types of propeller, jet and rotary wing aircraft, admirers universally admired him as amiable, vibrant and charismatic, a friend who unfailingly kept up in touch, an inspirational, quick-thinking and fast-moving leader. His twinkling blue eyes barely disguised his aura of power and his invincible will.
Faith was also a part of Teacher’s life, he was a regular attender at St George’s, Campden Hill until incapacitated by a stroke in his late 80s, and on Remembrance Day parades there and at St Paul’s school in uniform.
Treacher loved to be by the sea, and his second home was in southwest corner of Ibiza, where he taught his children to boat. He married the American Patcie McGrath in 1950, and they had one son and one daughter (marriage dissolved in 1968), and in 1969 he married Kirsteen ‘Kirstie’ Landale, and they also had one son and one daughter.
Admiral Sir John Treacher, born September 23, 1924, died April 30 2018.