Obituary: Granville Stewart Galt, inventor

Granville Stewart Galt. Picture: Contributed
Granville Stewart Galt. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 19 February, 1921, near Edinburgh. Died: 16 December, 2013, in Linton, Cambridgeshire, aged 92.

Granville Stewart Galt, who has died aged 92, was an inveterate inventor whose wartime experience of tank warfare imbued in him an ambition to improve tank armour: never again did he want to hear the screams of trapped men being burned alive in their tanks.

Working with Dr Gilbert Harvey, then director of the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment (MVEE) at Chobham, Surrey, Galt conducted trials at the army ranges in Kirkcudbrightshire in the 1960s.

After 18 months’ work and 52 separate trials, the result was an armour whose precise formula is still secret but is believed to consist of layers of ceramics bonded between metal plates. The sandwich offered remarkable protection against Soviet High Explosive Anti-Tank (Heat) rounds. Called Chobham, the new armour was fitted on tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles and to vulnerable structures on British warships, and is credited with saving many lives.

MVEE took much of the kudos, but the invention of Chobham armour was due to Galt’s persistence and to his creative mind. Though he was paid for his work in Britain, he was deprived of his intellectual property rights when the British government gave his secrets to the US government and Chobham armour was fitted to the Abrams tank.

Galt was a modest and self-deprecating pragmatist, who felt he had accomplished his mission and was happy to be paid for the manufacture of the material, but he felt robbed of the income that could have been his in the USA and it rankled that he was denied any honour in the UK.

Granville Galt was born near Edinburgh on 10 February, 1921, into a small clan from the Isle of Skye which had already produced the political novelist John Galt and Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, regarded as the father of modern, confederate Canada.

Galt’s grandfather owned goldmines in South Africa but as a 12-year-old child his father was put on a ship to Britain to escape the Boer War. Unlike the generations of his forbears who had been educated at Fettes, young Galt was taught at a series of Highland schoolrooms while his father worked to create the National Grid in Scotland.

At school he was inevitably known as “Granny” but as soon as he could he began to use his middle name.

His early fascination with science was fuelled by the gift of a chemistry set. His tests exasperated his grandmother who, one day, ignoring the seven-year-old’s attempts to intervene, poured an experiment down the sink. A loud boom followed as the drain blew up, and a passion for pyrotechnics was born.

On leaving school Galt took up a research post at ICI, where he tested the glue for a wooden composite construction aircraft, the DH.98, which would become the highly successful wartime Mosquito fighter-bomber. Galt also developed new paints, including the world’s first white acrylic paint.

As war approached he joined the Territorial Army. His first duty was to guard Gatwick, using his .303 rifle futilely against Messerschmitt 109s when they strafed the aircraft park.

By the end of 1942 he was commissioned into the RASC and attached to 1st Coldstream Guards. He landed in North Africa during Operation Torch, when, during the drive along the north coast of Africa, he found himself “somewhat uncomfortable” under fire from a Vichy French fort, until a thunderous explosion announced the arrival of the Navy and the top of the fort was blown off.

His memory of fighting in the desert was of the discomfort of sand storms and the wiliness of the Bedouin. After some weeks of providing a reliable supply of eggs, a nomad trader claimed that his hens were off lay. Suspecting the man of trading with both sides, and seeing the bulging hood of the man’s djibbah, Galt slapped him heartily on the back.

“No worries, my man,” he said, giving himself the satisfaction of knowing that the Germans would not be enjoying fried eggs for breakfast any more than his own men.

The Guards participated in the Italian campaign, where, Galt recalled, he saw greater suffering than at any other time in his life. Years afterwards he could not comprehend the beauty of an almond tree in blossom: the scent was overpowered by a memory of body parts hanging in the delicate branches.

He was mentioned in despatches for his bravery on 20 March, 1942, when he crawled along a railway line, in the line of fire of the heavily dug-in Germans to ensure that a smoke screen properly hid an attack by the Guards and the Gurkhas on German positions at Monte Cassino.

On route to Venice, Galt’s vehicle came under attack from a German multi-barrelled, rocket-propelled mortar. A cluster of six large shells encircled him but all failed to explode, and he had the sangfroid to commemorate his luck by having himself photographed in their midst.

He rode into Venice on the first tank to reach that city, and in battle dress was led to the Danieli hotel by his batman, who announced: “Good evening, Sir. I’ve put you in the honeymoon suite.”

Later, when he stepped onto the balcony to admire the view, a four-inch shell whizzed below him, removing a portion of the hotel’s façade, but that night he dined in full mess kit at the Doge’s Palace.

Somewhere in Austria, Galt liberated some vintage Champagne which was drunk at his wedding to Peggy Dudley in 1945.

Later he was ordered to guard a trainload of Russian prisoners-of-war to Yugoslavia. Instead, alerted to their likely fate in the gulags of Siberia, he sent a runner down the line of cattle trucks to open the doors and tell the prisoners to take their chance in the hills.

Post-war, after reading metallurgy at Birmingham, Galt started a manufacturing business which explored the possibilities of composite materials and developed new ways of moulding fibreglass.

Much of his bread and butter work came from producing fibreglass domes for architectural use. One of the first was an early cover for the practice courts at Wimbledon, and another was the cupola of New Hall, Cambridge, now part of a Grade II-listed building.

He made stab- and bullet-proof vests for the police, and, after his protective suits for bomb disposal officers were bought in the USA, he was made an honorary member of the Miami bomb squad.

He also designed a shock-proof casing for the first in-flight recorders. Galt next turned his attention to rigid inflatable boats which he designed with David Stogdon of the RNLI and which were later adopted by rescue services worldwide.

Galt enjoyed fine wine and food, and owned property in France and the USA. On the Isle of Wight he commuted to work on a red Ducati 860 cc motorbike, which he maintained himself, and he held a private pilot’s licence for most of his life.

When he could no longer fly his Czech-built twin-engined Aero Super 45 he took up gliding.

His talent for design extended to stunning jewellery for his wife and at any excuse he used to fill their home with flowers. He was always exquisitely dressed with a vast collection of flamboyant Italian silk ties, handmade shoes and suits.

He asked to be buried in the family tartan and wearing the tie of the 6th Armoured Division, black emblazoned with white mailed fists.

Galt died at Linton, Cambridgeshire on 16 December and the funeral will be held at St Mary’s, Weston Colville on New Year’s Eve.

His wife predeceased him in 2012 and he is survived by their daughter, the artist Margaretha Galt.