Obituary: RAdm George Ritchie CB DSC; decorated war hero and pioneering hydrographer who served the Royal Family

0
Have your say

Born: 30 October, 1914, in Burnley. Died: 8 May, 2012, in Collieston, Aberdeenshire, aged 97.

With a maritime heritage stretching back generations it was perhaps not surprising that he should opt for a life at sea.

But, unlike his forebears, George Stephen Ritchie chose not to follow the ancient family tradition of fishing out of the small North-east village of Collieston.

Instead he joined the Navy at 13, a decision which marked the start of what was to be an illustrious career, earning him international renown for his hydrographic expertise and cartography during peacetime and the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in war as one of the forerunners of the Special Boat Service.

It also saw him serve royalty as Aide De Camp to the Queen and later as president of the International Hydrographic Bureau, set up by Monaco’s Prince Rainier who provided the forward for his memoirs, No Day Too Long.

The son of Scottish parents, Sir Douglas Ritchie and his wife Lady Margaret, he was born in Burnley, where his father was town clerk. However, much of his early life was spent in Methlick, Aberdeenshire, before he moved south to Somerset and then on to Dartmouth Naval College.

He went to sea at 17 and joined the Navy’s surveying service in 1936, serving on the coal-burning surveying ship HMS Herald in the South China Sea.

After the outbreak of the Second World War he was attached to the Eighth Army from 1942 to 1943. It was during this period that his bravery and resourcefulness were recognised with the DSC for his exploits surveying beaches behind enemy lines in North Africa.

However, it was an episode that was almost put paid to before it began – thanks to unwittingly being caught up among hordes of Italian soldiers enjoying an afternoon of fun and games.

His mission was to survey a beach as a possible landing site for tanks. Having been transported along the Gulf of Bomba near Tobruk, and successfully made it ashore before dawn, the idea was to lie low in bushes during the day. But he was awoken in the early afternoon by truckloads of enemy soldiers arriving on the beach for a swim and a game of hide and seek – in the same bushes.

He came close to being discovered when two Italians lay down in the shrubbery nearby. “It was an agonising afternoon,” he recalled and he feared his luck had run out when a whistle sounded. Fortunately, it was simply the signal for the Italians to return to their trucks, leaving him free to continue his survey as soon as darkness fell.

Afterwards, paddling back in his collapsible canoe, there was another close shave when he found a battle raging on the shore. While sheltering in the water, exhausted, he was spotted and shots rang overhead. Lifted out by soldiers with accents he assumed were German he feared he was “in the bag” or captured. But again, good fortune was with him and they turned out to be Afrikaans.

The war years and another dose of luck also introduced him to his wife, Disa, a white South African who had originally come to Britain to attend St Andrews University. They met in 1942 on board the SS Ceramic. He was on his way to a new posting and she was returning home, having been widowed when her first husband, a Canadian Spitfire pilot, was killed in action.

They quickly fell in love and married weeks later on arrival in Cape Town, enjoying just two days together before being parted for the next two years. Not long afterwards the Ceramic was sunk by a U-boat while en route to Australia. Only one man survived.

Ritchie, who was always known as Steve, later served on HM Survey ship Scott for the invasion of Europe in 1944 and after the war ended he continued in the Navy’s surveying service, commanding four of the fleet’s survey ships.

He visited almost every country on the globe and circled the world on a scientific voyage with HMS Challenger which, in 1951, recorded the deepest part of the ocean trench, now known as Challenger Deep, using echo sounding. In the mid-1950s he went on loan for three years to the New Zealand Navy’s surveying service.

He particularly enjoyed his time on survey work in Polynesia and had a great love of the West Indies, where he commanded the survey ship Vidal. That passion for the area, and its music, remained with him and he loved to drink rum and dance with his West Indian friends during the Trinidad carnival.

In 1965 he became Aide de Camp to the Queen and the following year was promoted to Rear Admiral and appointed Hydrographer of the Navy, a post he held until 1971, during which time he was responsible for publication of the Admiralty Chart worldwide series.

Ritchie, who was made a Companion of the Bath in 1967, then had a spell as a senior research fellow at Southampton University before becoming president of the International Hydrographic Bureau, based in Monaco, in 1972. He spent ten years in the principality where he enjoyed the use of a flat, provided by the royal family opposite the casino, and served a second term as bureau president in 1977.

Back in Britain he moved into the family house built by his grandfather at Collieston, near Ellon, where his flamboyant character and interest in everyone and everything endeared him to all who knew him.

Over the years he authored papers on navigation and oceanography for various publications plus the book, Challenger – The Life of a Survey Ship, in 1957.

He wrote with a powerful and eloquent voice, once recalling his ship on an epic voyage as, “far out on the Pacific, a blue dome of sky above, great depths beneath, a white speck in an empty world”.

And of the great fleets of velellas, dolphins racing before the stern and golden rafts of algae, he noted: “These are things one has time to regard and time to ponder on when passing unhustled across the face of the ocean.”

In retirement he continued to write, penning his autobiography, No Day Too Long, and As It Was, Highlights of Hydrographic History. Three years ago he donated his hydrography collection to Newcastle University.

His other interests included sea fishing, conserving Collieston, where he chaired the Harbour Trust and fundraised to maintain the pier, and boules.

He introduced the sport to the locals, founding the village Boules Club in 1985, and said winning the 2004 league championship, in his 90th year, with his team named the Flukies, ranked as a highlight of his life.

Widowed in 2000 and predeceased by his son John, he is survived by his daughter Tertia and sons Paul and Mark.

ALISON SHAW