George Chesworth was a man transformed by National Service from trainee architect to decorated pilot and high-ranking RAF officer who oversaw the record-breaking mission to bomb Port Stanley airfield during the Falklands war.
Following a distinguished RAF career, which also included the Korean War and command of the country’s first Nimrod squadron, he took the helm of Glasgow’s Garden Festival, turning it into a spectacular success, before becoming Lord-Lieutenant, the Queen’s representative in Moray.
Though much of his life was spent on the Moray coast, Chesworth’s roots were in Beckenham, in the London borough of Bromley, where he was born the son of London Transport official Alfred Chesworth and his wife Grace, a telephonist.
Educated at Carshalton and Wimbledon, he was apprenticed as an architect when he began his National Service in 1948. He would never return to architecture and was commissioned into the RAF in 1950.
Chesworth, who had been an air cadet at school, was clearly suited to RAF life and became one of the few conscripts to earn his wings. He trained on Sunderland flying boats at RAF Calshot, Southampton and was posted to the Far East, serving with 205 flying boat squadron during the Korean War.
Based in Japan, the squadron patrolled off the Korean coast and Chesworth, who conducted blockade operations against the invading North Koreans, was one of the few Korean War veterans to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, received in 1954 for his hazardous reconnaissance operations.
Over the next few years he was stationed at RAF Germany and the coastal command bases RAF Kinloss on the Moray Firth and RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall. The focus for much of his professional career was maritime patrol operations, tracking Soviet submarines in Shackleton and then Nimrod aircraft. Chesworth, who commanded 201 Squadron at Kinloss from 1968-71, wrote the operational requirements for Nimrod and later commanded the first squadron of the aircraft when it came into service. He was made an OBE in 1972 for his work on establishing the operational requirements for the maritime patrol aircraft.
Subsequently appointed station commander at RAF Kinloss, in 1975 he became air officer in charge of the Ministry of Defence’s Central Tactics and Trials Organisation. A couple of years later he spent a period as director of RAF Quartering.
From 1980 Chesworth was chief of staff of 18 Group at Northwood HQ but when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 he became chief of staff to the air commander of task force 317. He flew to the RAF base on Ascension Island for Operation Black Buck, a mission to disable the runway at Port Stanley on the Falklands and thwart Argentina’s ability to land supplies and troops by denying use of the airstrip for transport and combat aircraft.
It was to be a fiendishly difficult operation, given the vast distances aircraft had to travel in order to reach their target and return safely. At the time the RAF’s large aircraft were for use in Europe and over Nato waters with air-to-air refueling not envisaged in such circumstances. Now the Nimrod, Vulcan and Victor planes found themselves in a very different situation – 8,000 miles from home and 3,900 miles from the nearest friendly supply base. With great ingenuity, Vulcans were adapted, air-to-air refueling practice began and seven missions were planned. Each mission would see one Vulcan undertaking the bombing run, accompanied by a second as back-up, and supported by 12 Victor tankers on the outward leg plus two Victors and a Nimrod on the return trip.
The success of Operation Black Buck would make it a record-breaking long-range air attack, the most significant since the Second World War, and after the crews’ briefing on the eve of the first mission on 1 May 1982, Chesworth wished them luck. His message, recorded by Rowland White in his book, Vulcan 607, was concise: “This has never been done before; the eyes of the world are on you; there’s a lot riding on this.”
Three successful bombing runs were carried out, putting the airfield beyond the enemy’s use and the war ended on 20 June. Chesworth was later made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for his work in the South Atlantic and continued as chief of staff, 18 Group until retiring in 1984.
Then, out of the blue, he was approached to take the helm of Glasgow Garden Festival. The following four years saw him oversee the 1988 event that attracted more than four million visitors and contributed to Glasgow’s transformation as City of Culture a couple of years later.
He was even persuaded to try the festival’s the white-knuckle Thrill Ride but confessed it had taken every ounce of his military training to retain his composure during the “experience”.
For more than 30 years Chesworth lived in Moray, where his home in Forres overlooked the runway of his old command RAF Kinloss. Heavily involved in the local community, he was a JP, chairman of Moray, Badenoch and Strathspey Enterprise, Lord-Lieutenant of Moray from 1994 to 2005 and president of the Highland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. He was also honorary air commodore of No 2622 (Highland) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force regiment and maintained a keen interest in RAF maritime patrol capability in retirement.
Chesworth, who always said his RAF career started and finished with a war, was one of five retired senior Air Force officers who spoke up to criticise the scrapping of Nimrod MR4A, the most high-profile equipment victim of the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Strategic Defence and Spending Review. However, he welcomed last year’s the decision to revive the UK’s long range maritime patrol capability by acquiring American Poseidon P-8A aircraft for the RAF.
Predeceased by his wife Betty and their son Robert, he is survived by their daughters Fiona and Alison.