The Times: Vice-Admiral Sir James Weatherall


War Hero
"Frigate commander who kept his cool as an Exocet missile bore down on his ship in the Falklands


When the sailors in the operations room of the frigate HMS Andromeda realised that an Exocet missile was bearing down on them, the tension was palpable. It was the height of the Falklands conflict and Argentine missiles had already fatally crippled two British ships, HMS Sheffield and the SS Atlantic Conveyor.

The frigate’s commanding officer, Captain Jim Weatherall, remained unmoved. His crew were primed for an attack. They counted down the missile’s approach as it streaked past HMS Exeter near by and expected to counter it seconds later with their recently fitted surface-to-air Sea Wolf missile system. “The Exocet was getting unpleasantly close,” her executive officer, Roger Parkes, recalled. “This was life and death; people functioned very effectively, operating at a high standard.”

Luck also intervened on that day in May 1982. The Exocet suddenly ran out of fuel and splashed into the sea before it came within range of Andromeda’s defences as the ship gave close escort to the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible.

The crew were permanently at action stations, so they all wore anti-flash gloves and hoods that hid their faces, except for their eyes. As a result, Weatherall could tour his frigate incognito. On hearing one sailor complaining about his food, saying, “My mum would never serve up this meal,” the captain tapped the sailor on the shoulder and said: “Eat it up or your mum will not be pleased.” By the next day the phrase was being mimicked by the entire ship’s company.

Not only did Andromeda survive the Argentine attack, she came through the war unscathed. She was the last ship in the task force to return to Britain and received a rapturous reception at Devonport on September 10.

James Lamb Weatherall was born in Newton Mearns, near Glasgow, in 1936. He was the son of Alwyn Weatherall, a Royal Naval reservist who served in the merchant navy, and his wife, Joan. When he was three, his father died from the effects of a tooth abscess.

As the Second World War raged, it fell to Weatherall’s Presbyterian grandfather, James Cuthbert, to oversee his education, chastising him if he was not at the top of the class at Glasgow Academy. Cuthbert then sent him to Gordonstoun, an independent school in Moray, where he played rugby. Weatherall clashed with the headmaster, Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun, who disapproved of his choice of a military career, half-heartedly congratulating him on finishing a challenging weekend at sea with the words: “I didn’t think you had it in you.” Concluding that the headmaster was a “sod”, Weatherall fought the system, fleeing gratefully to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, at the age of 17.

His first ships included the minesweeper HMS Houghton, in which he patrolled off the Borneo coast during the undeclared war between Indonesia and Malaysia, which was a member of the Commonwealth. He later commanded the frigate HMS Tartar during the Third Cod War, joining forces with HMS Salisbury to repel an Icelandic gunboat bent on running through the British fishing fleet during a skirmish that lasted several hours. He was promoted to the rank of captain in 1978 and took command of HMS Andromeda on becoming captain of the 8th Frigate Squadron in 1982.

On land Weatherall fell for Jean Macpherson, the eldest daughter of Lord and Lady Drumalbyn, the moment she walked into his mother’s home in Newtonmore in 1960. He later recalled the “clunk” of his jaw dropping as he beheld the “corker with red fingernails”. He pursued the 21-year-old with gusto, only for her to plump for a job in Canada. Left with no other option than to propose by post, he received a reply comprising the date of her return and the pithy query: “Which church?”

They married six weeks later, in May 1962, in the House of Commons and settled in Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire, three years later, raising two sons and three daughters. The family were surrounded by a menagerie of cats, dogs, donkeys, llamas and a goat. Weatherall later had a close association with Marwell Zoo. His favourite animal was the snow leopard.

In 1978 he became the last executive officer of the fourth HMS Ark Royal. He famously issued errant pilots on the carrier with yellow and red cards, depending on the gravity of their airborne misdemeanour. He became the first captain of the fifth ship to bear the name, visiting New York a year later where the ship’s Harriers joined the centenary celebrations of the Statue of Liberty. The British aircraft hovered in their inimitable style before the statue and then bowed, noses down.

A determined man who bubbled with energy and optimism, Weatherall underpinned every command with meticulous planning. He possessed exceptional ship-handling skills, notoriously refusing to use the assistance of tugs when entering port, and is said to have manoeuvred Ark Royal’s substantial 22,000 tons as if she was an MG sports car. He was popular too, managing young sailors with a light touch. He said it was like having 500 teenagers on the staff. “You can imagine the kind of things which come up,” he said.

He finished his career with some hefty Nato roles, serving on the staff of the supreme allied commander Europe from 1987 and then, on promotion to vice-admiral, becoming deputy supreme allied commander Atlantic in 1989. Just as Weatherall ended 37 years of military service in 1991, he was put forward for the role of Her Majesty’s Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, which he discharged from 1992 to 2001. He proved a deft link between the Queen and the foreign ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to the Court of St James’s.

Weatherall and his wife usually attended two cocktail parties and a dinner every weekday, as well as hosting events at their apartment at St James’s Palace. In the delicate, nuanced world of international diplomacy, their slick teamwork did not go unnoticed. On leaving Buckingham Palace in 2001 Weatherall was awarded a second knighthood, having received his first in 1989. One friend quipped: “Twice a night — at your age?”

He went on to hold a plethora of further appointments, including prime warden of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and chairman of the Sea Cadet Association.

He is survived by his wife and children: Niall, who is a master technician at Scania GB; Sarah, who is a freelance arts producer; Annie, who is a personal effectiveness coach, helping people to administer busy lives; and the twins, Lizzie, who is a management accountant to a group of independent schools, and Ian, who is a paramedic specialist.

In the end Weatherall made his peace with Gordonstoun, where he had clashed with the headmaster over his decision to join the navy. He returned to became chairman of the board of governors. As Eve Poole, the present head of governors, said: “He was a giant of a man, but kind and gentle too.”

Vice-Admiral Sir James Weatherall, KCVO, KBE, naval officer, was born on February 28, 1936. He died on March 18, 2018, aged 82, after a long illness


War Hero
A Memorial Service for Sir James is to be held at St Peter's Church, Bishops Waltham, on Friday 20th April at 2.30pm.

St Peter's Church
St Peter's St
Bishop's Waltham
SO32 1EE