Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet


War Hero
Vice-Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet

Last Updated: 3:26am GMT 09/11/2007

Vice-Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet, who died on Wednesday aged 93, was a Second World War submarine ace later appointed the Royal Navy's youngest captain at 36 and its youngest admiral at 45.

Vice-Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet
made the submarine Trenchant synonymous with himself in his memoir of his command

In 1941 he was sent as relief commanding officer in the "Fighting" 10th Submarine Flotilla based at Malta, where he took over command of Upholder from Lieutenant David Wanklyn, VC, for what was to be his only uneventful patrol.

Hezlet then took temporary command of Unique, the sole survivor of three submarines sent to patrol the shallow waters off Tunisia which attacked a convoy bound for North Africa. He sank the 11,400-ton troopship Esperia, but was counter-attacked and, not knowing that Unique was leaking fuel from an external tank which gave away his position, he was bombed repeatedly by an Italian flying boat. Nevertheless, he survived and after only nine days in command was awarded the DSC for his courage and skill.

Next Hezlet stood in for "Black" Mackenzie, in command of Ursula, and was again successful against a convoy. Later, while attempting to destroy a railway bridge by gunfire, he exchanged shots with the Italian army before finally diving when attacked by aircraft.

Hezlet sailed for home in September 1941 with Ian McGeoch as his first lieutenant: such was the shortage of ammunition on Malta that he was only allowed to take two torpedoes with him, but en route he was ordered on patrols off the Azores and the west coast of occupied France.

Between March and May 1942 he commanded the submarine Trident in the Arctic, where he was ordered to wait in ambush for German capital ships to emerge from hiding in the Norwegian fjords; to his chagrin he had to let two U-boats pass when he thought bigger game was afoot. For his part in the protection of convoy PQ16 he was mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service.

In September 1942 Hezlet began to work with midget submarines, for which he devised the "Hezlet Rail", a bar and strap fitted to stop men being washed off casings. He commanded Thresher, one of six towing submarines which took part in Operation Source, the attack by midget submarines on German ships in Altenfjord; he was mentioned in dispatches a second time for outstanding courage and devotion to duty.

Then, in 1944-45, Hezlet made the submarine Trenchant famous, and synonymous with himself; his skilful personal memoir HMS Trenchant at War: from Chatham to the Banka Strait came out in 2001 to coincide with the centenary of the British Submarine Service.

On September 23 1944, off Penang in the Straits of Malacca, he intercepted the long-range German submarine U-859, which was one hour from the end of a six-month voyage from Kiel with a secret cargo destined for the Japanese munitions industry. In difficult conditions with a heavy swell running and a second U-boat lurking, Hezlet conducted a snap attack using his stern tubes, and hit U-859 amidships.

He took 10 prisoners from the water before diving to avoid a counter-attack. As he was closing the hatch a frightened face appeared, and an 11th German, who preferred British imprisonment to Japanese hospitality, politely said: "Wait for me, please."

In gratitude the prisoners got Trenchant's German-designed water distillation plant to work for the first time during the commission. Hezlet was awarded his first DSO for outstanding courage, skill and undaunted devotion to duty.

He also conducted the last two-man submarine, or chariot, attack of the war. When this was launched at the Japanese-held harbour of Phuket, Thailand, it was thought to be tantamount to suicide.

But Hezlet carried two chariots there and, after careful reconnaissance, recovered the crews, in time for them to watch their targets blowing up.

On June 8 1945 he dived through a minefield to attack the Japanese heavy cruiser Ashigara, which had embarked some 1,600 troops and matériel in Batavia (modern Jakarta); he had last seen Ashigara in 1937 at King George VI's coronation review. Alerted by signal intelligence the American submarines Blueback and Chub had sighted a group of warships but were unable to reach a firing position. The American radio messages were intercepted by Hezlet, accompanied by Guy Clarabut in Stygian.

As the senior officer, Hezlet set up an ambush in the Banka Strait between the south-eastern coast of Sumatra and Banka Island, through which he was sure the cruiser would pass when she returned to Singapore. Twice detected and attacked by the escorting Japanese destroyer Kamikaze, he sighted Ashigara hugging the Sumatran coast. First Clarabut attacked the destroyer but missed, then Hezlet fired eight torpedoes from his bow tubes at 4,800 yards range at Ashigara, which tried to comb the tracks but was trapped between the shore and a minefield. As Ashigara disappeared behind a pall of smoke, Hezlet summoned more than 30 of his crew to witness their handiwork through the periscope, before being reattacked by Kamikaze and making for the open sea. Hezlet was awarded a Bar to the DSO and the US Legion of Merit.

Arthur Richard Hezlet was born in Pretoria on April 7 1914, the son of Major-General RK Hezlet, CB, CBE, DSO, and educated at the Royal Naval Colleges of Dartmouth and Greenwich. He joined "the trade" in 1935, and served in Regulus on the China Station before passing his "perisher" exam in 1940.

After the war he commanded the destroyer Scorpion, was captain of the 6th Destroyer Squadron from 1955 to 1956 and captain of the cruiser Newfoundland, serving as part of the covering force sent to the Gulf in August 1958 during the coup d'etat in Iraq in which King Faisal was assassinated.

He was Flag Officer Submarines from 1959 to 1961, when he was awarded the CB. He became Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland and was promoted vice-admiral in 1964 when he was appointed KBE, but their Lordships were increasingly dubious about his strategic views, and he unexpectedly retired.

Hezlet was certainly one of the Navy's more thoughtful officers, but if his ideas had been implemented it would have meant the end of the Admiralty's cherished concept of a balanced fleet.

His first book after retirement, The Submarine and Sea Power (1967), reviewed the history of the submarine; it suggested that carrier-based aviation would be the arbiter of war at sea only until the submarine became the dominating weapon of sea power.

In Aircraft and Sea Power (1970) he developed the idea that land-based aircraft and submarine would defend and hold the Atlantic in any future war. It won the approval of Enoch Powell in The Sunday Telegraph.

A staunch if apolitical member of the general synod of the Church of Ireland, Hezlet was commissioned to write a history of the Northern Irish police. However The "B" Specials, a History of the Ulster Special Constabulary (1972) was later dismissed as merely a defence of policing in the province.

In The Electron and Sea Power (1976), he surveyed the application of electricity to naval warfare from the 19th-century onwards and argued that the application of electronics would affect not just the technology but the very nature of warfare. In this he anticipated the American concept of "network-centric warfare" (in which computers would talk to each other) by two decades.

His last book, History of British and Allied Submarine Operations (2002), was a two-volume encyclopaedia of British submarine operations during the Second World War which recorded every patrol and torpedo attack, with copious footnotes and detailed charts.

Partly from his refusal to allow anyone to edit his work, Hezlet failed to find a publisher and so had 200 copies printed privately.

"Baldy" Hezlet is remembered as an officer who, throughout his service, displayed balanced judgment and a resolution which made him an outstanding submarine commander.

He was also a yachtsman, whose Agivey was a familiar sight on the coast of Ireland and Scotland, and crossed France by canal for cruises in the Mediterranean.

Hezlet married Anne Joan Patricia Clark in 1948 and settled in the family home, Bovagh House, Aghadowey. She survives him with their two daughters.​


VMT Spearfish - 'Baldy' was a top bloke, met him a few times when I was serving in Trenchant - he always took a great interest in what we were up to. I remember we sent him a signal in Jun 95 from the Banka Straits, telling him we were on ops in his stomping ground 50 years after he sent ASHIGARA to the bottom.

A true gent & submarine legend but a damn good innings which most of us would be well pleased to get close to.


Lantern Swinger
I remember him as captain of the Newfoundland when I served on board as a member of FO2FES comms staff back in 1958. I will always remember reading the "grouper" which resulted in the Newfy turning arse about and heading back to Singers, when enroute to Melbourne from Fremantle, in order for the ship to prepare to go to the Gulf. Straight through the Sunda Straits despite the threat from Indonesian aircraft. Excellent skipper! RIP sir!

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