John Forster Woodward was born on May 1 1932 at Penzance, the son of a bank clerk, and educated at Stubbington House school, once known as “the cradle of the Navy”, and the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
As a junior officer Woodward spent time in the Home Fleet, before specialising as a submariner in 1954. He served in three generations of submarines: the Second World War vintage submarine Sanguine; the post-war, diesel-powered Porpoise; and Valiant, the second of Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines.
In 1960 he passed the Navy’s rigorous submarine command course, the “perisher”, and was given charge of the diesel-powered submarines Tireless and Grampus.
Subsequently he was second-in-command of Valiant, before promotion to commander when he became the officer-in-charge (or “teacher”) on the “perisher”.
In December 1969 Woodward took command of Warspite, which was newly repaired after an underwater collision in the Barents Sea with (according to official sources) an “iceberg”. Several members of the crew were still shaken by the incident, and Woodward did much to restore their confidence in the safety of the boat and its manoeuvrability.In submarines he was nicknamed “Spock”. “I was quite pleased,” he said, “because Spock does everything by logic.”
Promoted to captain in 1972, Woodward attended the Royal College of Defence Studies, where he disliked all the paperwork, and in 1974 became Captain of Submarine Training. In 1976 he returned to general service, for the first time in more than 20 years, to command the Type 42 guided missile destroyer Sheffield.
As Director of Naval Plans from 1978 to 1981, during the Strategic Defence Review (also known as the Nott Review) in the first term of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, Woodward unsuccessfully opposed John Nott’s determination to make severe, and what the Service regarded as “disproportionate”, cuts in the Navy. The casualties included one-fifth of its destroyers and frigates, one aircraft carrier, two amphibious ships, and the ice patrol ship Endurance, whose declared withdrawal from the Antarctic encouraged the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in April 1982. Woodward felt keenly the irony that as Flag Officer, First Flotilla, from 1981 to 1983 he should have to clear up the mess created by politicians.
After the Falklands conflict Woodward was appointed KCB and was Flag Officer Submarines and Commander Submarines Eastern Atlantic in 1983–84.
Although Woodward had made prolific use of the radio-telephone during the Falklands conflict, talking to some of his subordinate commanders and to the Task Group Commander at Northwood, he had not spoken to the Prime Minister. Indeed, he did not come to know Mrs Thatcher until he was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments) during the period 1985–88, when he attended several Cabinet meetings.
At his first such meeting, the Prime Minister’s advisers had not even sat down when she announced that she had read all the papers and went on to explain what the government should do. Woodward realised that she had missed a point of detail and raised a hand to attract her attention. “If looks could kill, I was done for,” he would recall. “But I persisted, gave her the information she had missed and bought time for the other officials to gather their wits before further decisions were made.”
Later, when a senior civil servant told him: “You were very lucky today. You interrupted the PM – most don’t survive that,” Woodward replied: “She was talking — and needed some fearless advice, which she got.”
Woodward respected Mrs Thatcher, but had little time for most politicians, believing that they did not “have a clue about defence”. He was a stern critic of the Coalition government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.
While his detractors thought him somewhat cold and arrogant, those who knew him better insisted that he was modest, sensitive, humorous, self-critical and clever. He had been a gifted mathematician at school and was a keen bridge player from his school days.
Woodward’s memoirs, One Hundred Days: the memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (co-written with Patrick Robinson), are a frank account of the pressures experienced by a commander fighting a war, and is told with self-deprecating humour.His last appointment in the service was as Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command (1987–89). He was appointed GBE in 1989.Woodward left the Navy at the age of 57, and in retirement was chairman of the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel Trust, which raised £2.3 million. The chapel, at Pangbourne College, was opened by the Queen in 2000.
He settled at Bosham, near Chichester, West Sussex, where he could indulge his lifelong passion for sailing in small boats.Sandy Woodward married, in 1960, Charlotte McMurtrie, with whom he had a son and a daughter. They later separated, and since 1993 his companion had been Winifred “Prim” Hoult.
Admiral Sir John ("Sandy") Woodward, born May 1 1932, died August 4 2013
Quo Fata Vocant-Whither the Fates call