History records that in 1982 when news reached London that an Argentine invasion of the Falklands was imminent, Henry Leach, the first sea lord, went straight to see Margaret Thatcher and gave her “tremendous heart” by arguing the case for assembling a task force.
However, this account does not tell the whole story. The second sea lord was Desmond Cassidi and it fell to him to add the necessary “but” regarding government cuts in warship numbers. We can do it, prime minister, was his message. But with what? “We’ve just spent the last ten years cutting them back.”
His reservations put on record, Cassidi joined in the search for seaworthy vessels, including requisitioned merchant navy ships and ferries — and as the service’s head of personnel, he was at Portsmouth to watch the departure of every ship taking part in the task force, knowing from experience that the chances of them all returning safely would be slim.
Cassidi’s introduction to the brutal realities of maritime warfare had come as a teenager during the Second World War. He was serving in HMS Ramillies on D-Day, helping to man the range finder for her main armament of 15in guns, one of which now stands outside the Imperial War Museum in London.
He would later recall the maelstrom of June 6, 1944; how the sky overhead was darkened by the sheer numbers of Allied aircraft and several sailors lost their hearing because of the cacophonous roar. Ramillies came in close to the Normandy coast to pound a German battery in support of landings on Sword beach while enemy shells smacked into the water around her.
By that time the 19-year-old Cassidi already had plenty of frontline experience, having served in HMS Cumberland and HMS Hardy, patrolling the seas around Iceland and escorting Arctic convoys. He discharged a monotonous routine of lookout and signalling duties, during which he sipped soup and cocoa in a futile attempt to repel the biting cold.
He and his fellow midshipmen were instructed to keep diaries of these patrols, and he filled two leather-bound books with observations in immaculate, flowing script, including an excited passage recording news of the Dambusters raid. The memory of those harsh deployments remained with him for the rest of his life.
Arthur Desmond Cassidi, who went by his middle name, was born in Gillingham, Kent, in 1925, the son of Commander Robert Cassidi and his wife Clare (née Alexander), who died of tuberculosis at 29 when her son was two months old. He was cared for by family in Northern Ireland before being sent to a preparatory school in Skegness, which he loathed.
He arrived at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in September 1938, asthmatic and a little weedy, but swiftly took to naval life. His report concluded that he was “a very keen, smart and efficient type” and predicted that he would thrive in the service. “He gives the impression of contented reliability, and I feel sure he will continue to do this when he goes to sea,” its author continued.
At the end of the war Cassidi was among a cadre of young Fleet Air Arm pilots sent to train in Canada. He served in 814 and 810 Naval Air Squadrons, and was later involved in the introduction of helicopters on to small warships. Promoted to lieutenant-commander in 1953, he was then posted to RNAS Ford as senior pilot of the Fairey Gannet’s flying trials. Working in flight development at Fairey Aviation at the time was Lettice Curtis, the pioneering female pilot (obituary, August 1, 2014), and the pair became lifelong friends.
Cassidi was commanding officer of 820 Naval Air Squadron, the frigates HMS Whitby and HMS Undaunted, and, from 1972 to 1973, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. He was renowned for being fearsome, determined and unfailingly fair, with his crews relishing the security of a strong, decisive leader. During his daily rounds he would sweep through his ships, winkling problems out of his sailors.
When a man was brought before him for court martial, he would delve down to find the reason for the transgression and bring in shore-side support for his family if necessary. “He was very balanced,” said Admiral Sir Michael Layard, who served as second sea lord from 1992 to 1995. “He came across as a touch gruff, but was absolutely devoted to his ship’s company.”
Cassidi used his gold braid to resolve problems rather than glory in its profusion in front of a mirror. He was a humble man with a dry wit, who had an aversion to pettiness and to the civil servants who he held responsible for reducing Royal Navy ship numbers. As flag officer Naval Air Command in 1978, he became involved in the Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton, later becoming its chairman of trustees and president. Elevated to second sea lord the next year, he battled to introduce female pilots into the Fleet Air Arm, only to have the move blocked by Admiral Sir Henry Leach (obituary, April 28, 2011).
By 1982 Cassidi was convinced that he would be soon retired and began to consider a civilian career. He was therefore delighted to be offered a sideways move to a final post of commander-in-chief Naval Home Command.
Cassidi had married Dorothy Scott, known by her middle name of Sheelagh, in 1950, in Garvagh, Co Londonderry, after the pair met through mutual friends in Northern Ireland. The couple then moved naval quarters 15 times in 16 years while they added three children to their family: Clare, who is a retired teacher; Mindy, a retired social worker; and Rory, who owns a catering company. After Sheelagh died of cancer in March 1974, Cassidi met Deborah Pollock, a widowed eye surgeon, at a party in Northern Ireland. They married in London in 1982 and that December his new wife became sponsor of the hunter-killer submarine HMS Turbulent, launching the boat from the factory at Barrow-in-Furness.
He became stepfather to Deborah’s children: Lucy, who is a geriatrician; Josh, a renewable energy consultant; and Vicky Ford, who is the Conservative MP for Chelmsford and a former MEP. They and Deborah survive him as do the children of his first marriage.
In 1983 Cassidi was at a party in Hampstead, north London, where he met Thilo Bode, the London correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung who had served as an Atlantic U-boat commander during the war. Such was the throng of people that he was forced to sit at Bode’s feet. The pair exchanged a torrent of war stories, acting out the exact manoeuvres each would have made above and below the waterline in their warship and U-boat to attack or evade the enemy. He chattered excitedly about the encounter for the entire journey back to Portsmouth.
Cassidi, who was appointed flag aide-de-camp to the Queen in 1982, retired from the navy in 1985. He and Deborah then moved to Pitney, in Somerset.
He became a trustee of the Science Museum and president of the Fleet Air Arm Museum, passionate about making both a fun and edifying day out for the young.
He was an avid birdwatcher and fisherman, and his love of nature took him all over the world, including to Costa Rica and Uzbekistan. He also arranged the blooms for family weddings — a hobby he picked up from Sheelagh, who was a florist — and was a member of a club for upholsterers.
Cassidi’s war service, for which he received the Arctic Star and the Légion d’honneur, returned to the forefront of his mind in later years. He was president of the British Friends of Normandy, helping to establish a British Garden of Peace in the grounds of the Caen Museum in 2004. He attended the annual Normandy D-Day commemoration events, including those held in June this year, receiving warm smiles from French passport control as he entered the country.
The Arctic convoy deployments left an indelible mark on Cassidi. Although not normally fussy about food, for the rest of his life he refused to drink soup out of a mug or to use an enamel cup: it was too stark and visceral a reminder of his time as midshipman, standing on a freezing open bridge, scouring the horizon for the enemy.
Admiral Sir Desmond Cassidi, GCB, former second sea lord, was born on January 26, 1925. He died of natural causes on October 10, 2019, aged 94