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Vice-Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald

Vice-Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald, KBE, CBE; born February 25, 1921, died January 19, 2001

As a cadet in 1939 Roderick Macdonald proved the eastern defences of Scapa Flow were fatally flawed and with two other officers on board a requisitioned herring drifter he reported the matter which was not acted upon. Three days later the German submarine U47 under Gunther Prien penetrated the Orkney anchorage between old cargo ships which had been sunk supposedly to seal off the entrances. U47 torpedoed the battleship Royal Oak at anchor on October 14, 1939, with the loss of 833 lives. Sir Roddy, who was born to the wife of a Scottish plantation manager in Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java, joined the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war in 1939, shortly after leaving Fettes College in Edinburgh, where he had been pipe major. He was posted to HMS Belfast in Scapa Flow but was seconded to the requisitioned steam drifter Lunar Bow, the cruiser's tender. As a cadet he was sailing as first lieutenant on the fishing boat and one fine day at high tide in flat calm after much sounding with lead lines, the Lunar Bow navigated through Kirk Sound, returning into Scapa Flow by Skerry Sound. The three young officers knew that their herring boat had a similar draught to a surfaced submarine. They signalled the fact that they had found navigable gaps to superior officers. Their signal seems to have been ignored as it was not presented as evidence to the inquiry into the HMS Royal Oak loss. Scapa Flow was, however, emptied of most of the home fleet, Lunar Bow accompanying the cruiser to Loch Ewe in Wester Ross. But if Lunar Bow had been retained to patrol the Flow's entrances, the HMS Royal Oak disaster may not have occurred. The channels between Orkney's mainland and the island of South Ronaldsay were permanently sealed with mighty causeways known as the Churchill Barriers which today carry the A961 road. Before his Royal Naval service, Roddy was a first-rate sportsman, captaining the Fettes College rugger team as well as being captain of Scottish schoolboys in rugby in the 1937/38 season. In athletics he excelled as a sprinter. He was knighted in 1978. From his base at Braes on the Isle of Skye he took up painting and held exhibitions in Edinburgh, Naples, and London. He served at sea throughout the Second World War in many theatres and although his ships came under attack several times none was ever sunk. From 1941/43 he served on the destroyer HMS Fortune, which became the subject of his 1993 book, The Figurehead. He rose through the ranks, commanding six warships, a squadron of minesweepers and of frigates. He was mentioned in dispatches for his active service during the Cyprus emergency in 1957 and commanded the multinational Borneo naval force during the Indonesian troubles in the 1960s, receiving the CBE for this service. He was appointed Captain of the Fleet in 1970 and was COS to the Commander in Chief Naval Home Command from 1973/76. In 1975 he was appointed ADC to the Queen and his final naval posting was to Naples in 1976. He commanded a fleet of Nato warships and had an American vessel, USS Biddle, as his flagship. After retirement the man whose family, before his father, were farmers in Ross-shire's Black Isle was active in the local community. He was chieftain of the Skye Highland Games and president of the local piping society, and of Inverness Sea Cadets. He married his first wife, Joan Willis, in 1943. He has two surviving sons, Alan, a travel writer, and John, who works in social services in Edinburgh. A third son, Rory, died at the age of 18. The marriage was dissolved in 1980 and later that year Sir Roddy married Mrs Pamela Bartosik. Both women survive him. Sir Roddy told the story of his unheeded Scapa Flow warning in his last interview with Inverness-based author James Miller. His book, Scapa revealed the story when it was published shortly before Christmas.

Bill Mowat

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