Tribute to Rear Admiral John Gower

28th July 1960 – 12th February 2024

In February of this year, we paid tribute to Rear Admiral John Gower CB OBE, an incredible man and proud chairman of LGF from 2018 to 2022. He passed away peacefully on Monday 12th February from bowel cancer at the age of 63.

You can read John’s fascinating obituary first published by the Times, here:

Rear-Admiral John Gower CB OBE was the Cold War leader of the UK’s nuclear response and known as ‘the grumpy admiral’ even if he did once make a dark joke to a Russian general.

In preparation for a visit by Nato bigwigs in 2012, Russian soldiers had repainted the entire interior of their national missile defence radar command post. This meant that, after two hours of presentations, the guests were left fume-groggy and they felt relieved to emerge into the sunlight.

Rear-Admiral John Gower found it incongruous that he had been invited to the invitation-only conference in the first place. Having been in charge of the British nuclear deterrent, he assumed he would be banned for life from ever visiting Russia, let alone its command posts. But once he accepted the invitation he made the most of it and, bent on mischief, he collared the Russian general in charge of the command centre and thanked him for the visit, adding that he had never seen the building “from this angle”. A smile played upon the general’s lips before he realised what the Cold War submariner meant.

The rest of the trip proved similarly diverting as Gower dodged a honeytrap, which he had been expecting ever since noticing the huge mirror in his hotel bedroom. He returned to London with plenty to tell MI6.

Destroying some of Syria’s chemical weapons was a career highlight

As well as being one of the most skilful submariners of his generation, Gower was an intellectual powerhouse, whose brain idled while those around him galloped to keep pace. His contribution to the international discussion of nuclear weapons after retiring from the Royal Navy was significant, presenting twice to the first committee of the UN in New York on reducing the risks of nuclear conflict.

He also spoke at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, the Nato Defence College, in Rome, and the British American Security Information Council, the Royal United Services Institute and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, all in London. His aim was to reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction in an increasingly fractured world, but not by disarming.

Instead, he advocated continued strategic nuclear deterrence while criticising countries such as the United States and Russia for reacting to heightened tension by expanding their stocks of tactical nuclear weapons. This stance alienated some of the Pentagon hawks with whom he had previously worked closely. But Gower, who always fought hard for what he believed in, carried on regardless and was considered one of the more calming and logical voices around the 2016 parliamentary debate on the replacement of the submarines which maintain the UK’s continuous at sea deterrent. The Commons voted for Trident renewal by a majority of 355.

John Howard James Gower was born in 1960 in Carshalton, Surrey, to Howard Gower, a chartered gas engineer, and his wife Josephine (née Smart), a domestic science teacher. They moved to Solihull when Gower was four, and he was educated at Solihull School.

In 1969 Howard Gower drowned in a holiday seaside accident, with his children hastily taken into the dunes so they did not witness the death. The incident affected Gower deeply and, growing up almost as far from the sea as is possible in Britain, meant he harboured no thoughts of a maritime career.

When his mother remarried, to Tim Adkin, a teacher at Solihull School and head of the RAF section of its Combined Cadet Force, he set his heart on becoming a fighter pilot only to fail the eye test. The canny head of the Royal Navy section swiftly dispatched Gower to visit Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and he joined in September 1978, achieving moderate success.

Deferring his cadetship, he gained a degree in electrical engineering science from Salford University, while continuing his fleet training during university holidays. He spent one Christmas night in the cells of the Hong Kong shore establishment HMS Tamar with a fellow midshipman, recovering from an overexuberant Eve. There were to be other hiccups in the early part of his career.

Switching to submarines, he was the inaugural winner of the Howard-Johnston Memorial Sword for his success on the 1986 advanced warfare course, and his instructors on the long navigation course were also impressed. This was just as well given what happened during a mess dinner at the land establishment HMS Mercury, near Portsmouth, attended by the second sea lord.

Gower and his friend Mike Davis- Marks were lowly lieutenants at the time and seated on different tables.

After ravaging wine stocks during the meal, they began heckling the deputy head of the Royal Navy during his speech. This went down badly, as did a noisy water pistol fight they then engaged upon. But what sealed their infamy was when the pair hastened from the room to pray at the porcelain altar, as the euphemism has it.

“The swing doors were oscillating after we ran through them into the galley and each time they opened everyone could hear what we were doing,” recalled Davis- Marks. “We had an interview without coffee the next day with the mess president, who said he’d never met such reprobates in his life and our bar bills were stopped. If it hadn’t been that John was their star student by far and I was coming second, we might have been kicked off the course.”

Gower became navigating and operations officer of the T-Class hunter killer HMS Tireless in 1987, operating in the Atlantic, Barents Sea and under the Arctic ice pack. He passed Perisher, the brutal submarine command course, in 1989, with his teacher, the future first sea lord, Commander Mark Stanhope, later saying that Gower was the best all round student he ever trained.

After serving as executive officer of HMS Turbulent, his first command was HMS Unicorn, the Royal Navy’s final diesel electric submarine. Promoted to commander in June 1994, he became commanding officer of HMS Trafalgar the next year, taking it for exercises beneath the Arctic with an American attack boat.

Finding a polynya under the North Pole on the late Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, he raised a mast carefully to send her the ship’s company’s greetings, later reminding the monarch of this when he received his OBE from her for the command.

Despite the award and a promotion to captain, Gower had briefly grounded Trafalgar while in the Minches, of Scotland, and, as a result, was denied command of a large surface ship, the usual next step for high-flying submarine captains. From then on, all his roles were landlocked. Assistant director nuclear deterrent on the naval staff led to assistant naval attaché at the British embassy in Washington, director for underwater capability and director A Division on the advanced command and the staff course at Shrivenham.

Once a commodore he led the directorate of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear policy, before he was promoted to rear admiral and became assistant chief of defence staff (nuclear and chemical, biological) in November 2011.

The role had a broad portfolio, including arms control, counterproliferation and missile defence policy, and he played a key part in the UK contribution to the international thrust to counter Syria’s chemical warfare programme.

This ultimately led to the removal and destruction of the officially declared stocks, the proudest achievement of his career.

Gower was made a Companion of the Bath in 2014, left the Royal Navy in April 2015, and served as chairman of the Lady Grover’s Fund for three years soon after.

He met his wife Diana Steven, the daughter of a Royal Navy officer, when they both joined the University Officers’ Training Corps. The couple married in 1986 at St Peter’s Church, Shaftesbury, three days before he returned to sea. She survives him, along with their three children: Thomas, a civil servant; Alexander, who is studying for a PhD in artificial intelligence and biology in Sweden; and Anna, a trainee nurse living in Hamburg. Due to years of operational roles, he managed to attend only one of their births.

Gower possessed a keen scientific mind and acidic wit. He was measured, candid, loyal and sometimes grumpy.

Deft at withholding classified information, the Ministry of Defence appointed the most indiscreet PA in Main Building to work for him, something that amused him, when it was not almost making his grinding molars smoke.

When deeply absorbed by work he became scatty, once forgetting to unpack properly at his London flat until a friend joked that he had been burgled.

Family life absorbed the majority of his spare time but Gower relished motorcycling, cycling and writing poetry, and slipping out of the MoD to attend open-mike evening sessions at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden.

He would cycle through London to formal dinners, bedecked in full senior officer’s mess kit, with his tails flowing behind him.

In his final years he bought two yachts, which were to the detriment of retired lifestyle.

Gower possibly saved the life of the naval journalist Ali Kefford, when her husband romantically bought her a Cold War Russian submarine clock.

Ordering her to buy a Geiger counter immediately and send him readings, his response to the figures was a deluge of text messages riddled with complex equations and a “That’s quite high: you need to get it out of your home!”

“Do you think my husband is trying to kill me?” gasped Kefford, before dialling Porton Down.

Rear-Admiral John Gower CB OBE, assistant chief of defence staff (nuclear and chemical, biological), was born on July 28, 1960. He died of bowel cancer on February 12, 2024, aged 63

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