Vice-Admiral Sir Clive Johnstone, commanded HMS Bulwark during the evacuation of Beirut – obituary

Johnstone on the bridge of the frigate HNoMS Otto Sverdrup, flagship of Standing Nato Maritime Group One, during the fleet's scheduled port visit in Helsinki, Finland, August 2017
Johnstone on the bridge of the Norwegian frigate Otto Sverdrup, flagship of Standing Nato Maritime Group One, during the fleet's scheduled port visit in Helsinki, August 2017 - Martti Kainulainen/Shutterstock

Vice-Admiral Sir Clive Johnstone, who has died aged 60, participated in the largest British evacuation since Dunkirk, and was commander of Nato’s Allied Maritime Command for four years.

Johnstone’s command in 2006-07 of the amphibious assault ship Bulwark demonstrated the flexibility and versatility of sea power. With Royal Marines embarked, he took her for six months on her maiden deployment to the Indian Ocean, where she conducted counter-terrorist and counter-pirate tasks in the Gulf of Aden, and then into the Gulf to provide security for Iraqi oil platforms against terrorist and Iranian threats.

On the passage home, Bulwark was off Barcelona and only a few days away from Plymouth when on July 15 she was diverted to the eastern Mediterranean.

After an Israeli attempt to kill a Hamas leader in Gaza, Hezbollah had entered Israel from Lebanon, killing three Israeli soldiers and taking two hostage. In retaliation Israel bombarded Beirut airport and the northern roads into Syria and tens of thousands of non-combatants were trapped.

These included British civilians, who were advised to lie low and wait for the Navy to arrive. Operation Highbrow, involving British warships and helicopters, including Chinooks from Cyprus, was mounted to rescue them.

The Foreign Office had established that some 5,000 citizens, mainly dual-nationality, were eligible for evacuation, and when the helicopter airlift proved too slow, and not knowing what danger might arise from the Israeli navy or from Muslim terrorists, Johnstone took Bulwark into Beirut harbour.

During what was said to be the largest British evacuation by sea since Dunkirk, on July 20 Bulwark embarked 1,300 people to ferry to Cyprus. Highbrow ended on July 22, when between 3,500 and 4,400 British citizens had been evacuated, but Bulwark stayed off the coast for four more weeks at a high state of readiness.

Johnstone was appointed CBE and his operations officer Lieutenant Commander Chris Saunders MBE.

Johnstone is invested CBE by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2007
Johnstone is invested CBE by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2007 - Alamy

Clive Charles Carruthers Johnstone was born on September 6 1963 in Kampala, Uganda, into a family who had served for generations in the Royal Navy and British Army. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and gained a naval bursary to read anthropology at Durham University. There he rowed for GB Juniors and competed as an under-23 international, but his career as an oarsman was halted by severe injuries during a road accident.

His first ship was the fishery protection vessel Shetland, in the cold and stormy far reaches of the North Sea, where at first Johnstone was seasick. But he soon recovered and, typically, explored every corner of the ship, chatting with everyone on board, absorbing knowledge and rapidly becoming a hugely competent and popular officer. His humour showed in his party-trick parody of Noël Coward’s war film In Which We Serve, which he restyled as “Cruel Sea Night”.

After an appointment as navigating officer of the minesweeper Nurton, in 1996-97 he was first lieutenant of the Royal Yacht Britannia in her final commission covering the then Prince of Wales’s historic visit to Northern Ireland, the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and Queen Elizabeth II’s summer cruise to the Western Isles.

Johnstone’s career progressed rapidly and in 1999 he commanded the frigate Iron Duke during the war in Kosovo. While Iron Duke patrolled the Adriatic in defence watches, six hours on and six hours off with her weapons ready, and escorted ships carrying humanitarian aid to refugees, some three dozen of his people flew home for various reasons, including one man when his son became seriously ill with meningitis.

“If something comes up in one of the men’s lives that is important,” Johnstone said, “then I will try to get him home… but it’s a bit different for the captain.”

During deployment in the English Channel, with his wife about to give birth, Johnstone himself left the ship on a Friday; his daughter Emily Louise was born at 16:30 on the Monday, and Johnstone was back in Iron Duke by 19:00 that evening.

After commanding Bulwark, he was Director of Naval Staff at the Ministry of Defence, and then Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of the Defence Staff. Promoted to flag officer, he became Flag Officer, Sea Training in 2011, Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Policy) in 2013, and Commander Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in 2015, when he was also appointed CB.

Johnstone salutes officers from the Chinese naval assault ship Chang Bai Shan at Portsmouth Royal Navy Base
Johnstone salutes officers from the Chinese naval assault ship Chang Bai Shan at Portsmouth Royal Navy Base

At MARCOM, based at Northwood, Middlesex and reporting to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Johnstone was the prime maritime adviser to Nato, where he was much admired for his clear-sightedness, intelligence and impressive delivery.

It was a wonder to many that Johnstone did not go on to be First Sea Lord, but he was up against strong competition. Instead, he was knighted in 2019, and retired from the Navy in 2020.

His potential was then seized upon by Sarah Kenny, CEO of BMT, a leading international company offering scientific, engineering and technical services and consultancy. BMT made Johnstone their director of strategy, where he brought a fresh approach to strategic planning and a dynamic flair for complex programmes of change, as well as a wry sense of humour and a deep care for people.

His enduring interest in strategy was shown by his membership of the Royal United Services Institute think tank and his work in the Nato advisory committee of the Bratislava-based Centre for Democracy and Resilience. As chairman of the Naval Review, he showed infectious enthusiasm and was a passionate advocate for the many causes he believed in.

Admitted as a younger brother of Trinity House in 2009, he was engaged with the Maritime Leaders Forum, a Trinity House initiative jointly with Maritime UK, and was preparing to be a panellist at the next conference, “Maritime Trade in an Unstable World – Security for Mariners, Ships and Cargoes”, later this year.

Although he only recently became a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, he was a highly regarded and popular member.

Last year, Johnstone was appointed the national president of the Royal British Legion and he led the legion at its Remembrance Day ceremonies. This year, he chaired the legion’s annual conference in Newport, Wales, sharing his passion for “the best and most amazing charity”. He died shortly afterwards, however.

Johnstone was an inspirational man of great integrity, dynamism and piercing intellect. Passionately interested in people, he had advised undergraduates at Durham, and he retained an interest in mentoring in university programmes, elite sport, and business management.

“It’s people who make the world go round, not technology,” he would say.

In 1990 Johnstone married the opera singer Alison Duguid, whom he met at university, and he enjoyed above all spending time with his family at their cottage in Argyll; she survives him with their two daughters.

Vice-Admiral Sir Clive Johnstone, born September 6 1963, died May 12 2024