- Pfennigwerth, Ian
- Biographies and personal histories, Obituaries
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Only a few of us are fortunate enough to live a life as interesting and as varied as did Bob Nicholls, who died suddenly on 10 March 2011. Born in Bristol in November 1928, Bob was educated at Tiverton in Devon and the Britannia Royal Naval College which he joined as a cadet in 1945. A year later he was sweeping wartime mines off the Greek coast followed by a stint on the immigration patrol off the Palestinian coast – featured in the movie Exodus. Although the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948 and Bob with them, he soon found himself in a new ‘police action’, this time in Korea. It was to be the start of Bob’s long fascination with East Asia, but his wartime service involved intelligence collection duties, including interrogations, on and around the islands on the Korean west coast. The Royal Navy clearly wanted to take advantage of Bob’s newly-acquired cold weather experience because, after courses at the Royal Naval College Greenwich, his next posting was to the Fisheries Protection Squadron operating in northern waters off Iceland and Norway.
Then, just for a change, Bob then found himself back in warmer climes, this time in the Royal Malayan Navy commanding a seaward defence motor launch for two years during the Malayan Emergency. He also picked up a Malay language qualification, but Bob had decided to make Intelligence his prime interest and, after a short posting to the heavy cruiser Birmingham, he commenced Chinese language studies in 1958, first at the School of Oriental Studies at London University and then at Hong Kong University. The Royal Navy then put all this knowledge to work by posting him as XO in the frigate Falmouth.
In 1964 Bob took up his first formal intelligence posting on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief Far East in Singapore. Indonesia’s Confrontation of Malaysia had just become active and Bob worked at converting the information gained from interrogations, interviews and signals intelligence into operational intelligence to guide the deployment of the Commonwealth air, military and naval assets to frustrate the Indonesian intentions. With this aim achieved, in 1966 Bob was posted as Naval Liaison Officer in the British Consulate in Taipei, Republic of China, requalifying his Chinese language skills and becoming a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists. In Taiwan he gathered intelligence on economic, political and military matters in the People’s Republic of China.
While in Taipei he took the decision to resign from the Royal Navy and inquired of both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Royal Australian Navy about employment prospects. The Canadians responded by mail, the Australians by signal, so at the end of 1968 the Nicholls family travelled to Canberra where Bob joined the Naval Intelligence Directorate. It was an interesting time in defence intelligence with the newly-formed Joint Intelligence Organisation offering more opportunities than the services could provide, and demanding qualified people. Bob was posted to the larger organisation in 1970 and was to remain there for nine years, as both an area coordinator and senior desk officer for naval matters in East Asia. In 1979 his service with the RAN was extended for five years beyond retirement age and he was posted to the position of Command Intelligence Office in Sydney, from where he retired in 1984.
Throughout his RAN service, to the extent that his duties allowed, Bob regularly refreshed his Chinese language skills and also undertook university courses – almost but not quite qualifying for his BA. One of his majors was in professional writing, which Bob then sought and gained permission to employ in the service of Australia’s naval history. We are very fortunate that he did as in his retirement Bob became interested in colonial naval history and was to publish no fewer than six books on this period – Bluejackets and Boxers (1986),The Colonial Volunteers (1988), Handy Men Up Top (1990), Statesmen and Sailors (1995), Colonial Guns (1998) and The Three-Headed Dog (2001). He also produced an informative survey of the warships which appeared in the ‘Illustrated London News’ – Naval Notations – in 1994. Bob also contributed a chapter on William Rooke Creswell to the 1991 book Reflections on the RAN edited by Frame, Jones & Goldrick, which indicates in itself the esteem in which his knowledge of the period was held. At the time of his death Bob was about to publish a new book on the RAN between the two World Wars, and two versions of this can be expected in the coming months.