Mystery of naval officer's disappearance

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HMS-MaidstoneTHE LOSS of a coach and coachman in the Gareloch at Rhu Spit in 1886 was a local tragedy, but a naval officer's disappearance some 80 years later made international headlines. 

Commander Peter Fickling, Royal Navy, who was 42 and lived in Helensburgh with his wife and five sons, left the submarine depot ship HMS Maidstone berthed at Faslane at 11pm on Wednesday February 10 1965, and has never been seen again.

No definite explanation has ever been given for what happened to him, but it was a tremendous blow to his family and friends — and acted as a magnet for the national press.

Reporters flooded the town and district seeking information, but there was very little to be found. Naval sources and service friends were not willing to help and said nothing at all.

That did not stop the speculation though.

This was the James Bond era, and one of the national press theories was that this senior submarine officer had been abducted by Russian spies and was already in Moscow.

His light grey and red Volkswagen Caravette, registration number 2936 BH, was found the next day far out on Rhu Spit, pointing inland, and his cap and wrist watch were inside.

A painstaking search of the area was made by naval and police personnel, and part of the Gareloch was dragged.

But there was no sign of the popular officer, and the local belief was that he must have gone to check the navigation lights on the Spit, fallen into the fast flowing waters at the narrows, and — although he was a strong swimmer — been swept away.

Peter Angus Fickling was born in Bournemouth on July 13 1923, the son of Major William Angus Fickling and his wife Eva Mary Turley.

He decided on a career in the services, but selected the navy and was educated at the RN College in Dartmouth from the age of 14 before beginning his World War Two service.

On September 1 1940 he became a Midshipman and joined the crew of the cruiser HMS Kenya. Six months later he was transferred to the destroyer HMS Icarus.

He was promoted to Acting Sub-Lieutenant on May 1 1942 and began a promotion course at Portsmouth, becoming a Sub-Lieutenant on July 10 and completing the course the following month.

For the first two months of 1943 he gained his first submarine experience on board HMS P 556, and then went on loan to the Royal Australian Navy until May 1944.

He served on HMAS Penguin and the submarine HMAS K 9, returning to Britain on board the SS Randfontein and joining the depot ship HMS Maidstone for the first time in the rank of Lieutenant.

On March 1 1947 he married Royal Marine cipher clerk Isobel Mary Layfield at Eastergate Church in Sussex, and two months later he became First Lieutenant of the submarine HMS Seraph. In November 1947 he was transferred to another sub, HMS Templar, in the same post.

His first command was the sub HMS Sidon from August 1950 to February 1952, and later that year he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

From 1955-57 he captained the sub HMS Trump, and appointments followed at HMS Dolphin, the Gosport submarine depot, and then the Naval Equipment Division at the Admiralty in London as a Commander.

On December 7 1962 he returned to HMS Maidstone, now at Faslane, where he became Commander of the Third Submarine Squadron in charge of the submarine fleet. He and his family moved into the naval married quarters estate at Bannachra Drive, Helensburgh.

Known to work extremely long hours, he was highly regarded by all ranks for his energy and efficiency.

He had already been informed that in the summer he would return to sea as captain of the Tiger class cruiser HMS Lion, which he was looking forward to after a series of jobs on land.

This and his excellent service record made it seem all the more extraordinary that he should suddenly disappear without trace.

The House of Commons record Hansard reveals that on March 1 Defence Minister Christopher Mayhew was asked by Cathcart Conservative MP Teddy Taylor if he would make a statement on the matter.

Sub-Lt-Peter-FicklingThe minister replied: “Commander Fickling failed to report for duty in his ship on the morning of Thursday, 11th February, and has not reported since.

“His whereabouts are unknown but detailed investigations are being carried out by the appropriate authorities. There are no security implications.”

Of course this merely increased the speculation, and on April 5 Teddy Taylor asked what had been the results to date of the investigations into the whereabouts of Commander Fickling.

Mr Mayhew replied: “I have now received a detailed report. I am satisfied that there are no security implications in this officer's disappearance, or other issues requiring further Naval investigation.

“Appropriate ‘missing person’ action of course continues to be taken by the civil authorities.”

But that produced no result, and it remains a mystery to this day.

No evidence was ever made public giving credence to the more lurid theories, or suggesting that this was anything other than a tragic accident in the Gareloch.