Vice Admiral John William Musgrave Eaton

Commander Australian Fleet (1951-1953)

VADM Eaton

John William Musgrave Eaton was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia on 3 November 1902. He was educated at Temple Grove Preparatory School in Eastbourne, Sussex and entered the Royal Navy, as a Cadet, in 1916. He trained at the Royal Naval Colleges of Osborne and Dartmouth. He became a Midshipman in May 1920 and was appointed to his first ship, the battleship HMS Barham, in which he served until 1922. During his service on board the battleship operated as part of the Atlantic Fleet.

Eaton was promoted Acting Sub Lieutenant in September 1922 and undertook his professional naval courses (gunnery, signals, torpedos, navigation, pilotage and seamanship) at Portsmouth and Greenwich Naval College in 1923. Upon successfully completing these courses he joined the destroyer HMS Wivern (Mediterranean Fleet) in March 1924 and served in her until May 1926; during which time he was promoted to Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Eaton then chose to train as a submariner at HMS Dolphin (Gosport) and in December 1926 was appointed at First Lieutenant of HM Submarine H 50. He returned to the surface fleet in January 1929; joining the battleship HMS Malaya which was part of the Atlantic Fleet. In January 1931 he was appointed to Mediterranean based destroyer HMS Boreas as the First Lieutenant.

He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in May 1933 and was appointed as Commanding Officer of the destroyer HMS Restless, based at Portsmouth, in January 1934. Lieutenant Commander Eaton completed the officers tactical course at Portsmouth in mid-1935 and soon after became the Commanding Officer of the destroyer HMS Westminster (Home Fleet). In September 1936 he returned to Boreas (Home Fleet) but this time as Commanding Officer. This was his third destroyer command and Eaton was considered a competent destroyer Commanding Officer.

After over two years in command of Boreas, during which time he was promoted to Commander, in December 1937, Eaton undertook the Royal Navy Staff Course at RN College Greenwich during January-July 1939. He then took command of the destroyer HMS Venetia, then in Reserve at Devonport, in August 1939 and recommissioned the ship in preparation for the imminent hostilities with Germany.

Commander Eaton took command of the Tribal Class destroyer HMS Mohawk in October 1939 and the ship initially saw service as a convoy escort in the North Sea before being transferred to the Mediterranean in 1940. Mohawk was present at the Battle of Calabria in June 1940 and the Battle of Matapan in March 1941. On 10 January 1941 Mohawk went to the assistance of the destroyer HMS Gallant which had struck a mine which killed 65 of her ships company and had blown off her bow.

Mohawk took the badly damaged destroyer in tow, stern first, and despite enemy air attacks succeeded in getting the stricken vessel to Malta for repair (although a later enemy air raid damaged Gallant beyond repair and she was sunk as a block-ship at Malta). Eaton was subsequently awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) (London Gazette, 19 August 1941) “for bravery and determination in towing HMS Gallant back to port in the face of enemy air attack.”

Only a few months later Mohawk was sunk in a significant action off Sfax, Tunisia. On 16 April 1941 a convoy of five enemy ships carrying troops and ammunition and escorted by three Italian destroyers was engaged by the British destroyers HM Ships Janus, Jervis, Mohawk and Nubian. In the ensuing action three of the merchant ships and two of the destroyers were sunk and the remaining vessels damaged and run aground to prevent sinking. As the Italian destroyer Tarigo was sinking she fired her last two torpedos which struck Mohawk, badly damaging the destroyer and killing 43 of her crew.

Despite being taken in tow Mohawk was too badly damaged and was scuttled to prevent capture. Among the many awards for this successful action was a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) (London Gazette, 5 August 1941) to Commander Eaton “for coolness, skill and enterprise when an Italian convoy and its escorts were sunk between Sicily and Tripoli.” Eaton then returned to the United Kingdom, in May 1941, and was sent to the Admiralty as a staff officer working for the Second Sea Lord who was responsible for shore depots and personnel.

Eaton was promoted Captain in December 1941 and in March 1942 he was given command of the destroyer HMS Somali and command of the 6th Destroyer Flotilla then operating in northern British waters and the Atlantic. On 13 August 1942,Somali rescued all 105 crew of the American cargo ship Almeria Lykes, which had been torpedoed by German E-Boats off Tunisia while taking part in Operation PEDESTAL. The ship was unable to be towed so in order to prevent capture she was scuttled and Somali took her crew to Gibraltar.

In September Captain Eaton became ill and was put ashore for treatment. This proved to be a life-saving illness as Somali was torpedoed, by U-703, on 20 September 1942 while covering the return of convoy PQ-18 from Russia. The torpedo struck the destroyer’s engine room and although she was taken in tow by HMS Ashanti she sank on 25 September when heavy weather broke her back and her ships company were plunged into freezing water. Of the 102 men on board only 35 were saved.

The Tribal Class destroyer HMS Eskimo became Eaton’s next command in late 1942. Eskimo operated in the Mediterranean during 1943 and took an active part in Operation RETRIBUTION blockading the coast of Tunisia in May thus preventing the evacuation of Axis forces from North Africa and forcing their mass surrender. Eaton was mentioned in dispatches (London Gazette, 5 October 1943) for his role in this operation. The destroyer was then part of the Allied force involved in the invasion of Sicily (Operation HUSKY) in July-August 1943. Eaton was awarded a second mention in dispatches (London Gazette, 21 December 1943) for this action in which Eskimo was badly damaged by enemy dive bombers.

With Eskimo damaged and in need of repairs Captain Eaton was post ashore to HMS St Angelo, the shore depot in Malta, for various staff duties before returning to work at the Admiralty in mid-1944. He took up his final wartime command in January 1945 when he took command of the light cruiser HMS Sheffield then in refit in Boston, USA. In May-June 1945 Sheffield returned to England and her refit continued and was not completed until July 1946. Meanwhile in December 1945 Captain Eaton was appointed as the Commanding Officer of HMS St Vincent, the Royal Navy’s boys training school at Gosport, Hampshire.

He completed the course at the Imperial Defence College in 1947 and then served in the Admiralty in 1948 before being appointed as the Director at the Royal Navy Staff College, Greenwich in 1949. Eaton was promoted to Rear Admiral on 7 July 1951 and appointed as Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet on 10 October 1951, taking over from Rear Admiral Eccles, CB, CBE, RN.

During his time in command he was responsible for the training of personnel and the readiness of ships to ensure the RAN could fulfil its commitments to the United Nations forces serving in the Korean War and Commonwealth forces in Southeast Asia. This was not an easy task with competing priorities within a finite defence budget.

Rear Admiral Eaton was appointed as a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) on 1 June 1953 and later that year, on 17 December 1953, he handed over command of the Australian Fleet to Rear Admiral Roy Dowling, CBE, DSO, RAN thus becoming the last Royal Navy officer to command the Australian Fleet.

Upon returning to the United Kingdom in early 1954 he became the Flag Officer commanding the Reserve Fleet. Eaton was promoted Vice Admiral on 6 September 1954 and served as the Commander-in-Chief America and West Indies Station during 1955-1956 embarked in the cruiser HMS Kenya. This position also carried the additional responsibility of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) which Eaton exercised from November 1955 – December 1957. Vice Admiral Eaton was appointed a Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) on 31 May 1956 and retired from the Royal Navy on 31 January 1958.

Eaton was married twice. His first marriage was to Ruth Mary Milner on 29 July 1926 at St Swithun's Church, Southsea, Hampshire. His second marriage was in June 1945 to a widow, Cynthia Mary Hurlstone Tatchell (nee Hortin), at Maldon in Essex.

Vice Admiral Sir John Eaton died in Kelvedon, Essex on 21 July 1981. He was survived by his second wife.