Agnew, Sir William Gladstone 1898-1960, vice-admiral, was born in London 2 December 1898, the fifth son of Charles Morland Agnew, art dealer, and his wife, Evelyn Mary, daughter of William Naylor, and grandson of Sir William Agnew [qv.]. He joined the Royal Navy in September 1911 and was at Dartmouth when war broke out in 1914. He was sent to sea as a midshipman, serving in the battleships Glory and Royal Oak and in the destroyer Skilful. After the war his appointments included the royal yacht and in 1924 he went to the Excellent, the gunnery school at Portsmouth, to qualify as a specialist in gunnery. During these years he played rugby football regularly for the navy as well as cricket, hockey, and tennis.
Agnew's first ship as a specialist officer was the cruiser Durban and in 1931 he was appointed gunnery officer of the battleship Queen Elizabeth, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. He was promoted commander in 1932 and captain in 1937.
On the outbreak of war in 1939 he was given command of the armed merchant cruiser Corfu and in October 1940 was transferred to the cruiser Aurora. It was the start of a period in which his name and that of his ship became world-famous. In the summer of 1941 the Aurora had a share in the sinking of a German cruiser, a destroyer, and two supply ships. Then in the autumn Agnew was sent to the Mediterranean as the senior officer of Force K, consisting of the Aurora, her sister ship the Penelope, and the destroyers Lance and Lively. This move was quickly justified. On the night of 8 November, Force K intercepted a strongly escorted enemy supply convoy of seven ships bound for North Africa. Agnew had made carefully thought-out plans for just such an encounter and had discussed his tactics in detail with the other commanding officers. As a result he was able to stalk the convoy undetected and took the enemy completely by surprise. All the supply ships and one of their escorting destroyers were sunk without so much as a scratch on Force K. As he left his ship on return to harbour to report to the vice-admiral, Malta, Agnew was spontaneously cheered by the officers and men of the Penelope—a rare tribute. A great leader, he was at the same time the most likeable and modest of men. For his services in this action he was appointed C.B. (1941).
Further sorties by Force K led to the sinking of three fuel tankers. All these successes created a critical fuel situation for the German Air Force in North Africa and had an important effect on Axis plans. In December the Aurora struck a mine but Agnew got her safely back to England after temporary repairs in Malta and she soon returned to the thick of the fighting. At the end of 1942 the Aurora formed part of the naval force in Operation Torch, the allied invasion of North Africa, and from then on was constantly in action, attacking enemy warships and convoys and fighting off enemy air attacks. It was a tribute to Agnew and the Aurora that the ship was chosen to carry King George VI from Tripoli to Malta for the royal visit to the island in June 1943. For this service the King appointed Agnew C.V.O.
The Aurora played a full part in the allied invasions of Italy and Sicily, carrying out a great many bombardments in support of the landings. In October, however, she was severely damaged in an air attack in the Eastern Mediterranean. Agnew took his damaged ship into Alexandria whence he was ordered home to take command of the Excellent. He had been appointed to the D.S.O. in April 1943 and subsequently received a bar (1944).
After the war, in March 1946, Agnew was appointed to command the battleship Vanguard. He was promoted rear-admiral in January 1947 and remained in command for the royal visit to South Africa. On conclusion of the tour he was promoted K.C.V.O. In August 1947 Agnew was appointed director of personal services at the Admiralty, where he remained until October 1949. In January 1950 he retired from the navy at his own request, and later in the year was promoted to vice-admiral on the retired list.
For the next three years Agnew was the general secretary of the National Playing Fields Association. By his drive, inspiration, and sheer hard work he put it on its feet again after its lapse during the war and re-established its effectiveness throughout the country. In 1953 he turned his energies to the work of local government. He also took a lead in the Christian Stewardship campaign in his local parish. In the midst of these many and varied activities he died suddenly at his home in Alverstoke 12 July 1960.
In 1930 Agnew married Patricia Caroline, daughter of Colonel Alfred William Bewley, C.M.G.; they had no children.
Contributor: A. D. Nicholl.