Group Captain Peter Harris CBE AE BSc CEng FIEE

6 September 1929 –16 January 2017

A chartered engineer who successfully combined a career in industry with being a part-time airman


Having been dissuaded by his father from applying for a regular commission in the Royal Air Force, Peter Harris went on to pursue a successful career in the electronics engineering industry, and simultaneously to devote much of his spare time to the Reserve Forces, which he served modestly and with distinction. Although none of his superiors in GEC ever openly questioned him as to where his primary loyalties lay, he did himself sometimes wonder which activity was the more satisfying.

Peter Harris was born in Eastbourne on 6 September 1929, the eldest son of a bank official who was destined to become a leading member of society in the town later in life. His early education followed the peregrinations of his father, and included a wartime evacuation year at Llandovery College, but eventually he went to Roborough School, Eastbourne, from where he won an Open Scholarship to St. Edward’s School, Oxford, having been just pipped to a Barclays Bank Scholarship. During National Service in the Royal Air Force from 1947 to 1949, he developed interests in both radar engineering and aviation, which were to determine the course of his life thereafter. He had won a State Scholarship from school, tenable not at Cambridge as was his great hope, but at the University of Birmingham, to which he went up in 1949 to read Electrical Engineering under the tutelage of Professor Tustin. Here he became involved in a range of extramural activities, including the Engineering Society, the University Conservative Association, the Council of the Guild of Undergraduates, and the University Rowing Club, of which he was a founder-member; but his primary interest was the University Air Squadron, which he joined at the first opportunity, learning to fly initially on Tiger Moths and later on the then modern Chipmunks, under the command of Squadron Leader JAC (later ACM Sir John) Aiken. The fact that in his final year he achieved more flying hours than in the two previous years combined, possibly contributed to his limited academic success in that he was awarded only a second-class degree.

On graduating in 1952, he took a post as an electronic development engineer at the Borehamwood Research Laboratories r)f Elliott Brothers (London) Limited, where he was employed on the development of various experimental missile and radar systems. After some three years he decided to satisfy his wanderlust, and joined the overseas staff of the Decca Navigator Company, where he was to spend the next five years. His travels took him inter alia to Newfoundland, where he was in a team setting up a radio navigation system to facilitate the accurate laying of the first transatlantic telephone cable, and to Brunei, where he installed and managed an off-shore radio survey system on behalf of the Brunei Shell Company. The climax of this career stage took him to Christmas Island in the Central Pacific, where he successfully established a land navigation aid for use by aircraft and warships participating in “Operation Grapple”, the British H-bomb trials in 1957 and 1958; originally conceived as a long-range navigation aid for the Valiant bombers, Shackleton reconnaissance aircraft and surface ships, this Decca chain gained the confidence of the bomber crews so greatly that it came to be used as a primary bombing aid.

After returning from the Pacific, Peter Harris was invited to rejoin what had by now become Elliott-Automation, where he worked under W “Roy” Thomas, and subsequently Peter Mariner, and was soon given responsibility for forming an after-sales service division for EA Radar Systems. Here he successfully managed the progressive UK modernisation of the WW2-vintage US-designed Airborne Early Warning radar installed in the Fleet Air Arm’s Gannet aircraft and later in RAF Shackletons until the late 1980’s. After a succession of industrial mergers with Marconi and GEC he was appointed to manage the division of GEC-Marconi bidding for the MOD contracts for development of the UK’s Airborne Early Warning radar system and the main radar for the Tornado air defence fighter. When both these projects came to fruition simultaneously, and the company had to undergo major and rapid expansion, he was promoted to Assistant General Manager, and tasked to set up and manage new establishments in Hertfordshire and then at Milton Keynes.

He was elected a Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1961, and a Fellow in 1970. Invited to chair the Committee of the Hatfield Branch of the Institution in 1979-80, he subsequently served on the Committee of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Centre from its formation in 1980 until 1985. After taking early retirement from GEC in 1989, he joined the Management Board of Princess Marina House, the RAF Benevolent Fund’s flagship residential and convalescent home in West Sussex, and remained on its renamed Advisoiy Board until 2005.

His interest in aviation had continued unabated throughout this career in industry. Commissioned in the RAFVR on graduating from Birmingham, he spent most of his weekends at Reserve Flying Schools, until he went overseas in 1955. Early in 1960 he was amongst the first officers to join the newly-formed No. 1 Maritime Headquarters Unit of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, firstly as a signals officer and later working in the NATO Intelligence cell at the Northwood Headquarters. He rose steadily through the unit, which he commanded from 1972, in the rank of Wing Commander, until his service ended in 1978. In 1982 he was invited to return, promoted to Group Captain, and took up the appointment of Inspector RAuxAF, a post which at that time was unpaid in spite of requiring weekly visits to the Ministry of Defence, the dedication of most evenings to correspondence, and weekends to unit and squadron visits, as well as meeting the demands of a growing family and a responsible post in GEC. Together with two successive Honorary Inspectors-General, Air Commodore Sir Peter Vanneck and Air Chief Marshal Sir John Barraclough, he was to oversee an expansion from five to sixteen units before he retired again in 1988. As OC 1 MHU he had been a member of the Greater London TAVRA, in which he subsequently served as a Selected Air Force Member, becoming Vice-Chairman (air) from 1988 until 1993. As Inspector RAuxAF he was an ex-officio member of the Councils of the National Rifle Association and the Reserve Forces Association. He was an ADC to HM The Queen from 1984 to 1988, and a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London from 1986 to 1998. He became a Freeman of the City of London and was elected a Liveryman of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. He became a holder of the Air Efficiency Award in 1961, and was awarded with a clasp in 1971; he was awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, and appointed CBE in 1988.

Maintaining his enthusiasm for the Reserve Forces, Group Captain Harris was invited to join the NATO Grand Priory of the Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Knight Templars, in 1996 and in 1998 was elevated to the rank of Commander in the Order, serving as the secretary and treasurer of the UK Priory. He was further elevated to the rank of Grand Officer in 2003, and served as Grand Chancellor of the NATO Grand Priory of the Order in 2005-6. In 2015 he was elevated to the rank of Grand Cross, and served as Prior of the UK Grand Priory.

His wife, (Yvonne) Patricia Stone, whom he married in 1955, died in 2003; he is survived by their two daughters.

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