A fond tribute to Rear-Admiral Bill Higgins

Bill Higgins, who passed away aged 78 in January 2007, was a member of our club, and is fondly remembered by our members.

The following phopographs were taken on the "Topless" – Tour Of Pennines Laughter Excitement Surprises Satisfaction – being a tour of the Yorkshire Dales in June 2005.

Bill Higgins and his car
Bill in his beloved TR 3 outside the Rose and Crown at Bainbridge in Wensleydale

Bill Higgins at the Georgian Theatre
Bill and others in the gallery of the restored Georgian Theatre in Richmond in Swaledale

Bill Higgins at the Charles Bathurst Inn
Bill and another "famous couple" in the bar of the "Charles Bathurst Inn" in Arkengarthdale where we stayed

Bill spent 40 years in the Navy. He entered the Royal Naval College in 1945 and 4 months later, he went to sea for the first time as Captain's Secretary during the Korean War. Bill was based at Chatham for a short time in 1962 as Lieutenant Commander, running the training block for young officers. After being promoted to Rear-Admiral, Bill, known as "The Hangman", was brought back to the docks in 1982 to oversee the closure of the Royal Naval Docks in Chatham. He was charged with overseeing the movement of key staff to other naval bases around the country. Bill held increasingly important jobs in the Ministry of Defence. After his Naval service he was appointed Secretary of the D-notice Committee in 1986, which brought him into conflict several times with the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Bill was appointed CBE in 1980 and CB in 1985.

Bill was interviewed by the BBC on his experiences of working at Chatham Dockyard.

On 6 February 2007 the Telegraph published this tribute:

Rear-Admiral Bill Higgins, who has died aged 78, defied the Thatcher government as secretary of the D-notice Committee, a post to which he had been appointed following 40 years of faultless service in the Navy.

Shortly after taking over in 1986 as steward of this discreet body, which exists to issue official guidance to the media over the disclosure of sensitive information about national security, Higgins found himself faced with what became known as "the Zircon affair". This was a row over a television film, made for the BBC by the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, about a secret spy satellite. In the event, the corporation decided not to show the programme, and Campbell was reduced to writing an article about it in the New Statesman.

Higgins found himself between the media on one side and Margaret Thatcher on the other. The Prime Minister was furious, and the Speaker refused to let the film be shown in the Commons. Meanwhile, civil liberties organisations showed the film all around the country, raising the prospect of large numbers of prosecutions which might well have failed.

The Prime Minister had never been enamored of the D-notice Committee, and now she was inspired to an even greater dislike of its voluntary and advisory nature. The Cabinet Office was given the brief of controlling the flood of articles and books that followed the publication of Spycatcher by the former MI5 officer Peter Wright.

Higgins was told that everything he did had to be run past the Cabinet Office, and that he must follow its instructions. He resisted, recognizing that this would destroy the voluntary system that had worked since 1912 and fearing that it would lead to more censorship. Supported by his chairman, Sir Clive Whitmore, Permanent Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, he got his way.

Two years later Mrs Thatcher tried again, attempting to prevent the publication of a book about MI6 by the Conservative MP Rupert Allason (writing as Nigel West). While the Tory party whips applied pressure on Allason, Higgins was told to cease talking to the author and his publisher, to whom he had been giving advice.

He was ordered to communicate only in writing, having first cleared his drafts with the Attorney-General, something which he decided was both unacceptable and unworkable. The law officers were again pessimistic about whether litigation would work, and Mrs Thatcher and her press secretary conceded that the D-Notice system, under Higgins's care, was the most effective way to keep national secrets – as opposed to political embarrassments – out of the public eye.

When the Government amended the Official Secrets Act in 1989, Higgins was able to reassure the media that, whatever else might be to their detriment, it would not affect D-Notices. Subsequently, he negotiated hard with officials to ensure that his promises to the media were kept.

Throughout his six years in the job Higgins was guided by a personal rule that under the operation of the system no individual should ever be put at risk. He did much to improve public understanding of the system and dealt urbanely with editors, who rang him frequently. They usually took his advice, even erring on the side of caution, he recalled. Higgins found himself advising against publication on only about a dozen occasions a year.

Although the existence of D-Notices had been declassified only in 1981, inquirers found him disarmingly refreshing and open. When the political philosopher Moyra Grant rang Whitehall, she was immediately put through to Higgins, who began by joking that presumably none of her students were anarchists, and then surprised her with his openness. A day later her post brought a list of the D-Notices currently in force, together with an explanatory note from Higgins.

William Alleyne Higgins was born on May 18 1928, the son of Commander Henry Gray Higgins, who had won a DSO in 1917 while commanding a submarine in the Adriatic.

After Wellington, which he hated, Bill entered the Royal Naval College on September 1 1945, while it was still at its wartime location of Eaton Hall; he was therefore one of the last people to qualify for a war gratuity. In his particularly talented term of 55 Special Entry cadets were four future admirals, a commodore, nine captains and 17 commanders.

Four months later Higgins was sent to sea for the first time. He served as captain's secretary in the maintenance carrier Unicorn during the Korean War and then as secretary to the then Captain Michael le Fanu at the boys' training establishment, HMS Ganges. Le Fanu reported that he "envied anyone who is fortunate enough to have Higgins as his supply officer or secretary".

Higgins held increasingly important jobs in the Ministry of Defence. When he was deputy secretary to the Chiefs of Staff, his immediate boss – a fiercely intelligent and fiery senior Army officer – regarded him as a tower of strength. He became secretary to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Terry Lewin, who appreciated the apparently effortless ease with which Higgins discharged his heavy responsibilities and dealt with people.

On promotion to rear-admiral, Higgins was appointed the last Flag Officer Medway, when the Kent dockyard was about to be closed after 300 years. His arrival at Chatham was greeted with the headline "John Nott's hatchet man has arrived", but he was an inspired choice for the job. Thanks to his natural courtesy and genuine concern, he quickly created an atmosphere of co-operation. In particular he tried to find alternative employment for the civilian staff and to attract new businesses to the former naval base.

Higgins was then made Director General, Naval Personnel Services, and Chief Naval Supply and Secretariat Officer, the head of a branch which had evolved from the pursers and clerks of the sailing navy and now had to develop a new strength as the Navy's logisticians.

He was appointed CBE in 1980 and CB five years later.

Bill Higgins was an accomplished handyman: painting and decorating, repairs to furniture, plumbing, mending antique clocks and restoring vintage cars were all well within his compass. He was offended by the wrongs in the world, against which he would often speak out, and he would make door-to-door collections for charities. Only illness prevented him from joining the march for peace in London to try to avert the invasion of Iraq.

With his brother Bob, a submariner, Higgins started to climb mountains in 1946. The two made their first ascent in the Cairngorms without proper boots or rucksacks and taking a tent which had no fastening door-flap. On Easter Sunday Higgins wrote in his diary that they "breakfasted on iced porridge in a snow squall"; they had modelled their rations on Scott's last expedition, forgetting that the polar party had starved to death.

Higgins was a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club for 60 years and one of the founder members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Mountaineering Club. Aged 74 he climbed three Munros in a day, to bring his total to 259, and was planning to complete all 276 when he died on January 20.

Bill Higgins married, in 1963, Wiltraud Hiebaum, who passed away in February 2010; they are survived by their two sons and a daughter.