Peter Padfield obituary | history books


My colleague and friend Peter Padfield, who died at the age of 89, was a freelance writer who made outstanding contributions to the history of the sea, as a sailor, historian and analyst, for five decades.

Born in Kolkata, India, Peter comes from a military family. Her father, William Padfield, was a captain in the Royal Engineers attached to the Indian Army, and her mother, Annice (née Abbott), was the daughter of the Colonel of Engineers in Bombay (now Mumbai). William died when Peter was seven, and Peter returned to England with his mother and younger brother, attending Northcliffe House Preparatory School in Sussex, which was evacuated to Cornwall during the Second World War.

Later he was educated at Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex and the Thames Nautical Training College, HMS Worcester. Peter then served as a navigating officer on P&O ocean liners, before joining the crew of the 17th Century Mayflower replica, recreating the journey of the Pilgrim Fathers, described in his first and last books, The Sea Is a Magic Carpet. (1959) and Mayflower II newspaper (2019).

Peter Padfield driving Mayflower II in 1957

Peter met Jane Yarwood, whom he married in 1960, in London, where he worked in nautical journalism until the international success of The Titanic and the Californian (1965) encouraged him to become a full-time writer. The number of books Peter has written and the range of subjects covered demonstrates a broad and inclusive engagement with Britain, the sea and, in the case of his Nazi studies, the need to understand what lay on the other side. side of the hill in the Second World War. His work was distinguished by a taste for challenging comfortable orthodoxies, whether it was the Titanic disaster, or the politics and personality of the last leader of Nazi Germany, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Peter pointed to Dönitz’s early and deep attachment to Nazi ideology, at a time when many reimagined the war criminal as a hero.

The Maritime Trilogy, Peter’s three-volume study of British maritime identity, has inspired other scholars, including myself, to reconsider the links between state, maritime enterprise and sea power, bringing a vital contribution to 21st century debates on Britishness, attracting profile commentary and awards. My favorite of his books is 1968’s Broke and the Shannon, an elegant study of a great sailor and his defining battle, a work that continues to shape our understanding of the long-forgotten Anglo-American War of 1812. Peter was a marine scholar of the highest order, an author who went his own way and made a massive contribution to the most British subject, maritime history.

Jane died in 2018 and Peter’s brother Tim died in 2020. Peter is survived by his children, Deborah, Guy and Fiona, and grandchildren, Max and Megan.


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