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Air Chief Marshal Sir Anthony Skingsley, RAF pilot who became an influential figure in Nato – obituary

Anthony Skingsley in flying kit
Anthony Skingsley in flying kit

Air Chief Marshal Sir Anthony Skingsley, who has died aged 85, was an RAF pilot whose rare combination of talents led to a long career and a series of influential posts both in the RAF and Nato.

Anthony Gerald Skingsley was born on October 19 1933 at Rawalpindi in India. He was educated at St Bartholomew’s Grammar School, Newbury, and read Modern and Medieval Languages at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the University Air Squadron.

In 1955 he joined the RAF and trained as a pilot, initially flying the early jet fighters, Vampires and Meteors. After converting to the Canberra twin-engine bomber he left for Akrotiri in Cyprus to be the flight commander on 13 Squadron, in the photo-reconnaissance role, before serving in the operations wing. After a year at the RAF Staff College, he returned to the Canberra and in April 1965 took command of 45 Squadron, based in Singapore.

At the time, British forces were involved in the Indonesian Confrontation, and Skingsley’s Canberras flew in support of ground forces. The squadron spent three months at Labuan in Borneo. For his leadership of No 45 he was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.

An appointment in the MoD followed, as a staff officer in the RAF’s operational requirements branch. His arrival in July 1968 coincided with the drafting of the requirement for a multi-role combat aircraft, or MRCA. Skingsley was involved in a tri-national venture, with the German and Italian air forces, resulting in the development of the superb Tornado. The Tornado was a long-range defence fighter, but was also the RAF’s main strike/attack aircraft for almost four decades, during which time it played a key role in the two Iraq wars, in Afghanistan and in current operations against Isil.

Skingsley was proud of his involvement with the Tornado and, as it happens, the aircraft will be withdrawn from RAF service just two months after his death.

Sir Anthony Skingsley in 1986

Skingsley returned to flying duties in November 1971 and took command of 214 Squadron, equipped with Victor air-to-air-refuelling tankers. In 1974 he was promoted to group captain, which gave him an introduction to the European theatre of Nato. In December he assumed command of RAF Laarbruch, one of three major RAF airfields west of the Rhine in Germany.

Under his command were two Buccaneer strike squadrons and a squadron of Phantom fighter all-weather reconnaissance aircraft. The strike squadrons maintained two nuclear-armed aircraft at a 15-minute quick-reaction alert state and were a vital element of Nato’s plan in the event of an attack from the East.

From Laarbruch he moved to Rheindahlen, headquarters of Nato’s Second Allied Tactical Air Force (2 ATAF). There he served as the Assistant Chief of Staff Operations (Air Offensive), with personnel drawn from the air forces of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands in addition to the RAF squadrons based in Germany.

He was responsible for planning sorties for the eventuality of a nuclear or conventional war, as well as for maintaining the operational efficiency of the squadrons through exercises.

After attending the Royal College of Defence Studies in 1978, he spent two years in the MoD as the Director of Air Plans. At the time, Nato was reorganising the command arrangements of the allied air forces in the Central Region. Skingsley’s recent experience, and his personal qualities – strategic thinking, persuasive arguments, remarkable coolness under pressure and a flair for languages – ensured that the RAF’s interests were fully recognised.

After two years in the MoD, in 1980 he received early promotion to air vice-marshal, to take up the key appointment of Assistant Chief of Staff (Policy and Plans) at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (Shape). He was responsible for strategic policy and the development of future plans, command structures and the force levels required from Nato members.

After his period at Shape, he was made Commandant of the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, where he radically modernised the syllabus, basing air-land exercises (conducted jointly with the Army) on real-world scenarios rather than the mythical settings used previously.

Skingsley: his qualities included coolness under pressure, strategic thinking and a flair for languages

From July 1974 he filled a series of key senior RAF appointments in the MoD, first as the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Policy). He planned for the RAF’s future equipment programme during a time of change, which included the reorganisation within the MoD after decisions taken by the Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine.

He remained in the Air Force Department as the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, a particularly challenging appointment.

On promotion to Air Marshal in April 1986 Skingsley joined the Air Force Board as the Air Member for Personnel. Within a year he was back in Germany, this time as the Commander-in-Chief, RAF Germany, and the Commander of 2 ATAF.

Towards the end of the Cold War his squadrons of Tornadoes, Harriers, Phantoms and helicopters contributed to the operational effectiveness of Nato’s air forces in the Central Region of Europe. He tested them on numerous “no-notice” exercises and evaluations and the results were classed as “outstanding”.

In 1989 he became Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces Central Europe. His arrival coincided with the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The “peace dividend” that followed resulted in substantial reviews of all western military forces. Skingsley was intimately involved in the reorganisation of the command structure of the allied air forces in the region and his wide experience was an important element in finding a lasting solution.

His staff in all his postings remember him warmly, as a likeable leader who left them to get on with their job without interference. He retired from the RAF in September 1992 having been appointed CB (1982), KCB (1986) and GBE (1992).

For a period he was the chairman of the Commanders-in-Chief Committee in Germany, and later president of the Anglo-German Association. He was always highly regarded by colleagues overseas, and in retirement he remained a fervent internationalist.

Skingsley and his wife were great travellers and were fond of India, which they visited on many occasions. A keen sailor, he maintained a boat in the eastern Mediterranean and pursued his hobby actively until late in life.

In 1957 Anthony Skingsley married Lilwen Dixon. She survives him with their two sons and a daughter.

ACM Sir Anthony Skingsley, born October 19 1933, died January 15 2019