Commodore Laurie Hopkins, naval commander and helicopter pilot noted for his zest for life – obituary (2024)

Commodore Laurie Hopkins, who has died aged 76, was a charismatic helicopter pilot and commanding officer.

His early naval career was marked by scrapes and misdemeanours which earned him stoppages of leave and mess-bill; but he had a zest for life which lit up any company, a ready and quick wit, and the ability to put people at ease in any situation. He never stood on ceremony, always seeing the best in people.

Laurence Charles Hopkins was born on September 21 1947 at Saltash in Cornwall. His father was a Master Gunner in the Navy, and young Laurie’s education was disrupted by many moves. He joined Dartmouth in 1965 on a short-service commission, and as a cadet he undertook a training cruise to Scandinavia, a tough regime living on a crowded messdeck and sleeping in a hammock, where he learnt much about the lowerdeck and the dodges that made sailors’ lives bearable.

The following year, coached by his training officer, David Hart Dyke (father of the comedian Miranda Hart), Hopkins passed a board for transfer to the general list of the Royal Navy.

In 1970-71 he was navigating officer of the minesweeper Wiston in the 9thMine Countermeasures Squadron – which in those days was sufficient to keep the peace in the Gulf – when he organised the officers’ summer ball.

He advertised in The Daily Telegraph: “The officers of the 9th MCMS once again find themselves at odds with the world’s imbalance of population. They will be holding their annual summer ball in Bahrain on … Any young lady who can find herself in Bahrain on that date would be a most welcome guest.” Eight air hostesses presented themselves, and Hopkins became a hero.

He learnt to fly helicopters at RNAS Culdrose, flying first the Hiller12E, with controls so sensitive that “if you breathed [it] rose 100 feet”. He admitted that he was “not a natural pilot and found it hard work”; he failed his final handling test, but passed a re-scrub.

Next, he flew the Wessex V – “very forgiving, rough, tough commando-carrying aircraft and I loved it” – and in 1971 was awarded the Devenish Trophy for most improved pilot. “I was rubbish to start with,” he said, “but very much got the hang of it when we were doing proper operations.”

In 1972-73 he served in 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons as a “junglie”, participating in operations off Malta, Cyprus, Norway and the West Indies. In 1973, he converted to fly the versatile Wasp helicopter, and he was teamed up with the then Prince of Wales as his flight-deck officer in the frigate Jupiter, joining over Christmas 1973, when Jupiter completed a circumnavigation east-about across the Pacific. Later, Jupiter joined the Nato Standing Force Mediterranean: “Lots of fun, much of it showing off in bad weather when American and Italian helicopters couldn’t get off the deck.”

Then, on a short visit to Venice Hopkins’s life changed utterly when he met, in his words, “the most wonderful woman in the world”, Jane Trotter, a student at University College London, reading Italian; and she agreed to marry him.

Hopkins next commanded the minesweeper Brinton (“The highlight of my naval career!”) on fishery protection duties in home waters. Entering Plymouth Sound, he proudly heard his father, a guest onboard, sitting in the captain’s chair, remark: “Well, Boy, we’ve arrived.”

As flag lieutenant 1977-79 to a severe Deputy Supreme Commander Atlantic, Vice Admiral Sir David Loram, who had sacked many officers and thereby ruined their careers, Hopkins became known as the man who survived, an achievement which he attributed to his wife’s diplomacy and skill as a host.

From 1980-81 he was the flight commander in the guided missile destroyer Antrim. While disembarked, he took part in operations off Northern Ireland, looking for Spanish fishing vessels alleged to be smuggling arms, and landing special forces by night. He recalled flying the House of Commons Defence Committee along the border and being asked where the fence was.

As Staff Officer Aviation to the Flag Officer Sea Training during the Falklands War in 1982, Hopkins prepared ships for war, taking the lead on a training package for the carrier Illustrious under the command of the future First Sea Lord, (then) Captain Jock Slater. His reward was to become first lieutenant of the elderly frigate Rothesay and, in his opinion, the worst ship ever to visit FOST, the naval training programme.

On his first night he told the captain that Rothesay was not ready to deploy: “He should have thrown me off his ship but, instead, he asked me what was wrong and when I started to read a long list of issues, he stopped me and told me to get on and fix it.”

His officers were a wild bunch but once they understood that they had to play Hopkins’s game they melded into a good team. Some weeks later Rear-Admiral J JBlack reported that “Rothesay and her people look and act just as I would wish.”

Hopkins’s next appointment was to the Army staff college, where the commandant Major-General John “Muddy” Waters was impressed by Hopkins’s perception and diligence, even after he had appeared for a group photograph among the other army staff officers and their Labradors with a stuffed dog on wheels.

In 1986-88 he commanded the frigate Apollo with notable success; at Christmas 1987, when she was Falklands guard-ship at anchor in Port Edgar, he helped serve lunch to the ship’s company.

His first serious staff appointment was to Defence Policy, which he found “a boring flog”, but in the summer of 1990 he was on the promotion list for captain, and he returned to Scotland as Captain Fishery Protection: “I loved it.”

In 1993-95 Hopkins was Captain Third Destroyer Squadron, commanding the squadron from HMS Liverpool.

Liverpool was one of the first ships where women formed 10percent of the ship’s company, all junior ratings, with no older female senior ratings or officers. He was frank in his criticisms of this new system – whether the problems were (in his opinion) excessive medical support to a small proportion of the ship’s company, excessive use of water, or male posturing in response to the arrival of young women. He made his views known, but was told to get on with it.

Returning to the Ministry of Defence, Hopkins took over the Bosnia Crisis Cell, briefing ministers and senior officers on events; he found his former Camberley contacts invaluable in keeping him informed.

His last uniformed appointment, 1997-2000, was as commodore and chief of staff to the Flag Officer Surface Flotilla. In that role he spent most of his time visiting ships: he reckoned that in half an hour he could walk through the ship, visit the heads and bathrooms and talk to the captain, and be able to give an accurate assessment of her state.

Hopkins’s heads visits became well-known, and on a visit to HMS Glasgow he found a fat old lady sitting at the entrance pretending to be the attendant, holding a saucer for her tips.

It was unsurprising that after leaving the Navy he found civilian employment while helping a friend out working as a barman at a wedding. A representative of Inter Group insurance was looking for a managing director and was impressed by Hopkins in this unlikely situation.

Laurie Hopkins was the most steadfast and competent friend, never afraid to speak his mind when needed.

Among other duties, he was Gentleman Usher to the Queen 2009-17; he was appointed LVO.

Hopkins married, in 1975, Jane Trotter, who survives him with their two daughters and a son.

Laurie Hopkins, born September 21 1947, died June 6 2024

Commodore Laurie Hopkins, naval commander and helicopter pilot noted for his zest for life – obituary (2024)

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