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Rear Admiral George Stephen ‘Steve’ Ritchie in the garden of his family home, Sea View, in Aberdeenshire

Source: Reproduced with kind permission of Paul Ritchie

George Stephen ‘Steve’ Ritchie was born on 30 October 1914 in Burnley, son of a Gordon Highlander who was later knighted in 1941. After attending Dartmouth he joined the coal-burning survey ship Herald. In June 1937, Commander Hardy wrote of Sub Lt Steve Ritchie that he ‘shows great zeal, energy & interest in his work and has already been of some assistance to the survey’ and ‘at present is inclined to be a little impetuous, but when he settles down he should develop into a valuable addition to the surveying service’. Hardy added that ‘with experience [he] will make an excellent surveyor. Is reliable & possesses strong personality & marked powers of command & extremely popular with officers & men alike’. Hardy's judgement of his junior officer was accurate and compelling, for Ritchie more than fulfilled his potential in over 30 years of service in the Royal Navy.

Promotion to Lieutenant soon followed and as a result of his war service he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for courage and enterprise in December 1942, and mentioned in despatches for skill, energy and devotion to duty in hazardous survey reconnaissances in North Africa, Italy and North West Europe in 1943 and 1944. By the end of hostilities, Ritchie had shown his potential for higher command and was noted for his ‘natural cheerfulness to others under the most trying circumstances’.

Early in 1946 Ritchie was appointed to stand by the conversion of the Sharpshooter for surveying purposes and, on her commissioning, he went out to the Far East as her First Lieutenant. Returning from Borneo, Ritchie was appointed to the Hydrographic Department at Cricklewood as Officer in Charge of Notices to Mariners. Two years later he was sent to Chatham to set up the Survey Training Unit for surveying recorders.

Ritchie returned to sea onboard HMS Owen in 1949 for deployment to the Persian Gulf and was promoted to Commander in June 1950. Such was his interest in promoting hydrography that, following a scientific cruise on HMS Challenger in 1950 and 1951, he wrote his first book describing his adventures, including taking the deepest ocean sounding at that time.

Ritchie was seconded to the Royal New Zealand Navy for two years, commanding HNZNS Lachlan in 1954 and as head of the New Zealand Hydrographic Service. Promoted to Captain in December 1956, he commanded HMS Scott then returned in 1957 to the Hydrographic Department to take up the post of Assistant Hydrographer at Whitehall for two years before commanding HMS Dalrymple. By 1960 he was the Superintendent of Charts at the Hydrographic Department's office at Cricklewood and took his final seagoing command of HMS Vidal in 1963 featuring in Operation NAVADO (North Atlantic Vidal and Dalrymple Operation).

He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1966 and subsequently appointed the nineteenth Hydrographer of the Navy. Whilst Hydrographer, he led a UK delegation to the 9th International Hydrographic Organisation Conference, introduced the metrication of Admiralty Charts and Publications, consolidated the disparate branches of the Hydrographic Office onto one site at Taunton, and oversaw the introduction of improved print facilities and of the Hecla and Bulldog classes of survey vessels. Of particular significance was his interest and determination in securing the routing of marine traffic in the English Channel and, in particular, the Straits of Dover. It proved contentious but the first mandatory traffic separation zones were enforced and supported by the forerunner of the International Maritime Organisation, vastly improving the safety of ships transiting those straits.

Whilst Hydrographer, he wrote his second book The Admiralty Chart: British Naval Hydrography in the 19th Century. Like its author, this was, and remains, very popular. Ritchie's account was thoroughly researched giving the reader an insightful and entertaining account of his nineteenth century predecessors.

Ritchie retired from the post of Hydrographer and the Royal Navy in 1971 but not from his advancement of all things hydrographical, receiving numerous international awards for achievements in the fields of oceanography and navigation. In 1972 he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Medal ‘for hydrographical charting and oceanographical exploration’. He became a Senior Research Fellow at University of Southampton and later formed The Hydrographic Society alongside Alan Ingham, contributing to the Hydrographic Journal. From 1972 to 1982 Ritchie was President of the International Hydrographic Bureau.

Hydro International was the recipient of many valued articles and a lasting legacy was instituted by the organisation with the introduction, in 2011, of the Steve Ritchie – Student Paper Award for students graduating in the fields of Hydrography, Oceanography and related studies.

In 2002 Admiral Steve sat at the controls of a JCB digger when he cut the first sod of earth to prepare the foundations and footings for the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO)'s new purpose built Archive and Repository in Taunton. It was very fitting that a building containing so much of the history of Royal Navy hydrography was named after its greatest proponent. Later, he was on hand to help open the eponymous Ritchie Building with HRH the Duke of York in November 2003.

Admiral Steve visited the Ritchie Building on a number of occasions and his original survey work, reports, papers, personal sketches, photographs and journals from shipmates are lodged in the Archive for use by future researchers.

In October 2004 Admiral Steve celebrated his 90th birthday in style, including a trip from Scotland to Exeter for a birthday party accompanied by a coach full of UKHO staff from Taunton.

In 1942 he married Disa Smith, a South African, who died in 2000. Predeceased by a son, he is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Selected publications

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  2. Selected publications
  • Ritchie G S 1957 Challenger: the life of a survey ship Hollis & Carter, London
  • Ritchie G S 1967 The Admiralty chart: British naval hydrography in the 19th century Hollis & Carter, London
  • Ritchie G S 1992 No day too long: a hydrographer's tale Pentland Press, Edinburgh
  • Ritchie G S 2003 As it was: highlights of hydrographic history from the Old Hydrographer's Column, Hydro International vols 1–6 GITC, Lemmer, The Netherlands