Captain Robert Arnott
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Posted 05 September 2015 - 01:30 AM
"Captain Robert Arnott, the master of the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2, who has died aged 92, was known to the thousands of passengers who sailed with him in the heyday of passenger shipping simply as “Captain Bob”.
QE2, who in her 40-year career steamed (she was converted to diesel in 1986) almost six million miles and carried some 2.5 million passengers in style, comfort and luxury, was the most famous ship of her era and Arnott was her best-known, longest-serving master.
He began his long association with QE2 when he was appointed her chief officer in October 1967 and with her master, Captain William Warwick, he oversaw her building at John Brown’s yard on the Clyde.
Five years later he was appointed staff captain and he was soon tested when in mid-Atlantic he learnt that a telephone caller in the United States had placed a bomb on board and was threatening to blow up the ship unless he received a large ransom. Arnott organised a search, and after QE2 had made a rendezvous with a section of the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service who had parachuted into the sea, a trunk, later found to contain nothing more than dirty laundry, was blown open. The hoaxer was arrested in New York.
Arnott became master of QE2 in October 1976. The job brought him into contact with many famous passengers, and he himself became a celebrity. In 1977 he was the subject of the television show This Is Your Life, hosted by Eamonn Andrews and broadcast live from mid-Channel. It took a year’s planning and a conspiracy among his officers to smuggle Andrews, the other guests, including Arnott’s wife, and the television crew aboard at Cherbourg, with co-operation of the French authorities. When he was persuaded on to the stage by a subterfuge, the surprise was complete.
Arnott’s autobiography, Captain of the Queen (1982) was a masterpiece of discreet disclosure tinged with titillation. “Rich and beautiful people,” he wrote, “can be just as dangerous as anyone else when jealous passions are aroused”, but as to the identity of an American lady who flounced her skirts, danced on his table and offered $1,000 to anyone who would sleep with her, he was silent. She became the only passenger whom he ever put ashore – in La Guaira, Venezuela – “for her own safety,” he explained.
He was fascinated by his guests’ eating habits: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor preferred steak and kidney pie, Noel Coward liked bangers and mash, and Kay Kendall favoured cottage pie. Victor Mature, he noted, could demolish a 12lb roast turkey at a sitting; the actor once signed a menu-card: “Cunard cooking is as great as sex – almost”.
Alan Whicker, in another television programme, Whicker’s World: A Fast Boat to China (1984), described the master as a holiday version of Jack Hawkins, and Arnott wrote that the skills of a passenger liner’s master included “a doctorate in diplomacy, joke appreciation, drinking and table talk and 1,000 other skills which I am still researching”.
Arnott thought that QE2 was the finest liner ever built; nevertheless he was critical of her builders. “There were two QE2s,” he wrote. “Because so much of the original was squirrelled… the project was dogged not only by pilfering but by technical problems and industry disputes within the dying Clyde shipbuilding industry… It nearly bankrupted Cunard.”
Robert Harry Arnott was born on July 17 1923 in Hamilton, New South Wales, but his parents, recent émigrés, were homesick and returned to Bury, Lancashire, while he was a baby. He was educated at Bury High School and Fleetwood Grammar School.
In 1940 he joined the Blue Funnel Line as a midshipman and spent the war at sea. In early June 1942 he was a junior officer in Antilochus when he spotted some survivors from the torpedoed Blue Funnel ship Mentor in a lifeboat (one of them was Peter Jackson, whom Arnott would later relieve as master of QE2). Arnott celebrated VE Day in Fremantle, Western Australia, and VJ Day in Sydney, New South Wales."
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