The RAF hero was one of those so memorably celebrated by Churchill's famed tribute: "Never have so many owed so much to so few,"* and Sir Archie oh so sadly expired on Tuesday, October 19th, a mere four days shy of centenary attainment.
* Quoting only from memory here, not necessarily verbatim; correct me if you like.
Sir Archie Lamb, fighter pilot and diplomat who served as Ambassador to Norway and Kuwait and established himself as a leading expert on the oil industry – obituary
He survived for eight days on a lifeboat after his ship was sunk and went on to become the first FCO clerk to rise to ambassador
Sir Archie Lamb, who has died a few days before his 100th birthday, joined the Foreign Office aged 17 as a filing clerk and retired from it 43 years later as Ambassador to Norway, the first of its clerical staff to reach such a height as the FO began basing promotion on talent rather than privilege.
Over a career punctuated by eight days in a lifeboat after the torpedoing of his troopship and service with the RAF which earned him a DFC, he became one of the FCO’s leading experts on oil.
Lamb served in, among other places, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and on the FCO’s “oil desk”, before being appointed Ambassador in Oslo in 1978 at the urging of James Callaghan.
A visit there convinced the prime minister that Britain and Norway were getting at cross purposes over offshore development. The countries had agreed a North Sea “median line” and were developing fields that straddled it, but tensions had arisen over who should provide equipment and services to the Norwegian sector. Britain saw it as a natural outlet for its exports, Norway to develop its own offshore industries.
Moved to Oslo from his embassy in Kuwait, Lamb tried to stall intergovernmental contacts while he investigated the situation, but could not prevent a visiting junior minister infuriating his Norwegian counterpart. He managed to iron out their differences over a quiet lunch.
He put together a “political overview” of offshore issues to be accepted by both governments, ran it past the Norwegian energy minister, then secured approval from the Foreign Secretary David Owen. Lamb then refocused the Oslo embassy to match the new objectives.
Albert Thomas Lamb (he gained the nickname “Archie” in the RAF) was born in Swansea on October 23 1921, the eldest child of Reginald Lamb, a commercial traveller gassed in the First World War, and the former Violet Haynes. One of his teachers at Swansea Grammar School was Dylan Thomas’s father.
Albert Lamb senior became too ill to work, so instead of trying for Oxford as his headmaster intended, his son was entered at 16 for the Civil Service clerical class examination. Wanting to study languages, he joined the FO, starting in its registry in December 1938.
Lamb volunteered for the RAF when war broke out, but was not called up until early 1941. He underwent pilot training in Southern Rhodesia, receiving his wings in September 1942. He sailed for home from Cape Town in the unescorted 20,045-ton liner Oronsay, with 50 other airmen, 20 rescued British seamen and eight gunners, plus a cargo of copper and oranges.
Early on October 9, Oronsay was sunk 500 miles off Freetown, Sierra Leone, by the Italian submarine Archimede. Four torpedoes were fired; the first, which killed five stokers, blew Lamb out of his bunk. He left the ship – via a rope from the deck to a lifeboat – in his RAF jacket and pyjama trousers, leaving all his possessions, including the engagement ring he had bought.
Oronsay sank at 8.05am, leaving 406 survivors in 17 lifeboats, with some water, biscuits and pemmican. The captain organised them to row and sail to Freetown, but after three days a violent storm scattered the flotilla.
On the fourth day, sharks were circling Lamb’s group of five boats. On the fifth, one man tried to throw himself overboard; on the sixth, thirst took a grip. On the seventh, a flying boat brought survival packages.
After eight days and 20 hours, Lamb’s group of 261 survivors were rescued by the destroyer Brilliant. The corvette Armeria picked up a further 61, while 26, including the ship’s surgeon (the Antarctic explorer James McIlroy), were rescued by the Vichy French aviso Dumont d’Urville, and interned at Dakar.
Lamb was transferred in Freetown to a “survivors’ ship”; back in Glasgow he was given two weeks’ leave and £20 for a new uniform.
He joined 184 Squadron, flying rocket-firing Hurricanes and converting to Typhoons early in 1944. He flew two missions from Westhampnett, West Sussex, on D-Day, his squadron knocking out several German tanks near Caen.
He was soon flying from makeshift strips in Normandy. On July 27 Churchill visited in a captured Fieseler Storch, followed by the Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair – who did not impress Lamb – and Ernest Hemingway.
After supporting US forces resisting a German counter-attack at Mortain, he transferred to 245 Squadron as a flight commander. They moved to Antwerp to support operations at Arnhem, but bad weather limited them to four attacks on German positions. Lamb then led attacks on new Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters on the ground; for all these activities he was awarded his DFC.
Early in December he was rested after 106 sorties. He was posted as a Typhoon instructor, then a glider trainer for the invasion of Japan, and ended his service in June 1946 as adjutant at RAF Membury.
Lamb went back to the registry, then in 1947 was posted as archivist to the Embassy in Rome. Two years later he had to type and deliver on a Sunday a Note informing the Italian foreign minister that sterling had been devalued.
He next spent three years in Bucharest. Charged with evacuating the “remaining British subjects living in penury in Roumania”, he managed to get 40 out. For this he was invested with the MBE at Buckingham Palace – making up for having received his DFC in the post.
Back at the FO in 1953 as an administrator, Lamb recruited James Craig, later its leading Arabist, as chief instructor for Mecas, Britain’s “spy school” in the Lebanon; he also learnt Arabic himself.
In October 1954 he was appointed a private secretary to the Foreign Secretary. Anthony Eden annoyed him by refusing to lock up confidential papers each evening, saying there was no risk of their being stolen.
From 1955 to 1957 – spanning the Suez intervention which he considered a disastrous mistake – Lamb himself studied at Mecas. He was then promoted to the diplomatic ranks proper.
Lamb first served in the Gulf from 1957 to 1961 (before oil was struck there) as first secretary to the political resident in Bahrain, and later commercial secretary. When he urged British industry to export to the Gulf, Land Rover told him they were producing enough vehicles already, the car makers refused to install air conditioning, and the woollen merchants refused to believe sheikhs would buy warm clothes.
After a few months at the FO looking after Muscat and Oman, Lamb moved in 1961 to the “oil desk”. After a short spell in Kuwait, in 1965 he became political agent for Abu Dhabi – Britain’s diplomatic representative and advisor on defence and foreign affairs to the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut.
Lamb inherited a house known as “dysentery hall”; a special sitting room had to be built for his wife as she had to retire to her bedroom when Arab males visited; a governess was accommodated behind a “purdah wall”, as Abu Dhabi had no school until his wife started one.
Oil revenues had started to flow, but Shakhbut, who had ruled since 1928, would not spend them, and Lamb could not persuade him to make any reforms. While Lamb was home on leave in the summer of 1966, Shakhbut was overthrown by his brother Zayed, who immediately accepted reforms, including an Investment Board. Lamb left Abu Dhabi in 1968 with buildings starting to rise; in two years the expat population had increase from 85 to too many to invite to his Christmas party.
In November 1967 the FO minister Goronwy Roberts came to reassure the Ruler that Britain would maintain its “special position” in the Gulf. Two months later, he was back to say British protection would end in 1971 after 150 years. Six of the seven “trucial states” formed the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi in the lead.
Lamb next spent six years in the FCO’s Inspectorate, from 1973 to 1974 as chief inspector. The unit’s main purpose was to keep down the costs of overseas posts consistent with “policy and operational requirements, local circumstances and the good morale of the staff”. His powers of diplomacy tested to the limit, Lamb concentrated on reviving commonsense practices dropped after management studies.
In 1974 he was appointed Ambassador to Kuwait, finding it a “disaster area” for British exports. “The British stood back politely and let the others rush in,” he noted. “We are inventors, not salesmen.”
Wealth was surging into the Gulf after the 1973 oil price hike, and Kuwait was now defending itself, with a British military liaison team. Lamb oversaw the sale of Chieftain tanks and six cargo ships to Kuwait; Govan Shipbuilders spurned a first approach because their order book was full, but Lamb stopped the order going to Korea.
Lamb moved to Oslo at the start of 1978, and retired to Dorset in November 1981. Sir Michael Palliser, head of the Diplomatic Service, wrote to him: “Your rise from clerical officer to ambassador has been an inspiration.”
He became a director of the British National Oil Corporation until the Thatcher government wound it up in 1982, and later of British Shipbuilders and the National Bank of Kuwait International.
After the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, Lamb joined 51 other former British diplomats in condemning both the intervention and the West’s support for Israel’s hardline government. When critics suggested he was parti pris because of his commercial links with Kuwait, he retorted: “My entire career has been about protecting and promoting Britain. British interests will only be attended to by a settlement of the Israeli-Palestine issue, not by making it worse, as Mr Bush and Mr Sharon are doing.”
Lamb published four books: A Long Way from Swansea (2003) – with a foreword from Callaghan – Abu Dhabi 1965-68 (2003), The Last Voyage of SS Oronsay (2004) and The World Moves On (2015). He was appointed MBE in 1953, CMG in 1974 and KBE in 1979.
Archie Lamb married Christina Wilkinson in 1944. She predeceased him, and he is survived by their son Robin (Ambassador in Bahrain from 2003-06) and two daughters.
Archie Lamb, born October 23 1921, died October 19 2021