Hugh Balfour

Rear admiral who played a key role in the Falklands war

Rear Admiral Hugh Balfour, who has died of cancer aged 66, helped to save the Falkland Islands for Britain not once but twice - in 1977 as well as in the war of 1982.

In 1976, with Argentina's long-standing claim to what it regards as las Malvinas again moving towards crisis, an Argentine destroyer opened fire and tried unsuccessfully to board a British Antarctic survey ship. When Argentine ships began harassing foreign fishing vessels within the Falklands' 200-mile fisheries limit in 1977, Labour foreign secretary David Owen persuaded the Callaghan government quietly to send a small task force under the command of the then Captain Balfour.

Balfour took his own frigate, Phoebe, and another, the Alacrity, plus Britain's first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, in support. The arrival in the far south Atlantic of this small, but powerful and modern, force was soon known to the Argentine military, if not to the general public, and was enough to deter aggressive moves against the Falklands.

When defence secretary John Nott announced drastic cuts, especially in the Royal Navy, in 1981, they included the withdrawal of the ice-patrol ship Endurance, Britain's last vestige of a naval presence in the region. This was interpreted as a sign of London's indifference to the Falklands.

The Argentine economy, meanwhile, was in desperate straits, and the population was hostile to the junta that had seized power in 1976. General Videla resigned as its head in December 1981 and was replaced by the brutal and incompetent Galtieri, who, however, knew at least one classic dictator's trick: with trouble at home, seek a diversion abroad and find a foreign enemy.

At the time of the Argentine invasion on April 2 1982, Captain Balfour was in command of the guided-missile destroyer Exeter in the Caribbean, a Type 42 that was acting as guardship for the British troops protecting Belize from Guatemalan territorial claims. Balfour was desperate to join the Falklands task force and, without waiting for orders, spent a month working up his crew with an intense series of exercises.

The call came on May 5, just after the loss of Exeter's sister ship, HMS Sheffield - burned out after being hit by an Exocet surface-to-surface missile. Twenty men were killed and 24 wounded, but 266, including Captain Sam Salt, survived. Exeter had a mid-ocean rendezvous with the merchant ship taking them home and Balfour was briefed by Captain Salt on the navy's first missile war.

On arrival off the Falklands, Exeter, whose main role was anti-aircraft, served as a radar picket on watch for Argentine jets attacking the task force with bombs and Exocets. One of the main weaknesses of the force was a lack of airborne early-warning planes (by the end of the campaign Sea King helicopters had been hurriedly adapted for this role), which meant that shipborne radar was essential to give brief warning of incoming aircraft and missiles.

Argentina's last airborne Exocet was fired on May 22 by one of a pair of highly sophisticated, French-made Super-Etendard aircraft, supported by four American Skyhawks. While the frigate Avenger successfully intercepted the Exocet, Exeter fired a Sea Dart missile over that ship and shot down one of the Skyhawks. To ease the tension aboard after a fraught and complicated action, Balfour had a steward bring him a glass of whisky on a silver tray to the bridge, where he impressed his men by drinking it as if without a care in the world.

Balfour was born into a naval family in Malta, where his father was serving, and attended Kelly College, Tavis tock, before joining the Royal Navy in 1951. Eight years later he was a signals specialist.

He served on a frigate before acquiring his first command, a minesweeper, as a lieutenant in 1963. He served on the staff of the senior naval officer in the West Indies before being given command of the frigate Whitby, which took part in the "Beira Patrol" off Mozambique, to stop sea deliveries of oil via pipeline to the UDI regime in Rhodesia (which got all it wanted by land from South Africa).

After two years as executive officer of the royal yacht Britannia, Balfour was promoted to captain in 1976 and given command of the Phoebe. As chief naval signal officer from 1979, Balfour successfully pushed for the introduction of satellite communications, which proved a boon in the Falklands three years later.

His last posting was as director of the Maritime Tactical School until 1985, when he was seconded to command the small but very modern navy of the Sultan of Oman for five years, during and after the difficult period of the Iran-Iraq war. He retired as a rear admiral and was made Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1990 and became a communications consultant.

He married Sheila Ann Weldon in 1958; they had two daughters and one son.

Rear Admiral Hugh Maxwell Balfour, sailor, born April 29, 1933; died June 29, 1999