With the majority of the RAF’s operational capabilities under his command, he pursued a “people first” policy, with a busy schedule of visits when he was able to meet those under his command, and those under his command to meet and meet him. talk to him. He has also flown the wide variety of aircraft in use, in order to keep abreast of tactics and capabilities and to gain a better understanding of the pressures on crews flying fighter jets.
In November 1988, he took up his post as Chief of the Air Force (CAS). He traveled extensively, both in RAF units and in the foreign air force, where he took every opportunity to promote the Royal Air Force and the British aviation industry. He was widely admired for his presence, charisma, confidence, intelligence, and easy social manners. He could easily attract the attention of a speaking amphitheater without notes.
Harding was also able to demonstrate his abilities as a pilot, and he accepted numerous invitations to fly foreign air force host aircraft. On one occasion, flying in the seat of the first pilot of a Soviet fighter Sukhoi 27, he exclaimed: “All bloody instruments are metric! Nevertheless, he still managed to make a very accomplished outing.
Two years after Harding’s tenure as CAS began, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and during the following months the RAF’s involvement in the region and the Gulf War that followed occupied much of his time.
With the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command, as joint commander of all British forces deployed in the Gulf, Harding’s primary role in the Ministry of Defense was to advise ministers and other department heads on air aspects of the campaign. He was particularly aware of the role of the media and their influence on the morale of families. Within the RAF, he created a special cell to keep families informed and he visited all the stations that had crews on duty in the Gulf. With the invaluable help of his wife Sheila, who accompanied him on his visits and had private talks with his wives and partners, he was able to identify concerns and problems and reassure them.
Harding was particularly upset at having to, along with his fellow chiefs, conduct a study for then Secretary of State for Defense, Tom King, to identify cost savings and unit dismantling. He found it particularly distasteful that one of the Tornado squadrons flying during the war had been identified to be disbanded while still engaged in theater.
On January 1, 1993, Harding was appointed Chief of the Defense Staff, while being promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force. During his 16 months in office, he identified Northern Ireland, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and another exercise in deep cuts to the defense budget as the main concerns he faced.
Most activities in Northern Ireland were under the responsibility of the Army Chief of Staff, but Harding found himself increasingly involved in the early period of discussions to find a peaceful solution.
After a whirlwind visit to Bosnia, he recognized the complexity of the situation in the former Yugoslavia. Contingency plans for actions on the ground and in the air had to be drawn up, which were both militarily and politically complex. He had to advocate firmly for the right levels of force and equipment, often in the face of political opposition from these ministers with different programs.
The third issue that exercised him was the specter of yet another cutting exercise, which he later described as “more nonsense, this time disguised as civilization as much as possible of our defensive capacity.” He was not opposed to the ceding of certain areas of support to civilian contractors, but he fought hard to maintain basic command structures with appropriate service personnel.
On March 13, 1994, Harding and then Secretary of State for Defense Malcolm Rifkind were alerted that The News of the World was going to publish details of an affair Harding had conducted with Lady (Bienvenida ) Buck, the young wife of former Tory MP Sir Anthony Buck.
In a deal crafted by later disgraced publicist Max Clifford, who had obtained private letters, Lady Buck invited Harding to lunch at the Dorchester where an undercover reporter was at an adjacent table to tape their conversation. Upon his departure, Harding and Lady Buck exchanged a kiss, which was captured by a photographer on the prowl.
When the news broke, Harding immediately offered his resignation. In a letter to him, Rifkind paid tribute to his “many years of dedicated service”, and regretted that “we no longer benefit from your guidance and judgment”. Other senior politicians saw no reason why he should have resigned, although there had been a suspicion that during the affair he might have discussed military matters.
Harding’s departure created deep divisions among some of the RAF’s longest serving and retired officers, who believed he had done great damage to the service. Having resigned, his name was taken off the Air Force roster – but he was later reinstated. Harding scorned the spotlight and led a quiet life, but the way he handled the situation and his position garnered considerable respect among his peers.
Peter Harding has been appointed CB (1980), KCB (1983), GCB (1988) and Commander of the Legion of Merit (USA) (1992). He received an Honorary Doctorate of Science (Cranfield University), was elected Companion and Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and Liveryman of the Honorable Company of Air Pilots.
After leaving the RAF, he became vice president of GEC-Marconi Ltd and was president of some international companies abroad. He was a board member of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.
Tall, handsome, easy-going and articulate, Harding was also an exceptional pianist, especially in modern jazz, and an avid bird watcher – his binoculars and field guides accompanied him on all of his many tours.
Sir Peter Harding married, in 1955, Sheila May, who survives him with two of their three sons and a daughter.
Sir Peter Harding, born December 2, 1933, died August 19, 2021