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Sir Oscar De Ville, seaman at the Battle of North Cape who became a senior business figure – obituary

Sir Oscar De Ville: he changed his forename as a schoolboy because he felt that Harold was ‘a bit soft’
Sir Oscar De Ville: he changed his forename as a schoolboy because he felt that Harold was ‘a bit soft’

Sir Oscar De Ville, who has died aged 98, served in HMS Belfast at the Battle of North Cape, and went on to a senior business career specialising in industrial relations.

In December 1943, De Ville was an 18-year-old seaman in the cruiser Belfast, waiting at Murmansk to escort a returning Arctic convoy back to Britain, when intelligence was received that the Scharnhorst, Germany’s most dangerous battlecruiser, was at sea intent on intercepting both the next convoy carrying supplies to Russia and the returning one as they rounded the North Cape of Norway.

On Boxing Day, Scharnhorst was attacked by Belfast, Norfolk and Suffolk, and when Norfolk and Suffolk were disabled, Belfast maintained the pursuit alone. That evening, after the battleship Duke of York joined the action – the last major sea battle in European waters – Scharnhorst was sunk with the loss of almost 2,000 German lives but only 18 British dead.

De Ville spent the dramatic day handling shells to feed a gun turret. His recollection was of a ship “crammed” with 1,100 crew in a space meant for 600, of terrible Arctic weather, and of the sadness of funerals at sea. After the victory, “everyone had a few drinks if they were [old enough], but I had to have lemonade.”

In his post-war career in industrial management, latterly with the cable manufacturer BICC, De Ville served on the front line of a very different and more extended confrontation – between British employers and militant trade unions.

He was a member of the Commission on Industrial Relations established by the Heath government in 1971, and a founder member of the conciliation body Acas; as chairman of a Confederation of British Industry working party on employee participation, he successfully opposed the imposition of union reps on company boards. On the positive side – deeply concerned with improvements to training and skills – his lasting contribution was as founder-chairman from 1986 to 1990 of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

Harold Godfrey De Ville was born in a Derbyshire mining village on April 11 1925 to Harold De Ville, a brewery foreman, and his wife Anne, née Godfrey. At Burton Grammar School, where he was captain of rugby, young Harold decided his name was “a bit soft” and changed it to Oscar.

In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy on a cadet scheme which began with six months’ study at Trinity College, Cambridge. After Belfast, De Ville was commissioned and served in motor torpedo boats and other smaller craft in Normandy and Belgium, and later in mine-sweepers in the Far East. Having returned to Cambridge after demobilisation, he contemplated a teaching career before deciding to go into industry to help “put right some of the things that were rather wrong” in employee relations.

He joined Ford Motor Co, where he rose to be manager of recruitment and training, but decided to move on after the UK company was taken over by its US parent. In 1965 he became head of personnel at BICC, advancing to director in 1971 and executive deputy chairman from 1978 to 1984. After retiring from BICC he was chairman of Meyer International and a member of the British Railways Board.

In 1991 he left business behind to devote himself to his long-time hobby of research into his ancestry, and in 1995 he completed a doctorate in medieval history at Birkbeck College, London. Among the subjects of his studies was the 13th-century rebel baron Jocelin Deyville, whose life had echoes of the legend of Robin Hood.

Oscar De Ville was appointed CBE in 1979 and knighted in 1990. He married, in 1947, Pamela Ellis, who became a noted sculptress; she survives him with their son.

Sir Oscar De Ville, born April 11 1925, died January 18 2024