In December 2018, alumnus Vice Admiral Ben Key CBE (BSc Physics 1988) was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the Royal Navy. In this article we look at his extraordinary career journey so far.
Before starting at Royal Holloway, Ben was a university cadet with aspirations and A-levels to follow a career in medicine. He soon realised that the science of the human body, and not the medicine, was his passion. A chance meeting with a fellow officer cadet set Ben on a path to joining Royal Holloway in 1985 as a Physics and Chemistry student.
Whilst at Royal Holloway, Ben engaged with everything the institution had to offer, becoming chair of the hockey club, vice-chair of the cricket club, singing in the choral society and living in Founders. His passion for Physics revolved around the BIG questions – like the nature of black holes and cosmology.
When Ben graduated in 1988 he never expected that the Navy was his ultimate calling. “I joined the Navy expecting to stay for no more than five years, because, having given up on medicine, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” he revealed in 2015. “The Navy was going to be a way of seeing a bit of the world and then going and getting a proper job. I’m still in the Navy because I realised that the opportunities that were within the service fitted the sort of interests that I actually had, so there was no plan.”
Recent graduates unsure of what to do next can take heart – in 2016, the year after Ben gave this interview, he was promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral, was awarded a CBE and took over as the new Fleet Commander and Chief Naval Warfare Officer. Sometimes, not having a plan works in one’s favour.
Ben’s illustrious 34-year career has seen him qualify as both helicopter aircrew and as Principal Warfare Officer, serving in all the oceans in the world in a variety of frigates and destroyers. He served as commanding officer of the minehunter HMS Sandown and frigates HMS Iron Duke and HMS Lancaster, completed a spell in the Ministry of Defence and in 2006 was Advisor to the Director Joint Staff in Baghdad. Subsequently, Ben was awarded the US Bronze Star in recognition of his meritorious achievements in a combat zone.
In 2009, Ben was appointed to be the Commanding Officer of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, after which a series of senior staff appointments in the Ministry of Defence followed, including Principal Staff Officer to the Chief of the Defence Staff in 2011.
Promoted to Rear Admiral in 2013, Ben was appointed as Flag Officer Sea Training, responsible for the delivery of training and education across the Naval Service.
He took over as Fleet Commander on promotion to Vice Admiral in 2016. While the title sounds grand, it might be best interpreted as the Royal Navy’s Chief Operating Officer. Ben is responsible for the preparation of the ships, submarines, aircraft and Royal Marine units to meet the operational requirements of the UK Government. He also commands maritime operations involved in the security of the United Kingdom.
At the handover ceremony on HMS Dauntless, Vice Admiral Key said: “The sailors and marines of the Naval Service have consistently delivered success on operations. I am determined to support the Fleet to ensure it can continue to do so. In an uncertain world, we must be ready and able to fight and win, and the men and women on the front line must be supported to do so. I very much look forward to playing my part in this.”
It’s pleasing to know that Ben has used undergraduate training in physics whilst serving as a commander, often surprising those under his command asking for data or diagrams for complex navy hardware, or sketching out, late at night, the fault with an optical helicopter landing system. The scientific method and physics training he received at Royal Holloway has served him well.
Whilst back on campus for his Honorary Degree ceremony, Ben took some time out to visit his old department (where he was impressed by how much had changed, and also spotted some things that had not) and even found his old room in Founder’s Building. Speaking of his award, Ben said: “What an honour to be presented with this award by an institution that holds so many fond and special memories for me. I am humbled to be here, and grateful to Royal Holloway for recognising me in this way.”