The future Admiral was born on 22nd January 1898 in London, where his father was Quain Professor of Botany and a Fellow of the Royal Society. His mother was a daughter of Doctor Thompson, a pioneer of the trepanning operation. He was educated at Durnford Preparatory School, Langton Maltravers, and Rugby School, from which he joined the navy as a Special Entry Cadet in 1915. After passing out from Keyham College he joined the famous but elderly battleship Dreadnought in the Grand Fleet, and later the new battle-cruiser Renown; but he saw no action with the enemy in those appointments. After the war he came to Queens' College, Cambridge, for two terms in order to compensate for the abbreviated education given to all naval cadets in World War I.
Technical courses for the rank of Lieutenant followed, and Oliver gained First Class certificates in all five subjects, and also the Goodenough Medal and prize for passing as the best examinee 'of his year' in gunnery. He next served in the battleship Resolution (Atlantic Fleet) and in 1921 was selected to specialise in gunnery. He did brilliantly in both the theoretical and the practical parts of the course, coming out top of his class and being awarded the Commander Egerton prize for the best examination in practical gunnery.
After taking the advanced course in his subject he returned to HMS Excellent, the navy's principal gunnery school at Portsmouth, in 1924 as the junior member of the Experimental Department Service on the China Station in the light cruiser Carlisle as her gunnery officer followed from 1925 to 1927, after which he rejoined the Excellent as second senior member of the Experimental Department for two years. In 1930 Oliver became gunnery officer of the new battleship Rodney and played a large part in improving the efficiency of her 16-inch turrets, which were of a completely new design and had been giving serious trouble. He received several commendations from the Admiralty for this work, and also a grant of money. Unfortunately the Rodney was deeply involved in the Invergordon mutiny of September 1931, and for a time Oliver believed that, as with many other officers whose misfortune it was to be involved in that tragic event, his career had been ruined.
In 1932 Oliver was promoted Commander at the early age of 34. In the following year he married Barbara, daughter of Sir Francis A. Jones, a distinguished jurist, by whom he had three children only one of whom survived to manhood.
In 1932, the year of his first promotion by selection, he rejoined the Excellent as head of the Experimental Department, and so was deeply involved in the many technical developments produced by the decision of the British government to rearm in face of the growing threat from the dictatorships. Oliver's next sea service was as Captain of the destroyers Veteran and Diana on the China and Mediterranean stations, which gave him an insight into the work of this most important branch of the naval service. Then Oliver was next appointed for the fourth time to the Excellent, but as Executive Officer of the whole establishment. He is the only officer to have served it both as Experimental Commander and as Executive Officer, which epitomises not only his high technical qualifications but also his outstanding gift of leadership.
In June 1937 Oliver was promoted Captain, and joined the Naval Staff for the first time, initially in the Tactical Division but from 1940 in the Training and Staff Duties Division, which was responsible for all the gunnery side of the staff's work until a separate Gunnery Division was formed in 1941. Towards the end of 1940 he was given command of the new cruiser Hermione, then building on the Upper Clyde. She worked up efficiency at Scapa and took part in the Bismarck operation of May 1941 with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. Then she joined Admiral Somerville's Force H at Gibraltar (see Somerville papers SMVL) and took part in several hazardous operations to get modern fighter aircraft to Malta. On 2 July the Hermione rammed and sank the Italian submarine Tembien off Tunis. These operations gained Oliver his first DSO in the following November.
Early in 1942 the Hermione was ordered to join the force organised to recover the strategically important island of Madagascar from the Vichy French. After that had been successfully accomplished she joined the Eastern Mediterranean fleet, then commanded by Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, the victor of the River Plate battle of December 1939. In June 1942 the Hermione took part in the final, and unsuccessful operation to supply Malta from the east with the 15th Cruiser Squadron. In the early hours of the 16th she was torpedoed and sunk by U.205 off Tobruk with the loss of about 90 of her crew of 570.
Oliver next served for a short time as Naval Liaison Officer with the Nile Delta Army, and was then told he was to be appointed Director of Naval Ordnance, the vastly expanded Admiralty supply department based in Bath. But Admiral Cunningham who had recently been appointed Naval Commander for the invasion of North Africa, had other ideas. He got the DNO appointment cancelled, and Oliver was sent to Gibraltar as a Commodore 2nd Class to organise and train the vast armada of small ships and craft which was assembling there for the invasion of Algeria. When initial landings had been successfully carried out Cunningham sent him to the more easterly port of Bône to develop it into an advanced base. As the port was under constant air attack this was a difficult and dangerous assignment; but in May 1943 on the conclusion of the North African campaign Oliver established himself in the recently captured key base of Bizata. For these services Oliver received a Bar to his DSO and the American Legion of Merit.
Oliver's next employment was in command of the Inshore Squadron during the preparations for the invasion of Sicily of July 1943; but for the assault on Salerno in the following September Cunningham made him Naval Commander of the British (northern) assault force (X Corps under General Sir Richard McCreery). General Mark Clark, USA, was in Command of the whole Fifth Army, and when the American (southern) assault by their VI Corps ran into serious trouble he ordered plans to be prepared either to withdraw the British corps and transfer it to the American sector or withdraw the American corps and transfer it to the British sector. To anyone with Oliver's experience of Combined Operations this was a recipe for complete disaster, and as soon as he learnt about the plan he got hold of General McCreery and said so. Oliver also signalled at once to Cunningham asking for all possible naval reinforcements to be sent - a request which the C-in-C at once put into effect vigorously. Cunningham's memoirs leave one in no doubt that he considered Oliver's part in surmounting the crisis had been decisive. He was gazetted Commander of the Bath for his share in the ultimate success of the operation, and also received a higher grade (Commander) of the American Legion of Merit.
Towards the end of 1943 the Gunnery Branch reclaimed Oliver as Chairman of the 'Accuracy of Gunnery Committee' -known to the cynics as 'The Inaccuracy of Gunnery Committee', which rendered its unanimous report on 22 Feb 1944. This was Oliver's last association with the branch which had been his speciality.
With Cunningham as First Sea Lord from October 1943 Oliver was certain to be required to play an important part in the naval side of the invasion of Normandy of June 1944 as at one time seemed likely, Admiral Sir Philip Vian had not been fit enough to carry the burden of Naval Commander of the whole British assault force, it was Cunningham's intention that Oliver should take his place. As it was Vian made a good recovery, and Oliver therefore only commanded one of the three British assault forces. The second bar to his DSO came as a tribute to his conduct of that force's success.
After a spell of leave Oliver next took command of the 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron, which was employed initially on clearing the Aegean of mines and obstructions and bringing relief to the starving people of Greece. Then his force joined the Eastern Fleet and became the 21st Aircraft Carrier Squadron with Oliver flying his flag as a Rear-Admiral. It took part in the amphibious assault on Rangoon in May 1945 and then prepared to provide the in cover for the assault on the Malay Peninsular - which the Japanese surrender made superfluous. So ended Oliver's war service.
Early in 1946 Oliver was appointed President of the important Aircraft Maintenance Committee, and in April of that year hoisted his flag at Lee-on-Solent as Admiral Air. After only six months service in that capacity he was recalled to the Admiralty as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, with membership of the Board. In 1949 he was appointed President of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where he was promoted Vice-Admiral. Then came two years as Commander-in-Chief, East Indies after which he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, The Nore as an Admiral. He received a KCB in 1951 and was made GBE in 1955, the year of his retirement. He then bought a farm in Sussex and settled down to the country life which he had always loved. He died on 26 May 1980 at the age of 82.
The collection held at Churchill Archives Centre includes papers covering Oliver's career as a gunnery officer in World War II and as Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, 1950-2, and The Nore, 1953-5.
The collection was deposited at Churchill Archives Centre by the widow of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Oliver.