Thursday, 6 January 2011
Who's Who in Scottish Military history - Major General Robert ‘Roy’ Urquhart CB DSO
In our Who’s Who of Boxing Day we wrote about the actor David Niven. A name I mentioned in the text was a contemporary of Niven in 2nd Bn HLI in Malta who later went on to become a general and in 1944 was at the centre of one of the most controversial operations of the Second World War.
The man selected to command 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem was the big Scot, Roy Urquhart.
Urquhart had risen slowly but steadily through the ranks since his time with the HLI in Malta. He had held various regimental and staff appointments but 1st Airborne was his first command of a Division. He got it on the back of his impressive handling of 231 Brigade Group in Sicily.
I’m not going to go into too much detail of Arnhem here because the story of it is well known. What isn’t in doubt is Urquhart’s personal bravery and the immense respect that he earned from his airborne troops. What may be in doubt is whether Urquhart was the best man for the job.
He was picked to command the Airborne Division because of his infantry experience, not because he understood airborne tactics and some criticism levelled at him is that he shouldn’t have allowed his men to be landed so far from their targets. He also managed to get himself separated from his troops and left his division leaderless for a crucial 30 hours. He was further criticised for the location of his final perimeter which was undefendable and meant he had to evacuate his men back over the Rhine. In nine days he had lost 80% of his command. At lot of it was out of his control and he only had a few days to prepare for the battle so he was not out of favour in high circles but 1st Airborne Division never recovered from its mauling at Arnhem and Urquhart took no further part in the fighting during the war.
After VE day 1st Airborne Division was allocated to Operation Doomsday, the plan to oversee the surrender of 350,000 German troops in Norway in May 1945 and Urquhart only had 6,000 troops at his disposal and only four days to plan his arrival. The operation went smoothly and for a while Urquhart was promoted to command all British troops in Norway.
For the next few years he was involved in the TA in the UK until 1950 when he was sent to Malaya during the Emergency. At first he was there as a divisional commander but soon took over as Commander of British forces in Malaya. He only spent a relatively short time there and was succeeded by Gerald Templar in 1952. Templar is credited with beating the communist guerrillas but it was Urquhart who laid the foundations for victory with his shake up of the British and Commonwealth land forces.
He then moved to a happier command, in charge of the British occupation forces in Austria until they left in 1955. There were tensions between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union in occupied Austria and it was a diplomatic rather than military role but it was a successful and peaceful end to a career of highs and lows.
Urquhart then took the opportunity to leave the army, still a Major General, eleven years after being appointed to the rank, and took a job with British Steel until he retired in 1970. He died on 13th December 1988, aged 87.
(Text by Adam Brown)