Obituary: Lt-Col Michael Skinner

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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL SKINNER, a scion of India's oldest military family, commanded the dashing cavalry regiment of Skinner's Horse more than 150 years after it was raised by his legendary ancestor James Skinner in 1803.

Known as "ramrod Skinner" by his regimental colleagues for his principled dealings and straight talk, he saw action with his regiment during the Second World War in Persia and Italy. On returning home in 1945 he was despatched to the turbulent North West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) to battle feisty tribesmen constantly at war with the colonial government.

Shortly after Independence in 1947 Skinner's regiment, now armed with Churchill tanks, was despatched along with other Indian army units to "annex" the southern Muslim principality of Hyderabad, until then ruled by the Nizam, one of the world's richest men, who had refused to join the Indian Union of States.

After varied assignments including a stint as instructor at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in the northern foothills, and as a member of the three-nation International Control Commission in Vietnam, in 1960 Skinner took command of Skinner's Horse, founded by his great-great-grandfather. He was the first Skinner to command the regiment since its founder had died in 1842.

Skinner's Horse is the Indian army's fourth oldest cavalry regiment. It was raised by James Skinner in 1803 at Hansi, 80 miles north of Delhi, as an "irregular horse" following the grant of over 200 villages by the British East India Company that then controlled most of India. The rapidly expanding company, desperately short of British troops to help it annex territory and consolidate control, resorted to the old Mogal system of raising "irregular" units by committing jagirs or land endowments to military commanders - mostly enterprising adventurers who used the income from them to subsidise cavalry or infantry regiments.

James Skinner and his brother Robert were two such beneficiaries. Sons of a Scottish soldier and a high-caste Rajput mother who was part of his "war loot", they were brought up in army camps across India and became skilled horsemen. Around 1780 both applied to join the company's army, but were rejected on the grounds of being Eurasian and hence considered untrustworthy. Peeved by narrow British attitudes the two brothers joined the army of Scindia, the Maratha warlord who then ruled over central India with his headquarters at Gwalior, 180 miles west of Delhi, and opposed the expansionist company.

Scindia employed a host of brilliant French generals like the Count de Boigne and General Perron who had organised their chieftain's force along the lines of a European army. The Skinner brothers, especially James, performed admirably in numerous campaigns, frequently defeating superior British forces with their small, swift and well-knit band of committed horsemen. After several campaigns the Marathas, by now plagued by internecine rivalries, were convincingly defeated by the British general Lord Lake and hordes of Scindia's men flocked to join the company's army in 1802. The Skinner brothers and their risala (horse cavalry) were amongst them.

But the cavalrymen came with two conditions: first, that they never be asked to fight their former employer Scindia or his descendants and second that they be permitted to choose their own leader. Because of their awesome reputation Lord Lake agreed and the men unanimously chose Burra Sikandar - the older brother, James Skinner - as their leader. He was given some 200 villages around Hansi and Skinner's Horse came into being on 23 February 1803.

While choosing the regimental uniform Skinner was inspired by his mother's Rajput heritage, whereby a prince riding out to battle would vow to return victorious or die. They would anoint their faces with saffron, the colour of martyrdom, and don yellow robes over their armour which was tied with a yellow sash. Skinner chose yellow tunics as the regimental colour and every horseman recruited swore never to return from battle unless victorious. Through numerous campaigns in Afghanistan, and France and Flanders in the First World War, the Yellow Devils covered themselves with glory.

Till the early 1840s Skinner was the head of a group of aristocratic Eurasians living in Delhi. He owned an impressive town mansion near the old city's Kashmir gate area, built in classic style with high columns and colonnades. He entertained lavishly, and maintained an impressive harem. He also built St James's Church - where services are still held regularly, as a smaller copy of St Paul's Cathedral - and he was buried beside the altar so that people could trample over him and help him atone for his sins. The grounds of the Anglican church are the Skinner family burial ground.

Michael Skinner was born in 1920 at Sikandar Hall, a baronial family mansion built by his ancestors as their summer home in Mussorie, a picturesque hill town in the Himalayas 250 miles north of Delhi. His father James Skinner was a zamindar or landlord and Myrtle, his mother, was descended from the distinguished Hersey military family. He was initially educated in England but completed his schooling at St George's in Mussorie in 1939 where he not only lost his pukka British accent but became an accomplished athlete and heavyweight boxer.

He joined the army and was commissioned into Skinner's Horse in 1942. Soon afterwards the German army launched its Russian campaign and the regiment was despatched to guard the Iranian oil fields. In 1943, as part of the 10th and 4th Indian Division they advanced to Italy where they came under sustained fire for long periods, successfully holding the Gothic Line against the German onslaught.

Returning home after the war, Skinner was assigned to the North West Frontier and after several exciting postings achieved his life's ambition in July 1960 when he took command of Skinner's Horse for three years. In 1950 he had married Margaret Skinner, a cousin, at St James's Church. And though posted elsewhere, when India went to war with Pakistan for the second time in 1965, Skinner rushed to his regiment which was deployed on the northern Punjab front and offered his services, which were regretfully declined.

Michael Skinner left the army in 1966 to farm his ancestral lands at Hansi and was made an honorary brigadier in the 1990s by India's army chief for helping out ex-servicemen. A no-nonsense soldier, he was always fair in his dealings and outspoken to a fault to senior and junior officers alike.

Kuldip Singh

Michael Alexander Robert Skinner, cavalry officer: born Mussorie, India 29 September 1920; married 1950 Myrtle Skinner (three daughters); died Epsom, Surrey 17 March 1999.