Obituary: Maj-Gen Rea Leakey

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REA LEAKEY was a soldier of exceptional courage, who seemed always to be in the thick of the action or looking for it.

His reward was an MC and bar for his actions in the Western Desert and a DSO and Czechoslovakian MC for his leadership in north-west Europe. That he survived so many hair-raising adventures he put down to "Leakey's luck". He saw much of death, but was deeply moved when his brother was killed in Ethiopia while serving with the King's African Rifles, for which he was awarded a posthumous VC, and at the death of his father, a Kenyan farmer and an honorary brother of the Kiku, who was murdered along with his wife by the Mau Mau in 1952.

Leakey was born in Kenya in 1915. On the death of his mother when he was eight, he was sent to a harsh boarding school where he remembered that he and his brother were given six of the best with a rhinoceros whip for scrumping: "We were little heroes to the rest of the boys, because the weals were red and bleeding." With family funds low, he was sent to Britain with his brother to be looked after by a spinster aunt who somehow found the money to send them to Weymouth College. He went to Sandhurst on a scholarship and was commissioned into the Royal Tank Corps (RTR) in 1936.

Posted with the 1st Battalion RTR to Egypt, he began to understand the nature of the desert and under the guidance of Teddy Mitford, later of the Long Range Desert Group, he became a skilful desert navigator and was co-inventor of the Coles Universal Sun Compass, which remained in use until it was recently supplanted by satellite position fixing.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was on the staff of HQ 4th Armoured Brigade and eager to get into action, he asked to rejoin his regiment. He led a troop and later a squadron against the Italians where he won his first MC. With the arrival of Rommel's Afrika Corps, with its superior tanks, the British were driven back to the Egyptian frontier and Leakey's regiment formed part of the garrison at Tobruk.

It was vital for Rommel to capture Tobruk for, apart from Benghazi, it was the only safe, accessible port for more than the 1,000 miles between Sfax in Tunisia and Alexandra. Its capture would greatly have shortened Rommel's supply line. Continued defiance by the Allies raised morale everywhere. Leakey and his men spent six months in the beleaguered town, hemmed in, low on fuel and under constant bombardment.

In one enemy attack astride the El Adem Road, with his men exhausted, one young officer broke down in tears saying he could fight no more. Aware of the anxiety this was creating, Leakey tried to comfort the young man, but in the end was forced to draw his revolver and order him back to his tank. Leakey was to recall how, even years later, he still had nightmares connected with this incident, particularly as his own tank lost men in the attack.

Locked in Tobruk and growing bored enough to play "Are you there, Moriarty?" with a fellow officer using live ammunition in a dark cave, it was time for Leakey to get back into real action. He volunteered to join the Australian forces as a private soldier for three months.

He had already impressed the Australians with his mine-laying under fire and they were delighted to have the "Pommie" with them. On one patrol with two men, they were spotted by about 50 German troops. Leakey opened fire with his Bren gun, but it jammed. He told the two men to lie on their backs and hurl hand-grenades while he cleared not only the Bren but a tommy-gun. While he was involved in this, he was charged by a wounded German but, with what he called "the best shot of my life", he hit him between the eyes.

The German artillery then began to fall on its positions, but it also killed what was left of the enemy. Crawling among the dead, Leakey and his men recovered three German helmets and, wearing these and covering their heads, they somehow convinced the Germans they were survivors from the artillery attack. Five hundred yards from the safety of Tobruk the enemy realised who they were and opened fire. Dodging shells and bullets, Leakey and his two soldiers ran into the arms of his cheering battalion, who plied him with rum.

He was awarded an MC, the only captain in the British army serving as a lance corporal in the Australian army to do so. Twenty-five years later he was delighted when the Victor comic recorded his deeds in graphic form and particularly taken by one of the Australian gunners shouting out: "Well done, cobber, that was a fair dinkum scrap you had."

Much against his will, Leakey was ordered to Staff College in Haifa but on route dropped off in Kenya to see his father and learnt of the death of his brother. After a job as a liaison officer with an Australian RAF squadron with whom he learnt to fly he was posted to 252 Indian Armoured Brigade in Persia. Granted 10 days' leave before joining them, he typically chose to find his old regiment fighting in Gazala. Exhausted by the search, he bedded down in his jeep with HQ 7th Armoured Division, intending to find his own unit the next day.

He woke to find that the entire HQ had left and he was now staring up at General Rommel, who had an escort of armoured carriers. He was to write later:

Never have I acted so fast. Within seconds I was in the driving seat of my jeep and off into the misty morning. But to this day I still recall the sound of guns being cocked and Rommel's voice shouting at his men. "Nein, nein." He was clearly saying, "Give the bastard a chance."

In the confused battle around Gazala, Leakey acted as a turret gunner in a Grant tank and was lucky to survive. To replace a casualty he took over as GSO 2 at HQ 7th Armoured Division while ignoring signals from Cairo demanding to know why he was not in Persia. With Rommel halted at Alamein in July 1942, Leakey found himself in Persia and even in that backwater found plenty of adventure, at one point nearly dying of dehydration on patrol.

He was soon back in his natural territory, in North Africa for the concluding campaign against Rommel. Transferred to 44th RTR as second in command he landed at Taranto and advanced up the East Coast of Italy before returning with his regiment to England in preparation for an invasion of Normandy. He was involved in the savage battles and capture of Maltot which lies beneath the slopes of Hill 112. Now in command of 7th RTR, a Churchill tank regiment, his next action was at Le Havre and then with the Czech armoured brigade at Dunkirk. This charismatic, fearless and enormously popular leader led 5th RTR through Holland and into Germany until VE Day. He then promptly volunteered for service in the Far East. However the dropping of the atom bomb brought that prospect to an end.

Awarded the DSO for the brilliant way he led 5th RTR, at the age of 29 he was still too young to be a substantive lieutenant-colonel. His true rank was that of captain.

After two years as a company commander at the newly formed Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he passed on his wartime knowledge and battlefield experience, he taught at the staff college before rejoining 5th RTR, now in his peacetime rank of major, for a year in Korea. This was followed in 1954 by command of 1st Armoured Car Regiment of the Arab Legion, a challenge he relished, since frequent border disputes with the Israelis led to almost continuous activity, while at the same time he was given an opportunity to meet a number of senior Israeli officers, including Moshe Dayan.

In 1956 all British officers in the Arab Legion were dismissed and Leakey joined HQ 3rd Division in Cyprus. After another tour at the staff college he commanded 7th Armoured Brigade in BAOR from 1961 to 1963 and then as a major-general, his next job was probably his most important, for he became Director-General of Fighting Vehicles.

At this time it became clear that the British-designed multi-fuel engine for the Chieftain tank would never achieve its required performance, and he took the considerable professional risk of recommending the introduction of the Chieftain be delayed, in order that an American diesel engine could be fitted. He was overruled in what he considered to be a purely political decision, for which the Royal Armoured Corp suffered all the Chieftain's period in service.

His last appointment was as GOC British Troops Malta and Libya. After an interesting two years, but seeing no prospect of advancement or excitement, he decided to retire at the early age of 51 and became Director and Secretary of the Wolfson Foundation. He enjoyed his new academic world and it was a source of amusement to him that he was considered suitable for the job in spite of his Arab Legion background.

He found time to write a fine autobiography, Leakey's Luck (1999), with another tank officer, George Forty. Leakey retained until very recent years the ebullience and vitality of youth, playing tennis and squash at a high level. He was also a keen fisherman and a good shot.

Arundell Rea Leakey, soldier: born Nairobi 30 December 1915; MC and bar 1941; DSO 1945; Director-General of Fighting Vehicles 1964-66; married 1949 Muriel le Poer Trench (two sons; marriage dissolved 1984), 1994 Joan Morant; died 6 October 1999.