Obituary: Maj-Gen Sir Charles Dunphie

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THE COURAGEOUS stand by Brigadier Charles Dunphie's 26th Armoured Brigade at the Kasserine Pass against Rommel's Panzer Corps was one of the critical moments in the North African Campaign.

In the October-November Third Battle of El Alamein in 1942 the Axis forces had been forced to retreat through Libya to Tunis. In February 1943 Rommel again sought to take the offensive, this time against the 1st Army which had been making progress since its arrival the previous November. The relatively inexperienced US 2nd Corps were ordered to challenge this attack but were soon overwhelmed by Rommel's battle-hardened men.

Dunphie, commanding 26th Armoured Brigade, was ordered forward in an attempt to restore the situation. When he arrived he was confronted with a confused and confusing situation. Seeking the enemy's position he drove straight into an ambush and was lucky to survive. The US 2nd Corps commander still refused to believe that his defences had been penetrated but it was the case.

Dunphie's assessment was that Rommel would head for Thula. He therefore ordered his infantry battalions to prepare defensive positions in that area while he took his armoured units forward to the head of Kasserine Pass. There he engaged Rommel and although outgunned and outranged, he fought an outstanding delaying rearguard action before withdrawing, but it had been bought at high cost.

His Command Scout car was the last to leave, followed by four Panzer tanks which were demolished at point-blank range by the guns of the 17th/23rd Lancers. The battle however continued late into the night of 21 February with burning tanks of both sides illuminating the battlefield. It was a fierce fight with many casualties and come the dawn, Dunphie expected the worst. But Rommel did not come. Dunphie's incisive and cool leadership in this grave situation had won the day.

Charles Dunphie was born in 1902, the elder son of Sir Alfred Dunphie, Queen Alexandra's Comptroller and a director of Coutts Bank. Wanting a career in the Royal Navy he was educated at Osborne and Dartmouth. However, the Navy reinstated their pre-war eye standard in 1919 which had been relaxed during the First World War and Dunphie's eyes fell below the required standard. He was transferred to Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1921.

Like many junior subalterns he spent the 1920s in India and enjoyed a sporting life excelling at shooting, pig-sticking and polo. Back in England he attended Staff College, Camberley in 1935 and then spent a year in Gibraltar with the Heavy Regiment. In 1939 he became GSO 2 in 1st Armoured Division. Fighting his first rearguard action in France he was mentioned in despatches before being evacuated from Cherbourg. In 1941 he was given command of 20th Armoured Brigade, but with preparations afoot for landings in North Africa he was given command of the 26th Armoured Brigade.

With his reputation riding high after Kasserine, especially among the Americans, he was appointed Assistant Chief of Staff to US 2nd Corps in order to advise them on desert fighting. His commander was the newly appointed, charismatic and mercurial General George Patton. In many ways they were very different but they became the firmest of friends. Dunphie was to recall many years later:

At the end of 1943 when George returned to the UK to command US 3rd Army, he gave me a lift home in his plane. He noticed that I wasn't wearing the Silver Star which he had apparently given me when I was wounded. I had heard nothing of it. He had his own ribbon cut off his coat and pinned on mine. A nice trophy of someone of whom I'd become very fond.

On recovering from his wounds Dunphie returned to US 2nd Corps, this time under the more phlegmatic Omar Bradley, with whom he established a mutual friendship.

With the invasion of Europe close at hand, Dunphie was called back to England to become Deputy Director, Royal Armoured Corps (RAC). A tank man through and through with first-hand experience of the quality of Rommel's tactics and his tanks, he was determined that the British should face its adversary with the right armour. This they did with the formidable Sherman tank.

At the end of the war, he became Director General Fighting Vehicles at the Ministry of Supply and played a vital part in the introduction of the Centurion tank which was to be the backbone of the RAC for many years.

Although offered the command of a Division in 1948, he decided to retire from the Army and join Vickers - for him a fresh opening and a new challenge. He held various senior appointments in Vickers and became managing director in 1956 until 1962, when he became chairman. "He wasn't very good at plumbing but he knew all about people," was how someone described his time at Vickers. Under his direction Vickers built warships and nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Navy and for the RAF, the Valiant Bomber and the TSR2, and tanks. He also became a director of Westminster Bank and the Royal Exchange Assurance. He retired in 1967.

At 87 he was asked about his recreational interests. He wrote: "Hunting until WWII; shooting until age 80; fishing till age 85 and at present racing (flat)."

Charles Dunphie's charm, incisive mind and ability to bring order out of chaos, along with his skill at being able to strip away the inessential, endeared him to those with whom he had served and at Vickers. He could get beneath the skin of a man or a woman on the shop floor because he cared. Equally he was at home with some extremely strong characters in the boardroom. He possessed great good humour and an astonishing memory.

Charles Anderson Lane Dunphie, soldier and businessman: born London 20 April 1902; CBE 1942; DSO 1943; CB 1948; Kt 1959; married 1931 Eileen Campbell (died 1978; one son, one daughter), 1981 Susan Wright; died Wincanton, Somerset 8 January 1999.

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