Obituary: Major-General John Owen

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The Independent Culture
JOHN OWEN enlisted in the ranks of the Royal Marines in 1942 and 31 years later left a major-general. He was a big man of striking appearance, sure of his own mind but willing to listen; he saw action in Burma during the Second World War and afterwards in Malaya, Borneo and Aden.

Owen was educated at St Edmund's School, Canterbury and enlisted in the Royal Marines shortly after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. Within two months he was promoted lance corporal which he regarded as one of his proudest moments. In an inspection a few months later his boots were admired - he like other marines had polished the soles - and the adjutant recommended him for a commission.

His first operational tour was with 44 RM Commando in the jungle of Burma where in March 1944 his unit landed in the Arakan region to attack Japanese positions. He was involved in the landing at Myebon where he recalled: "It seemed to be all mangrove swamp. We had to wade in four or five hundred yards which took nearly three hours. We were exhausted and covered from head to foot in mud which sucked our boots off."

Fierce fighting was to follow at the Battle of Kangaw. "As we advanced up Hill 170, a long jungle-covered feature, I felt something was building up. We were hot and tired and regrettably many of us did not dig in as well as we should have done. Suddenly all hell was let loose. Shells were bursting everywhere. I remember seeing a marine hit in the pouch where he had a phosphorous grenade. Terrible. We lost 60 men. The next day when we were burying them we were attacked again." Another 10 days of intensive fighting ensued.

In 1946 Owen left the Royal Marines and joined the Metropolitan Police. While pounding the beat he met two of his former colonels who persuaded him to rejoin. He was granted a permanent commission in 1947. The next year he was appointed to the RM Commando school, Bickleigh, where he trained recruits and later was involved in commando training.

His career throughout the 1950s followed an orthodox pattern with time in Malaya, Malta and Suez, and in 1959 he was appointed Brigade Major to HQ 3rd Commando Brigade. In 1962 he was at the Admiralty with Plans Division where much work was carried out on the formation of the now familiar amphibious group, comprising commando ships, supported by with helicopters and assault and logistic landing ships. For his work in this field he was appointed OBE.

He was Second in Command of 42 Royal Marine Commando in Borneo and saw action in the rivers and rainforests of Sarawak during the confrontation with Indonesia. In 1966 he was appointed Instructor at the Royal College of Defence Studies. He then became Commanding Officer of 45 RM Commando and was involved in the final phase of the difficult withdrawal of the British forces from their protectorate role in Aden (in what was then South Yemen), when 42 and 45 RM Commando were the last to leave the troubled area.

On his promotion to colonel in 1969 he was appointed Senior Staff Officer to Commando General Royal Marines. He then attended the Royal College of Defence Studies before the crowning moment of his career in July 1972, when he became Major-General, Royal Marine Commando Forces.

During this time he became the first RM major-general to inspect a unit on skis but took the precaution of having his ADC stand behind him in case he began to slide backwards. Humour was always one of his greatest strengths and this endured him to his men.

He retired from the Royal Marines in 1973 and for the next 14 years pursued a successful second career with the accountants Thompson McLintock (now Marwick McLintock) as their partnership secretary. He had many other voluntary interests including acting as treasurer of the Clergy Orphan Corporation, chairman of the governors of St Edmund's School, Canterbury and of St Margaret's School, Bushey. He also became chairman of the Bowles Outdoor Centre at Tunbridge Wells and was editor of Brassey's Infantry Weapons of the World.

His leadership and tenacity as chairman of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum was instrumental in transforming it into one of the finest military museums in the country. He also chaired the museum's heritage appeal which raised over pounds 2m, and was president of the Royal Marines Historical Society. From 1983 to 1984 he was Colonel Commandant Royal Marines, and Representative Colonel Commandant in 1985-86.

John Ivor Headon Owen, soldier: born Barcelona, Spain 22 October 1922; OBE 1963; Major-General, Commando Forces Royal Marines, Plymouth 1972- 73; married 1948 Jean Hayes (three daughters); died Barrington, Cambridge 31 May 1999.