Obituary: Major Pat Riley

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The Independent Culture
WHILE SERVING as a lieutenant in North Africa, David Stirling conceived the idea of small raiding parties which would infiltrate behind enemy lines and destroy Rommel's aircraft and supply dumps. This bold and audacious idea ultimately found favour with his commander-in-chief, General Claude Auchinleck, and in July 1941 L Detachment SAS Brigade was born. It was called a brigade to deceive the enemy but it consisted of only 62 men. Among the first to volunteer was Sergeant Pat Riley.

The first Special Air Service raid in November 1941 on Timmimi and Gazala involved a parachute drop. Launched in a fierce wind, it was a disaster and only 22 out of 64 men survived death or captivity. Riley's aircraft, containing 11 men, was the only one later to rendezvous intact with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The failure of this first operation could have been a fatal blow to the newborn unit, but lessons were learnt and, with Riley now its Regimental Sergeant-Major, within weeks small teams of sometimes no more than five men, this time transported by the LRDG, were successfully carrying out raids and destroying aircraft on airfields: 37 at Agebadia and 27 at Tumet. In Riley's first raid led by Stirling, 18 of Rommel's vitally needed petrol bowzers (petrol tanker lorries) and four food dumps were destroyed at Bouerat Harbour.

Riley's next raid, on Slonta, where they were unable to surmount the airfield defences, was less successful. None the less, with the SAS expanding, he was put in charge of training the new volunteers, who included a French squadron. He was much involved in the large-scale raid on Benghazi Harbour in September 1942. Unfortunately the enemy had been alerted and it proved almost impossible to penetrate the harbour. In the fierce fighting the SAS lost 50 out of the 200 men involved.

However, with these daring and spectacular raids on Rommel's supplies and aircraft, of which 320 were destroyed, the SAS had not only established itself but had changed the face of war. Pat Riley, an astute reader of officers and men, was the perfect man in adversity, fathering and giving confidence to his young soldiers. He was a steady influence throughout the campaign and often the mediator between its diverse characters. For his work in North Africa he was awarded the DCM.

Riley was born in Wisconsin in 1915, the eldest of five children. At the age of seven his family moved to Haltwhistle in Cumbria where he attended the local school until he was 14 when he started work in a granite quarry alongside his father and grandfather.

Finding the work unfulfilling he joined the TA, before enlisting into the Coldstream Guards in 1932. Celebrating before joining up and having missed the last bus, he "borrowed" a local farmer's horse and rode bareback to Haltwhistle where he tied the horse to a neighbour's fence.

At the outbreak of war he volunteered for 2 Troop 8 Guards Commando, part of Layforce under Lt-Col Bob Laycock, part of which was sent to the Western Desert in 1941. (While there he heard that he had received his call-up papers for the United States Army.) However the Commando units were too large and immobile to execute surprise raids successfully, though Riley's troop led by Lt Jock Lewis launched a surprise raid in the Fig Tree sector, part of the defence of Tobruk. Getting under the wire they caused considerable casualties. After the disbandment of Layforce, Riley returned to the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards. Restless for action, he was quick to volunteer for David Stirling's newborn SAS based at Kabrit.

By the beginning of 1943, with Stirling now a POW and Jock Lewis dead, the charismatic Paddy Mayne took command of the SAS. Riley, who was now a Captain, saw action with the regiment in Italy before returning to Scotland to set up a camp at Mauchline before moving to its permanent camp in Darvel. For the SAS had now swollen to the size of a brigade, with two British battalions, two Free French battalions and a Belgian squadron.

When the SAS moved south to their new HQ at Highland House in Chelmsford, Riley was in charge of recruiting and training before operations in France. After D-Day mobility was the key and Riley, still based at Chelmsford, ensured that all the new jeeps were properly equipped for action behind the enemy lines. The SAS, now 2,500 strong under Brigadier Roddie McLeod, were to form a number of bases from which to harry enemy communications, and work with the French resistance, blowing up roads and railway lines and reporting to the RAF suitable areas to bomb. It was very much as David Stirling had proposed in the early days: inflict damage, casualties and above all, confusion.

After the Armistice, two battalions of the SAS were airlifted to Norway where Riley, based at Bergen, was involved in the supervision and disarming of the occupying German forces. With Paddy Mayne commanding, there was scope for relaxation, but word was about that the SAS was going to be disbanded. Rumour became reality in September 1945. Little could anyone have thought then that the SAS would six years later be reborn.

On demobilisation Riley joined the Cambridge Constabulary, but restless with peacetime inactivity he volunteered for the Malayan Regiment in 1950 where he worked closely with the newly formed Malayan Scouts in their actions against Communist insurgence. The Scouts had been formed from men of the 21 SAS, a Territorial Army unit raised in 1947 from the Artists Rifles and a Rhodesian squadron. In 1951 the Scouts became 22 SAS. Riley, who was based at Port Dixon and now a major, liaised and worked with the SAS in the persecution of the terrorists. With over 100 terrorists killed or captured, the SAS had proved their worth as an integral part of British counter-insurgency operations.

When Riley turned 40, in 1955, he decided to leave Malaya and with his wife purchased the Dolphin Hotel in Colchester. Three years later he joined Securicor, where he held various senior positions until his retirement in 1980, by which time he was living in Hastings. Although restricted by bad health, he continued to play bridge and with another ex-SAS member held a number of regimental reunions.

Pat Riley never came to terms with the loss of his wife, Kaye, in 1996 and much of his enthusiasm for life seemed to ebb away. Even on his last day, surrounded by his family and in good humour, he reminisced about his life and in particular his wartime experiences, remembering every moment.

Charles George Gibson ("Pat") Riley, soldier: born Red Granite, Wisconsin 24 November 1915; DCM 1942; married 1940 Kaye Ward (died 1996; one son); died Hastings, East Sussex 9 February 1999.

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