Field Marshal Sir John Stanier

Forceful Chief of the General Staff who was alert to the changing demands facing the British military


John Wilfred Stanier, soldier: born Hatfield Heath, Essex 6 October 1925; MBE 1961; commanded Royal Scots Greys 1966-68; commanded 20th Armoured Brigade 1969-70; GOC, First Division 1973-75; Commandant, Staff College, Camberley 1975-78; KCB 1978, GCB 1982; Vice Chief of the General Staff 1978-80, Chief of the General Staff 1982-85; Colonel, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards 1979-84; Commander-in-Chief, UK Land Forces 1981-82; ADC General to the Queen 1981-85; Colonel Commandant, Royal Armoured Corps 1982-85; Chairman, Royal United Service Institution 1986-89; Constable, Tower of London 1990-96; married 1955 Cicely Lambert (four daughters); died Hartley Wintney, Hampshire 11 November 2007.

John Stanier was among the most thoughtful, forceful and articulate of senior service officers. Because he was a cavalryman and the era of his many commands coincided with a period in which armour was not used, he did not have the battlefield experience associated with senior generals. But he made a major input into the cause of deterrence.

I first met him in person when the Durham University Union invited us to take opposite sides in a student debate at the university, on a military topic relating to nuclear weapons. As an MP I thought that I would have the debating edge over a soldier. How wrong could one have been? John Stanier was a most formidable expositor of a case and a superb debater. One could easily see why he should be selected, in 1982, as Chief of the General Staff. But he was not necessarily one who held conventional views.

In November 2002, as an honorary member of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards officers' mess, I was invited, with my wife, to a rather special regimental function in the banqueting hall of Edinburgh Castle when the Queen was flying up and back from Windsor for the day specially to be with the regiment. My wife and I arrived some 25 minutes early and as we walked through the door there was a booming voice saying: "Welcome Tam and Kathleen – what we want to know from you is what you are doing in Parliament to stop the folly of a proposed war in Iraq."

The truth is that Stanier, a man of piercing intelligence, would always ask himself what the military objective was of any proposed course of action. For all his acerbic nature, he gained the respect of successive defence ministers for speaking truth unto power and being brutally frank about policy. Certainly Stanier was ambitious, but he was ambitious to further what he conceived to be sensible and prudent lines of action rather than simply climbing a greasy pole.

John Wilfred Stanier was born in 1925, the son of Harold Stanier, who had been badly wounded in the First World War and suffered from perpetual ill health but was given a job by Spedan Lewis, a pivotal member of the John Lewis Partnership, to manage his farming interests at Stockbridge in Hampshire. Stanier was educated at Marlborough and then took up a wartime place at Merton College, Oxford before being commissioned into the 7th Queen's Own Hussars in 1946.

As a National Serviceman in the Scots Greys stationed at Luneburg, in the neighbouring lines to the 7th Hussars, I knew that Stanier's reputation as a fearsome commander of C Squadron spread through the armoured corps community. He served with the regiment in northern Italy and Hong Kong, as well as in Germany, and after graduating from the Staff College, Camberley, in 1957, was plucked out to be military assistant to Sir William Stratton, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

In the middle 1960s the 7th Hussars amalgamated with 3rd The King's Own Hussars to become the Queen's Own Hussars. It seemed to Stanier that he had been passed over for command. There was a point at which he decided to leave the Army and he actually applied for jobs as varied as management in the Reed paper company and as defence correspondent of The Times. But to his surprise, following the distinguished colonelcies of Aidan Sprot, Jock Balharrie and Guy Wheeler, he was invited to command the Royal Scots Greys in 1966.

As it was my ancestor of the same name who in 1678 raised the Scots Greys in West Lothian I have had a lot to do with them. John Stanier's arrival created a seismic shock throughout the regiment. Much though I liked him, I don't think I would have fancied being one of his squadron leaders, let alone one of his 2nd lieutenants. As a regular attender of the annual dinner of the regiment at the Cavalry Club, I was gently amused at the awe in which mature ex-officers regarded John Stanier. He was ferocious. On the other hand he had the greatest respect from successive regimental sergeant majors and was much admired in the sergeant's mess.

It was no surprise that Stanier, on relinquishing command of the Greys in 1968, having impressed the powers that were in the British Army of the Rhine, should return to BAOR to command 20th Armoured Brigade (1969-70). His period in Germany overlapped with Michael Gow, later General Sir Michael Gow, and the two were friends. "We had both been commanders of two of the four divisions in BAOR at the same time, and certainly in military matters we shared the same problems and thoughts. He was definitely a soldier's general, and I shared his judgement in our time together."

Posted back to the UK, Stanier was in his element as a Whitehall warrior in the Ministry of Defence. In 1973 he was given command of the 1st Division, and was an obvious choice to become Commandant of the Staff College at Camberley two years later.

Stanier's antennae were attuned to the changing demands facing the British military. Chosen by the Labour government as Vice Chief of the General Staff in 1978, he was given command of the UK Land Forces in 1981, in time to organise the army's role in the Falklands War. Later in 1982 he became Chief of the General Staff, and was promoted to Field Marshal.

He was robust in telling me that I was wrong to criticise Margaret Thatcher for going to war in the Falklands. He believed that she had a clear and attainable military objective which was the all-important criterion throughout his period of command. He contrasted what he saw as clarity in the South Atlantic with the muddled thinking over the second Iraq war.

He thoroughly enjoyed being ADC General to the Queen from 1981 to 1985, Colonel of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards 1979-84, Colonel Commandant of the Royal Armoured Corps 1982-85, and chairman of the Royal United Service Institution from 1986 to 1989. Above all, he revelled in his six years, from 1990, as Constable at the Tower of London. His book War and the Media (1997) is, in my opinion, required reading for politicians and senior military figures.

Tam Dalyell

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