General Sir David Fraser: Soldier who was first with his men into Brussels after D-Day

 

Few can have expressed the romance of soldiering as vividly as David Fraser. His dash to Berlin with the Guards Armoured Division in the last year of the Second World War began with an eve-of-D-Day dinner in Brighton with his fellow officer, the artist Rex Whistler. In liberating Paris, he raised a glass at the Ritz, watched by Ernest Hemingway.

On 3 September 1944 he and his men were first into Brussels in front of the British Second Army. Ordered to the Royal Palace of Laeken, on the city's north-west edge, Fraser used childhood memories of the place to get there, and found the Queen Mother (Elisabeth) of the Belgians waiting in gratitude on the drive to shake every one of them by the hand.

The British XXX Corps, under Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, were invited to use the Palace – where the Nazis had imprisoned her family before deporting them – as headquarters. Fraser's men slept in the gardens, and pressed on next day.

So eager was Fraser, a future Vice-Chief of the General Staff, to join up at the outbreak of the Second World War that he had abandoned school and started his 40-year military career as a mere private, before the Grenadier Guards would let him in.

School was Eton, which he loved and regretted leaving, but the call of the bugle was sharpened by four generations of his family having served since his grandfather's great-uncle defended the orchard of Hougoumont at the Battle of Waterloo.

Obliged to cool his heels, he got in to Christ Church, Oxford, where he switched subjects from Politics, Philosophy and Economics to his lifelong love, History. Meanwhile, the phoney war turned real.

Before he pulled on the perfectly polished boots and splendid kit of a Guardsman, one more trial awaited him: the discovery of how wretched, disunited and ill-attuned his fellow Britons were to the exigencies of war. Bands of young thugs, many with criminal records, were encouraged to join the Young Soldiers Battalions of the Home Defence Force, and one of these was the 8th Battalion, the Royal Berkshire Regiment which Fraser joined as a private, soon being made a junior NCO with other educated young men and given charge of them. The lads derided Fraser's sort as "college boys", and shocked them with their ill-gotten knowledge of the world.

It became Fraser's abiding opinion that Britain was a bit of a rum place in 1940, and that the peacetime army of 1960, had it been called on, was in much better shape to have withstood the always-surprising shock of war.

He spent the middle years of hostilities mostly exercising Sherman tanks on Salisbury Plain with the newly formed and mechanised Guards Armoured Division, and conceived great admiration for the man who first commanded it, Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese.

His experience of Leese's character chimed with a tribute paid later by Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, after Leese's unhappy dismissal in the Far East in a dispute over who was to lead the Fourteenth Army in Burma. Leese had been "manly" in criticising no one, Alanbrooke recorded, and Fraser, who wrote Alanbrooke's biography, concluded from his words that Leese was, in Guardsmen's terms, "carted" by the Supreme Commander of South-East Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Fraser got to know the quirks of men and tanks, not only on Salisbury Plain but in the terrible battles through the Normandy "bocage" – rolling pastures and winding lanes bounded by tall hedgerows – beautiful as Devon but stinking with death and the smell of burning machines.

He considered the American Sherman less than ideal, with its low-velocity 75mm gun and propensity to burst into flames. When the Division later encountered German Tigers with their 88mm weapons, he said he felt like a man with a rapier fighting spearmen with thickly armoured breastplates.

He also learned that a man might love his tank as much as any warrior his horse or ship, when he found a soldier distressed that he had been picked to march in a victory parade instead of riding in the Sherman that had got him through the campaign.

Fraser commanded men in Malaya in 1948 and 1949 during the Emergency, attended Staff College, and was sent to Whitehall and the War Office. In 1951 he took the 3rd Battalion of Grenadiers to Port Said; in 1952 he became Brigade Major of the 1st Guards Brigade; and in 1954 Regimental Adjutant.

He was in Cyprus in 1958, then from 1960 until 1962 commanded the Grenadier Guards' 1st Battalion when they were deployed to Cameroon. He then served in Sarawak at the head of the 19th Infantry Brigade during the Indonesian Confrontation of 1965.

He returned to study at the Imperial Defence College, after which, as the Army's Director of Plans from 1966, reorganised as Director of Defence Policy until 1969, he jousted with the Labour Government's Defence Secretary, Denis Healey. This was a time of deep cuts in funding, but he believed that Healey invigorated defence thinking.

With delight he went back to command, at the head of the 4th Division on the Rhine. When he returned to Whitehall, he had as Defence Secretary his friend and former fellow officer in the Grenadiers, the Conservative Lord Carrington.

Fraser became Vice-Chief of the General Staff (1973-75), then British Military Representative to Nato in Brussels. He knew the city well, having lived there when his father had been military attaché. His last post from 1977, before retiring in 1980, was as Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies. His literary output included biographies of Alanbrooke, Rommel and Frederick the Great, and the fictional Hardrow Chronicles and Treason in Arms series.

While bringing up his family at Isington in Hampshire he was a neighbour of Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, now buried nearby at Holy Cross Church, Binsted. He came to know all of Monty's charms and flaws, and says in his fine memoirs, Wars and Shadows (2002), that this person, through his self-belief hugely able to impart confidence to others, was one that Britain in the dark landscape of 1940-41 had sorely needed.

Fraser was Colonel of the Royal Hampshire Regiment from 1981 to 1987, and a deputy Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire from 1988. For all the time he spent in England, David Fraser felt himself strongly a Scot. He was the nephew of Lord Saltoun, descendant of the elder brother of the progenitor of the Frasers of Lovat. The designation chief of the name of Fraser today belongs to Fraser's cousin, Flora Fraser, Lady Saltoun.

Anne Keleny

David William Fraser, soldier, historian and author: born London 30 December 1920; OBE 1962, KCB 1973, GCB 1980, Hon D Litt Reading 1992; married 1947 Anne Balfour (divorced 1952, one daughter), 1957 Julia de la Hey (two sons, two daughters); died Isington, Hampshire 15 July 2012.

Arts and Entertainment
arts + entsWith one of the best comic roles around, it's no wonder she rarely bothers with films
News
people
News
i100
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
News
i100
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
News
i100
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup