General Sir Michael Gow: Soldier who commanded the British Army of the Rhine


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The Independent Online

To become a full general or field marshal of the British Army is an achievement of which the sine qua non is an extremely unusual degree of drive and intelligence, with which Michael Gow was magnificently endowed.

Tall, strong, strikingly handsome, a man of natural physical presence, Gow could have been, in different circumstances, a major university vice-chancellor; instead he ended up, from 1980-83, as the Commander of Nato's Northern Army Group, and Commander-in-Chief of British Army of the Rhine – the most senior position of any British officer in an Anglo-American context.

In 1901 his grandfather, the Reverend James Gow, son of the artist James Gow, had been appointed headmaster of Westminster School at the age of 47. He had been Master of the High School, Nottingham, was the author of A Short History of Greek Mathematics, and was to be chairman of the Headmasters' Conference (1906-1908). Michael Gow was to inherit his great-grandfather's artistic talent, and like a number of other senior officers was no mean watercolourist. His uncle, Andrew Gow, was a Fellow of Trinity, a heavyweight classical scholar, and AE Housman's editor.

From Winchester, Gow won entry in 1941 to Trinity. A contributory factor in the decision not to take up the place was the stormy reception he received from his uncle, who told the 17-year-old, "If you come here, don't expect any help whatsoever from me!" In 2012 Andrew Gow was linked in the serious press to the activities of Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. No uncle could have been more cryogenic towards a nephew, but Michael's wife Jane reflected to me that Uncle Andrew's motive for distancing himself from his nephew might have been concern that his own nefarious activities, if exposed, should not injure his nephew's career.

Gow's father had made a successful career in the steel industry, mostly in Sheffield, where Gow was born, and later moving to the Wirral, where his father was given a senior position with Cammell Laird, then major shipbuilders, at Birkenhead. A close family friend was HAL Fisher, Lloyd George's Education Secretary and later Warden of New College.

In the circumstances of the Second World War, Gow chose soldiering. As soon as he was eligible he volunteered, and enlisted in the Scots Guards. Commissioned in 1943, he enjoyed the tough training in Lochaber and elsewhere, which he reflected was more of a challenge than fighting in north-west Europe from Normandy to the Elbe.

He was assigned to the military division of the quadripartite Control Commission in Berlin after VE Day, "where I had my first taste of working with military colleagues of other countries, a challenge which was to fascinate me for the next 40 years."

But more challenging than either the training in 1943-44, or the war itself, was the Malayan emergency. In contrast to the European war it was almost impossible to tell friend from foe. Even in his late eighties Gow was able to recall in detail the circumstances of the death of Second Lieutenant Paul Graham Watson and his platoon of Scots Guards in the Malayan rain forest some 60 years earlier. Gow had an eye and memory for detail.

After what he called "a recuperative period" as equerry to Field Marshal The Duke of Gloucester, which gave him the savoir faire of the Royal Household, a valuable asset for a Guards officer, he became regimental adjutant of the Scots Guards (1957-60). By now marked out as a high-flyer, Gow spent two years (1962-64), as an instructor at the Staff College, which led to command of the Second Battalion, the Scots Guards, in Kenya.

This was at the fag-end of the Mau-Mau/Kikuyu troubles, but required senior officers of tact and understanding in their dealings with the emergent Kenyan government. In my last serious conversation with him he angrily dismissed as ridiculous the claims of torture by British troops during the Mau-Mau insurgency. He was angry at the publicity given to them all these years later.

After command of BAOR'S 4th Division he became Director of Army Training (1975-78) and then took over the GOC Scottish Command, which was combined with the Ancient Office of Governor of Edinburgh Castle – usually a general's last command. Gow was hugely successful in Edinburgh, and he determined that when the time came it would be to Edinburgh that he and his ebullient, artistic wife Jane should retire. Their home at 18 Ann Street would become an oasis of hospitality.

In 1980 he was called upon to become one of Nato's toppest of top brass, Commander-in-Chief of the BAOR and Commander of the Northern Army Group (1980-83). For 13 years, from 1973 to 1986, he also served as Colonel Commandant of the Intelligence Corps; Gow was an intellectual soldier in demeanour and bearing, every inch a general, and ended up as Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, their son, Roddy, a major transatlantic business figure, and four daughters, of whom one is married to Colonel Sir Malcolm Ross – for 15 years Comptroller of the Law Chamberlain's office – and another to the pianist, Julius Michael Drake, former Director of the Perth Music Festival.

My own abiding memory of Gow was when, long after he had retired, he braved inclement weather to come and hear me speak as the supper-guest of the Edinburgh branch of the Scots Guards Association on the subject of the cause célèbre of James Fisher and Mark Wright. These were the two Scots Guards who were found guilty of having shot a Northern Ireland Catholic teenager (they were released in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement). Politicians and lawyers, Gow remarked acidly, "are not required to make life-and-death split decisions. If men and women sitting on green benches in the House of Commons decide to send troops into action, those soldiers should be given the benefit of the doubt."

Gow's great friend, the late field marshal John Stanier, reckoned that Gow as much as anybody, and more than most generals, instigated the trend by which all servicemen are encouraged to enhance their general education. Gow cared deeply about the proper treatment of privates, sappers, gunners, troopers, and, not least, Guardsmen.

Tam Dalyell

James Michael Gow, soldier: born Sheffield 3 June 1924; GOC 4th Division, BAOR 1973–75; Director of Army Training 1975–78; Commander-in-Chief BAOR and Commander, Northern Army Group 1980–83; ADC General to the Queen 1981–84; Commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies 1984–86; KCB 1979, GCB 1983; married 1946 Jane Scott (four daughters, one son); died Edinburgh 26 March 2013.