General Sir Richard Worsley: Soldier who oversaw the end of Britain's presence in the Far East

 

Richard Worsley's talents as a staff officer showed early, when he was appointed adjutant to 2 Rifle Brigade during the desperate battles for Italy in 1944, and carried him to the top, a place on the Army Board, by his career's end more than 30 years later, as Quartermaster General to the Forces. In between he had helped to organise the end of Britain's imperial commitments in the Far East, and masterminded much of her task in Germany during the years of the Cold War.

Even in a campaign his country would rather forget, Suez in 1956, the then Major Worsley maintained morale in bruising situations, an ability for which he had already gained praise in Italy. Worsley was at the elbow of the British commander Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Stockwell on 6 November as Stockwell made his last hazardous mission at Port Said, hoping to receive the enemy's surrender. Alas, neither he nor Stockwell knew that politicians in London were about to lose their nerve and call the whole endeavour off.

With the Anglo-French forces close to victory in regaining the canal from the Egyptian insurgents who had seized it, Worsley, who was the general's General Staff Officer 2, and Hugo Meynell, the general's ADC, procured a landing craft and escorted Stockwell and his French deputy, General André Beaufre, from the headquarters ship HMS Tyne to the shore to discuss terms. But not all the enemy were so minded. "We were machine-gunned," Meynell said later. "Quite a lot of the woodwork disappeared between Dick Worsley and me."

Nevertheless luck attended the unflappable Worsley as the general gave up on securing a surrender, and having given orders for offensive operations to continue, started back in a commandeered assault craft at nightfall for the blacked-out HMS Tyne moored beyond a harbour breakwater. "Major Worsley exercised his somewhat limited knowledge of the Morse code with an Aldis lamp to attract someone's attention", the disgruntled Stockwell reported. Soon after, they saw a light high up, and, after manoeuvring close in, managed to get on board, despite the sea-swell, up ladders let down the side: "a stroke of luck for a temporarily lost commander," Stockwell observed. (The incident is recorded in Suez 1956 by Barry Turner.)

Immediately on their return, the party, who had been out of radio contact for five hours, received London's urgent signal: "Ceasefire at midnight." With the snatched-away victory vanished much of Britain's remaining international prestige. Worsley was one of those who went on in the 1960s and '70s to salvage what was left.

A soldier acutely conscious of history, who in 1944 had made his men pause in St Peter's Square in Rome to savour the Eternal City's recapture, he was to take on diplomatic as well as military responsibilities with Nato in Germany. His success, as a former infantry officer, in changing the role of a cavalry regiment, the 1st Royal Dragoons, from armoured cars to the new Chieftain tanks at Tidworth between 1962 and 1965, led to his promotion to command the 7th Armoured Brigade in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) until 1967.

Having already been an instructor at Sandhurst and Staff College, Worsley attended the Imperial Defence College in 1968 before taking over as Chief of Staff Far East Land Forces from 1969 until 1971, with the task of closing down the British military presence in Singapore.

He was General Officer Commanding, the 3rd Division, another mechanised force, from 1972-74, and then Vice-Quartermaster General at the Ministry of Defence before returning to Germany in 1976 command of 1(BR) Corps, where he remained until 1978. His last appointment, QMG to the Forces, was from 1979-82.

Richard Edward Worsley sprang from a family of notable cricketers, his father HHK Worsley being the brother of first-class batsmen AE and CEA Worsley. He was born at Grey Abbey, County Down, and attended Radley College before being commissioned into the Rifle Brigade in July 1942.

His first operational experience came in Tunisia, where his battalion formed part of the 6th Armoured Division, before joining the Eighth Army for the Italian campaign, eventually fighting its way up to Austria.

The 21-year -old Worsley as adjutant helped the Rifles overcome their hardest trial among the fierce battles for Italy, when lives totalling two companies were lost in bitter fighting at Tossignano, 19 miles south-east of Bologna. The new formation of men, battalions merged because of the heavy losses, appreciated his dry wit and organisational competence.

He spent much of the first 10 years after the Second World War in Germany, first as a company commander in 2nd Rifle Brigade, then in 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade in BAOR in 1952, and, after Staff College in 1954, as GSO2 to the reformed 11th Armoured Division.

After the Suez debacle and a stint in Malaya in 1957 as the emergency there was drawing towards its end, he seized on another period at home at Staff College in Britain to marry a brigadier's daughter, Sarah Anne Mitchell, always known as Sally, in 1959. The couple had a son, Henry, and a daughter, Charlotte.

Worsley was made OBE in 1964, and knighted in 1976 at the end of his command of 7th Armoured Brigade. He became Knight Grand Cross on retirement from the Army.

British industry however, was eager to snap him up, and he joined Pilkington Group, staying till 1986, as chief executive and then chairman of its electro-optical division, and chairman of its then subsidiary Barr and Stroud, makers of tank sights and binoculars. In 1983 he was made a Freeman of the City of London, and after leaving Pilkington, he served as chairman of Western Provident Association from 1989-96.

One of the sacrifices to a life dedicated to military duty was a home and family life, and though his children had happy memories of accompanying him at Singapore, his first marriage was dissolved. In later years he put down roots at Bensgrove Farm at Goring Heath near Reading, having married, in 1980, Caroline, Duchess of Fife, the former Caroline Dewar. There he cultivated vines, producing about three tonnes of grapes a year which went to a local co-operative making English white wines. He did the planting himself, and took pride in his vines' straightness and exact spacing.

He is survived by his first wife, Sally, and their children Henry and Charlotte, and by his widow Caroline and his stepchildren, Alexandra and David.

Richard Edward Worsley, soldier: born Grey Abbey, Co Down 29 May 1923; GCB 1982; KBE 1976; OBE 1964; married 1959 Sarah Anne Mitchell (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1980 Caroline, Duchess of Fife; died Reading, Berkshire 23 February 2013.

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