OBITUARY : General Sir Ian Riches

In November 1944, from the comparative warmth of the Royal Marine Office at the Admiralty, Ian Riches was thrust into command of 43 Commando, who were up against the German XXI Mountain Corps in the inhospitable and bleak mountains of Yugoslavia.

The Marines had no adequate cold-weather clothing and Tito's partisans, aware of the approaching Red Army, were proving ambiguous in their support. Riches, however, quickly imposed his authority and, although some of the changes he made were not popular, they were necessary. Although coming late to command, as many had expected Riches made his mark and success was to follow.

In January 1945, 43 Commando were withdrawn from Yugoslavia and arrived in Italy as part of 2 Commando Brigade as a preliminary to taking part in the 8th Army's forthcoming offensive against Kesselring's defences south of the Po valley. In the weeks that followed, Riches put his commando through an intensive training programme.

The task given to 2 Commando Brigade was to clear the German defences on the eastern side of Lake Comacchio up to the line of the Valetta canal. For several nights before the attack, while 43 Commando made recce patrols, 40 Commando diverted the Germans' attention by playing Wagner very loudly over the loudspeakers. Amidst even greater noise, 43 Commando launched their night attack on 2 April and quickly gained their first objective, "Joshua" (all the enemy's defended areas had biblical names).

By 8.45am Riches had his men across the river and was attacking strongly held positions.

9 Commando had been unable to pass "Leviticus", and the task now fell to Riches' men. By mid-afternoon 43 Commando had overcome extensive minefields, dykes and machine-gun positions and had succeeded in their attack. As the commandos moved inexorably forward, the point section was held up by machine-gun fire. Corporal Tom Hunter recognised the severity of the situation and charged and captured a number of positions, constantly calling for fresh magazines. His extraordinary courage enabled his men to reach the canal bank before he was killed. He was awarded a posthumous VC, the only VC awarded to the Royal Marines in the Second World War.

Riches' preliminary planning had been precise and his leadership throughout the battle first-rate. His men fully deserved the 8th Army Commander's congratulations on "their magnificent fighting spirit". For his part in the operation, Riches was awarded the DSO.

Ian Riches was commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1927. After completing his training he joined the battleship Queen Elizabeth, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, which presented a challenge to the young lieutenant as there were constant calls for guards of honour and ceremonial parades. He was quick to spot the gain for his corps from a well- executed ceremonial. During the Abyssinian crisis he used his signals training to good effect and also qualified as an interpreter in French and Spanish.

In 1936, after receiving accelerated promotion to captain, he was appointed Adjutant Plymouth Division RM, an appointment widely regarded as a stepping stone to higher rank. In Riches' case this was certainly so. Soon after the start of war he was selected for the Junior War Staff at Staff College and on completion was appointed Brigade Major of the newly formed 101 Royal Marines Brigade. During this time he took part in the abortive expedition to Dakar. He graduated from Senior Staff College, and from 1942 to 1944 served in a number of headquarters appointments with the Royal Marine Division until called upon to command 43 Commando.

In 1946 he commanded the Signal School, and, in 1948, 42 Commando based at Malta. Shortly after arriving he was ordered at four hours' notice to move to Palestine to help oversee the final days of the British mandate. Here Riches' firmness and tact were much in evidence.

After his return to Malta he was sent with 42 Commando to Hong Kong on external and internal security. He relinquished command in 1950 and was employed in a number of operational and staff posts, including command of 3 Commando Brigade in the Canal Zone. In 1954 he put his brigade through an extensive training programme with ships of the Amphibious Warfare Squadron. This training proved invaluable when landings were for real during the Suez crisis of 1956.

In 1957 his promotion to Major-General in charge of Portsmouth Group Royal Marines was welcomed within the corps. It was an appointment he also enjoyed. In 1959 he was promoted Lieutenant-General and appointed Commandant General Royal Marines. He took office at a time when the corps was facing new strategic requirements. The aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark was being converted to a commando ship role and so likewise was HMS Albion. However, he strongly opposed the view held by many in the Royal Navy that a commando should be permanently embarked. Riches insisted that a commando was a military unit and would need to be trained as such and should be shore- based, though operating with the commando ship. He therefore felt a sense of pride when 42 Commando landed by helicopter from Bulwark in Kuwait in the face of invasion from Iraq.

Riches was promoted General in 1961 and, on his retirement a year later, he took on a number of responsibilities. He was Regional Director of Civil Defence and Representative Colonel Commandant until 1968.

Ian Hurry Riches, soldier: born 27 September 1908; DSO 1945; Commandant- General, Royal Marines 1959-62; CB 1959, KCB 1960; Regional Director of Civil Defence 1964-68; Representative Colonel Commandant 1967-68; married 1936 Winifred Layton (two sons); died 23 December 1996.

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