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Robert Boscawen: Tank commander who survived terrible injuries to become a respected and admired Conservative MP


The young tank commander seen running in flames along the road was left recognisable to his comrades only by the pips on his shoulder and the white and purple ribbon of the Military Cross on his chest. Robert Boscawen survived the devastating burns from the attack by a hidden battery of four 105 mm flak guns of the German 7 Para on Easter Day, 1 April 1945, that ignited the petrol in his Sherman Firefly as it rushed a bridge on the Twente Canal at Enschede on the Dutch-German border. The debt he felt the world owed to all those who, like two of his crewmen, had lost their lives, was to inform his future political career.

Just turned 22, the Old Etonian Coldstream Guards captain already knew too much about the senselessness of war. He had lost a childhood friend, shot dead by a jumpy sentry from his own side soon after D-Day, on the Guards Armoured Division's advance through Normandy. He had watched the Allied advance as far as Brussels – in which his troop was in the van – come to a halt because of supply difficulties, then meet disaster in the resumed forward push at Arnhem after the enemy was given time to bring up extra strength.

Unaware of the extra Nazi divisions lying in wait, Boscawen, then a lieutenant, saved Allied dignity during that battle when, as part of XXX Corps, he ejected German forces from an orchard at Bemel on 3 October 1944.

From there, according to his recommendation for an immediate MC, the Germans "at daylight... could have seriously threatened the position of the infantry battalion which he was supporting." The recommendation adds that under bazooka and mortar fire "his decision to risk himself and his tanks in close country and in the dark was a very bold one. By it he restored a most embarrassing and dangerous situation. He fully realized that a desperate situation required desperate measures and he accordingly took them with the most satisfactory result."

"The most satisfactory result" was that he had saved many British soldiers' lives. He did so, however, as the war began to drag on through a winter before which, he concluded in his 2001 memoir Armoured Guardsmen, better thinking at the top could have ended it.

Boscawen, fourth son of the eighth Viscount Falmouth, and belonging to the same Cornish family that produced Admiral Edward Boscawen, victor of the 1759 action against the French off Lagos in Portugal, was not to enjoy Britain's return to life in peace until he had undergone gruelling months of treatment for his blinded eyes and burns-ravaged body with penicillin and saline baths, as one of the "guinea-pigs" of the pioneering surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, in Sussex.

Jaundice slowed his recovery, but by August 1945 he could walk with a stick. His mother, who had visited him from her Red Cross work in London every evening, took him for a break back to Cornwall, just as the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. "I could not sleep, and kept asking myself, how can we and the allies stop this bloody stupid thing ever happening again?" he wrote. "We owed it to all those who had died to find an answer."

His own answer was to work from September 1946 with the Civilian Relief Teams for Displaced Persons run by the Red Cross and other charities, while still deemed medically unfit for Army service. He ladled out soup to German children and drove from the British-occupied zone to a factory in Leipzig in the Soviet sector in search of medical instruments.

At last joy returned: he took up sailing from the summer of 1946, beginning on a yacht built for Lufwaffe officers' recreation that British forces had seized as a war "prize". It was sailing, on another yacht, Farewell, chartered for a Bank Holiday trip, that acquainted him with the girl who would be his wife. Alice Mary Codrington, granddaughter of a former Colonel of the Coldstream Guards, had agreed to cook for the crew. They married in 1949.

Boscawen, who had attended Sandhurst and while in the Army briefly read Mechanical Engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge, trained as a manager with Shell, then worked for his family's china clay company, also becoming an underwriting member of Lloyd's. But his heart was in changing the world. He sat on the London Executive Council of the newly-established National Health Service, and after unsuccessfully standing for Parliament as a Conservative in Falmouth and Camborne in the 1960s he was elected in 1970 as MP for Wells (renamed Somerton and Frome in 1983).

By 1974 this modest, well-liked, reserved man, noted as a dedicated constituency MP and a good public speaker, was a member of the Select Committee on Expenditure. He then found his metier in the Whips Office – in the words of the former Prime Minister John Major – "one of the main engines of government", to which members are invited by popular acclaim, and from which, in private they can bend the Prime Minister's ear about policies with which they personally disagree, even though they may be obliged to enforce them in public. On one occasion, Major recounts, "Bob Boscawen... was met with a glare" from Margaret Thatcher while the Whips were telling her home truths about backbenchers' views on spending in the 1980s.

Boscawen rose up the Whips' hierarchy: Assistant Government Whip from 1979-81, a Treasury Lord Commissioner until 1983, Vice-Chamberlain of the Queen's Household until 1986 and Comptroller of the Royal Household until 1988. In his last Commons speech, in 1992, he characterised his generation as having been "just old enough to be cannon fodder". He was made a Privy Counsellor the same year.

Robert Thomas Boscawen, guardsman and politician: born Cornwall 17 March 1923; MP 1970-92; MC 1944; married 1949 Alice Mary Codrington (died 2012; one son, one daughter); died Isle of Wight 28 December 2013.