Isolated among his fellow officers, he often faced insults and mutiny while trying to persuade them to still their rattling sabres.
He is best remembered for standing up to the rebel Civil Guardsmen who burst into the Spanish parliament building on 23 February 1981, and held MPs at gunpoint for 24 hours. Gutierrez Mellado jumped from his seat and darted across the chamber to tell the intruders sharply that they had no business in the place. They grabbed him by his jacket collar and tried to manhandle him out of the way, but the frail old man stood his ground.
It was in the early days of the televising of parliament and his actions were seen by millions of Spaniards, who spent the night glued to their television screens as the coup attempt unfolded live before them.
With his hatchet face, heavy spectacles and close-cropped moustache, "Guti", as he was nicknamed, looked the perfect image of the despotic general. He started his career as a Francoist as an under-cover agent for the Nationalists in the Republican zone during the Civil War, and then became a distinguished staff officer and unit commander. But, after Franco's death, between 1976 and 1979, he transformed the Spanish armed forces from a sclerotic war machine built to crush democracy into a modern professional body at the service of a democratic state.
As Chief of General Staff, he was alone among 16 generals in the unreformed parliament to support the government's plan to legalise trade unions in 1976. And he had to disarm open revolt in the armed forces when the reform-minded prime minister, Adolfo Suarez, decided to legalise the Communist Party.
Gutierrez Mellado threw himself with gusto into the task of shaking up the army. Working with a small staff, sleeping little, he drafted a string of decrees reforming the pay structure, curbing the armed forces' extensive political privileges and abolishing their jurisdiction over terrorist offences.
Above all he abolished the Francoist command structure. He put the armed forces under the government's thumb and replaced the three separate armed forces ministries by a single defence ministry after free general elections in 1977. He headed the new ministry but in 1979 stepped down in favour of a civilian to become deputy prime minister with responsibility for security and defence. He withdrew from government in 1981.
Gutierrez Mellado was a man of few words and simple tastes, and although the King and Queen of Spain attended the mass in his honour his funeral was of military austerity. Santiago Carrillo, the former Communist Party boss, said that, even though they were in "opposing camps", he liked and respected the general for his fight to bring Spain to democracy without traumas.
He was heading out from Madrid to Barcelona to ad- dress a conference on "The Armed Forces and the Democratic Transition" when he died in a traffic accident on the icy road.
Manuel Gutierrez Mellado, soldier and politician: born 30 April 1912; created 1994 Marques de Gutierrez Mellado and promoted Honorary Captain General; married 1939 Carmen Blasco Sancho (four children); died Guadalajara, Spain 15 December 1995.