OBITUARY:Brigadier Jock Balharrie
Wednesday 15 February 1995
For months, they planned for every eventuality - and the most unlikely eventualities materialised. Balharrie's style was to lead by example, and his own prodigious 18-hour day throughout the period of the games set the tone for the fantastic work done by HM Forces in helping to make the games run smoothly. Whether it was Kip Keino and the emerging Kenyan long- distance stars requiring facilities, or an undistinguished competitor from a small Commonwealth land, Balharrie would afford them the same active attention and constructive help. At the end of a long day, I recollect Balharrie's insisting on himself accompanying to hospital a young Ghanaian boxer who had been outclassed by an Englishman in the ring, and staying with him into the small hours of the morning, until it was clear that the lad was all right. Personal commitment to any task which he had taken on was one of Balharrie's hallmarks.
Jock Balharrie did not come of a military family. His father was in the Glasgow import- export business, buying tea and tobacco, and exporting whisky, haggis and much else to expatriates hungry and thirsty for Scotland, who were often the backbone of the Empire in the remoter parts of remote lands.
At Glasgow Academy, Balharrie joined the Cadets, then enlisted in the TA Gunnery Battery. Months later, on the outbreak of war, he was posted to the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), and the Eighth Army, after a crash course at Sandhurst.
Balharrie's war nearly ended up with five years in Colditz. As one of Sir Claude Auchinleck's young armoured-car officers - he admired the "Auk" greatly - Balharrie penetrated a desert mile too far, and was captured by a superior German force.
Hours later, he found himself in company with his major- general, who had also been surrounded. Before interrogation, they managed to rip off their badges of rank. "Who do you think you are?" the German interrogator said. "I'm the general's batman," murmured the major-general. "The English generals must be in a bad way to have such an old batman," opined the Oberleutnant, and with that assigned Balharrie and his general to a lorry, where like the other troopers they made a rapid change into their pyjamas. Other officers, who on capture had insisted on preserving their dignity of rank, were drawn off in the relative comfort of Mercedes limousines - on the first leg of the journey to prisoner-of-war camp in the Fatherland.
There was a sudden alarm of Allied attack. The Germans darted off to deal with the situation. Balharrie - on the spur of the moment - overpowered the Italian guard, inspired his pyjama-ed fellows to deal with the others, seized the wheel, told his mates they could risk all or remain prisoners, and drove frantically through an unmarked minefield straight for the Allied lines. The South African troops occupying this mini-sector of the Front were about to fire on the German truck with swastika markings, when they saw it was occupied by a driver in his pyjamas, one pyjama-ed elderly man, and nude persons ripping off its canvas so that their nudity would be observed by all. In the circumstances, the machine-gun fire was withheld. For this and other exploits, Balharrie was awarded an early MC, presented personally by Field Marshal Auchinleck.
Surviving the fast-moving tank/armoured-car engagements around Mersa Matruh and Derna, and the Siege of Tobruk, Balharrie was badly wounded by machine-gun fire during the drive by Montgomery - whom he admired less than Auchinleck or Alexander, or for that matter Rommel - across the Cyrenaican desert. Willie Bootland, Chairman of the Royal Scots Greys West of Scotland Association, told me how, in 1954, as an 18-year-old trooper, he had been shocked when he and his contemporaries went to a swimming pool with Balharrie, then their squadron commander, and saw how scarred his back and legs were from wounds. Balharrie was sent to Jerusalem to recover, and used the opportunity for further development of his interest in the Bible.
With the post-war contraction of the RTR regiments, Balharrie was welcomed in 1947 by the Royal Scots Greys. Thus began an association that lasted for 48 years. Indeed, when he married Sara Fergusson in 1962, his father told his prospective daughter-in-law, "You will never need to be jealous of another woman: you may find that from time to time you become jealous of the Regiment."
His colonel, Aidan Sprot, reports that Balharrie was a superb and efficient second-in-command. When Balharrie succeeded Sprot in 1962, it was a difficult period for the Scots Greys; one squadron was in Hong Kong; another in the Gulf; and a third with Regimental Headquarters in Aden. Balharrie was undaunted. He was outstandingly popular with troopers and the Sergeants' Mess, and no less popular with his officer colleagues - a combination less than usual.
After his promotion to Brigadier and the G1 position in Scottish Command, Balharrie served as secretary of TAVRA (the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve Association) until retirement in 1985. He went to live in Skye where his wife Sally had many relations, including the MacLeods of Dunvegan. On his retirement in 1991 as Chairman of the West of Scotland Branch of the Scots Dragoon Guards (as the Greys must now be called) Association, the Regimental Pipes and Drums played a specially commissioned tune, the "Jock Balharrie".
In September last year, aged 74, he motored, 270 miles each way, for the start of the Scots Dragoon Guards Recruiting March on the field of their original founding, near Linlithgow. Over tea, before the return journey, he talked of Libya, the role of the Forces in 1994, the ending of the Cold War, the Commonwealth Games. It did not occur to him to mention that he was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Jock Balharrie was a soldier's soldier.
John ("Jock") Charles Balharrie, soldier: born Glasgow 21 December 1920; Colonel of Royal Scots Guards 1962-65; married 1962 Sara Fergusson; died Isle of Skye 10 February 1995.
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