OBITUARY : Field Marshal Sir James Cassels

Max Artur
Monday 16 December 1996 00:02

James Cassels had seen little active service until Normandy 1944. It was here, however, that this bold and charis- matic commander of the 152nd Infantry Brigade firmly established his reputation.

A month after the invasion of Normandy, Cassels was called in to take command of 152nd Infantry Brigade in the 51st Highland Division. He was to lead his brigade with unvarying success until the end of the Second World War. During the breakout from Normandy, he was lucky to survive an attack by the RAF who had been wrongly advised on their bomb line. Among the casualties was his brigade major.

152nd Brigade were part of the liberation force that entered St Valery- en-Caux to jubilant reception from the local inhabitants. It was also a great day for the 51st Highland Division who, pinned to the sea in 1940, had been forced to lay down their arms. The next objective was Le Havre, which was never going to be easy, for the Germans had been well dug in for four years. Success there would give a fresh harbour for supplies which previously had to come through the Normandy bridgehead. After the initial breakthrough, the German defences quickly collapsed. The next move was to clear south-west Holland up to the river Maas.

In January Cassels was sent on a well-earned leave. He arrived back at the tail end of the fierce fighting in the Reichswald Forest, part of the critical sector of the Siegfried Line which bridged the gap between the Rhein and the Maas. Allied troops had entered Germany. Cassels' 152nd Brigade crossed the Rhein on 24 March, many of his men fortified with tea laced with rum. The next 36 hours called for every last ounce of stamina that each of his three battalions could muster, for during this time little progress was made and the brigade suffered many casualties from enemy fire. Cassels was hit, yet continued controlling the often chaotic, yet vital situation for many days. The battalions put up a tremendous fight and in particular the 5th Seaforth Highlanders suffered badly. During this fighting, the division also lost General Rennie, its commander, which was a great blow. As the Germans withdrew it was soon obvious, as the brigade moved rapidly forward, that apart from pockets of resistance the German collapse was almost complete.

Cassels was born at Quetta, then in India, in 1907, the son of General Sir Robert Cassels. His leadership qualities were recognised early on when at Sandhurst he won the Sword of Honour. He was commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders in 1926. Before the war he served for 10 years in India, where he was adjutant to his battalion, and was ADC twice to his father, first for a year when Sir Robert was GOC- in-C Northern Command and again when he was C-in-C of the Army in India.

Soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, Cassels was appointed Brigade Major of 157th Infantry Brigade in the 52nd Lowland Division with whom he saw a few days active service when the division was sent to France after Dunkirk. Between 1940 and 1944 he held a number of staff appointments in Britain. In 1942 he returned to his old division, the 52nd, as GSO1, and, a year later, he was given command of the 1st Tyneside Scottish (Black Watch), with whom he remained until he was appointed Brigadier- General Staff of the 12th Corps at the beginning of 1944.

For his wartime service, Cassels was appointed CBE and awarded the DSO. Soon after the Armistice, he was promoted Acting Major-General and was given the 51st Division, which he held until disbandment in 1946. His next appointment was as Commander of the 6th Airborne Division in Palestine. Here he had the unpalatable task of maintaining law and order, which was not made any easier when the Stern Gang attacked a lightly guarded military car park and killed seven soldiers of the 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion.

Cassels returned to England to attend the Imperial Defence College in 1947 and in early 1948 became Director of Land-Air Warfare at the War Office. Two years later he was posted to Melbourne as Chief Liaison Officer of the United Kingdom Services Liaison Staff, Australia.

When the United Nations decided to enter the Korean War in 1951, three independent brigades from United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were formed into a Commonwealth Division, of which Cassels was appointed GOC. The division took part in two rather limited attacks, but for the next 15 months was static. Cassels was highly regarded by the Commonwealth troops and enjoyed talking cricket to his antipodean soldiers.

On his return, he was given command of 1st Corps in the British Army of the Rhine and two years later was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office. In 1957 he was seconded to the new Federation Government in Singapore as Director of Emergency Operations against the Communist terrorists in Malaya. He kept up a tremendous pressure on the terrorists and area by area the jungle was swept clean. By the end of 1958 there were only 250 Communist terrorists actively operating in the country, so Cassels sacked himself, by recommending that his post was redundant. In July 1960 the official end of the emergency was declared.

Promoted General, Cassels returned home in 1959 to become GOC-in-C Eastern Command. He was there for six months before being appointed, in January 1960, Commander-in-Chief, British Army of the Rhine and Commander of the Nato Northern Army Group.

In this long succession of high appointments, Cassels constantly proved not only to be a fine commander, but a highly popular one, very much at ease and respected by his men. There was a warmth to him, a great charm and sense of humour. Tall, handsome, with a superb physique and fine eye, he excelled at all ball games. At Rugby and at Sandhurst he had played both cricket and rugby at the highest level and later represented the Army at cricket and golf. He was invited to join Warwickshire County Cricket Club, but declined.

He was also a superb shot and a fine and enthusiastic fisherman and from his time in India he became a first-class polo player. On his retirement in 1968 he continued with his two great pastimes, fly-fishing and shooting. He was a member of the MCC Committee, and President of the Company of Veteran Motorists from 1970 to 1973. He had an affection for jazz and a particular liking for the clarinet. Jim Cassels was himself no mean hand on the ukelele. Much delight was brought to him when his only granddaughter was born on his birthday.

Max Arthur

Archibald James Halkett Cassels, soldier: born 28 February 1907; DSO 1944; CBE 1944, KBE 1952; GOC 51st Highland Division 1945-46; GOC 6th Airborne Division, Palestine 1946-47; Director, Land-Air Warfare, War Office 1948-49; Chief Liaison Officer, UK Services Liaison Staff, Australia 1950-51; CB 1951, GCB 1961; GOC 1st British Commonwealth Division, Korea 1951-52; Commander, 1st Corps 1953-54; Director-General of Miliary Training, War Office 1954-57; Director of Emergency Operations, Federation of Malaya 1957-59; GOC-in-C, Eastern Command 1959-60; C-in-C, British Army of the Rhine and Commander Nato Northern Army Group 1960-63; ADC General to the Queen 1960-63; Adjutant-General to the Forces 1963-64; Field Marshal 1968; married 1935 Joyce Kirk (died 1978; one son), 1978 Mrs Joy Dickson; died Newmarket 13 December 1996.

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