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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 4 January 2007

Stockwell |(second left ) and Illtyd Harrington (far right) at a waterways rally in1971
The warrior with a song in his heart

In dangerous situations General Sir Hugh Stockwell would burst into song writes Illtyd Harrington

The Life And Campaigns of General Hughie Stockwell by Jonathon Riley. Published by Pen And Sword Military, £25.

YES, it is true! I shared a bed on a sultry August night in Guildford. It was 1970. And he was General Sir Hugh Stockwell. He had recently retired as Deputy Supreme Commander of the Nato Alliance in Europe, and he is the subject of this biography.
No, I was not, as some spooks claimed, CND’s male equivalent of the World War I spy Mata Hari. We were there to visit a rally of barges and boats and he had gladly agreed to be my deputy in promoting British waterways. It was because there was no other available room at the inn that caused the unusual bedroom arrangements. Not lust or espionage.
For 20 years until his death in 1986, we were steadfast, if unlikely, friends and travelling companions. He came regularly to the council flat of my partner and I to listen to our very radical views about The Bomb and anger with the political establishment. These conversations were always voluble, around a crowded table.
During these hectic luncheons he voiced two definitive views. One, that Chris Downes, my partner, ran the best trattoria in London, and secondly, once in the heated atmosphere, he smiled sweetly and said, “May I remind you, it was the colonels who swept democracy away in Greece, not the generals.”
Hughie was born in 1903 into a military family, and later went to Marlborough College. In the carnage of World War I, 742 ex-pupils died. A bloody and indelible landmark. A natural for the army, he joined the Royal Welsh Fusilliers in 1923, and was posted subsequently to the British Army on the Rhine. His worldwide career began in Nigeria soon after, stopping only to marry Joan Garrard, who was never to be a stereotypical officer’s wife.
A man of resourcefulness and initiative, he was in the front of the disastrous expedition to Narvik in Norway during April 1940, where Hitler prevailed. Hughie had his first taste of armed combat, quickly learning from the German onslaught with its superior airpower and intelligence-driven campaign, aided by the appalling Norwegian traitors, the Quislings.
Back in the besieged UK, he involved himself thoroughly in practising and improving commando tactics. He never lost it. One day in the 1970s, he marched Peter Mandelson and myself over the Wiltshire Downs. Peter – slim, agile, lithe – won approval. As for myself, I was almost put on a charge for being overweight. This was a rare but accurate admonition from the general.
During 1942 and 1944, they sent him to East Africa, and later to the dangerous terrain of Palestine. No one treated African soldiers with contempt or racist slurs when he was around. His dashing reputation saw him promoted from Major to Major General in five years. In grim or dangerous situations, he would burst into song, ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘Alouette, Gentille Alouette,’ and once, when we were benighted in Scotland he sang plaintively, ‘All Alone by the Telephone’.
Field Marshall Montgomery – not an easy man to satisfy – constantly advanced Hugh’s career, and Hugh loved Monty. One day, passing Monty’s farm, he suggested we call on him so that the war hero could give me the once-over, which he did, and gave qualified approval to me, the General’s dishevelled and bearded companion.
After his role in evacuating Palestine and allegedly having an affair with a voluptuous Jewish woman, who some claimed was an undercover Israeli agent, he became the Commandant of the army’s university, Sandhurst. It was 1945.
Under him, entrants were no longer gentleman cadets but officer cadets, alongside other and much needed reforms. Senior officers were shaken by his constant involvement.
After this he went off to help put down rebellion in Malaya, where he had the greatest respect for the leader of the Communist guerrillas, Chin Peng OBE. The British government had awarded Peng this for his brilliantly successful jungle encounters with the Japanese. He never met Chin Peng. Although he was one of the architects of the Burmese liberation, in 1975 they refused to grant him a tourist visa. He found it hard to understand, as I commiserated with him over sloe gin.
His last active service was to command the Land Forces in the aborted invasion of the Suez Canal, which was caused by President Eisenhower’s dramatic intervention.
Fifty years after Prime Minister Eden’s folly, I remember what he told the PM’s emissary, who came to see him in the secret planning centre beneath Whitehall. “How do you start a war?”, he furtively asked. Hugh’s instant reply, “I’m buggered if I know. I’m only paid to fight them.”
Yes, we were strange bedfellows. After all, I was arrested on an anti-Suez march on Downing Street in 1956. Our paths crossed in 1967, when I spoke at the waterways conference in New College, Oxford.
A government minister, John Morris (later Blair’s Attorney General), listened to us and claims, according to Major General Jonathon Riley, that he had been our Cupid. He was more than that. He was the staunchest ally I had in the renaissance of the canals, and a constant friend in adversity.
They gave him the full final treatment at a Westminster Abbey memorial in 1987. Military bands played, medals and decorations glittered on proud chests and resounding organ music thundered down that ancient nave.
Royals and brass hats were there in full. I visualised amongst all that splendour the old soldiers who came towards him on railway platforms to shake his hand. They knew he had gone through the fire with them. I read my piece to the vast congregation with an inner smile and gratitude for having known this unusual warrior.

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