Officer who survived shellfire and swamps as he advanced through Italy with Popski’s Private Army
Major John Campbell, who has died aged 93, was awarded two Military Crosses while serving with Popski’s Private Army (PPA) and subsequently worked in the Colonial Service and as a diplomat.
In 1944, he joined No 1 Demolition Squadron in Italy. This irregular unit, better known as Popski’s Private Army, was commanded by Major Vladimir Peniakoff, born in Belgium to Russian parents.
PPA had become operational two years earlier in the Western Desert when it undertook raiding and reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. It was equipped with heavily armed jeeps and was trained in parachuting, mountain warfare, demolition and intelligence gathering. Patrol members carried a tommy gun or a rifle, a semi-automatic pistol and a fighting knife.
Peniakoff had misgivings about recruiting Campbell and set him a test of finding his way across 60 miles of rough, mountainous country carrying 40 lbs of equipment and getting back in record time. Campbell passed the test and, having been made adjutant, impressed “Popski” with his ability to scrounge kit, equipment and stores from niggardly quartermasters.
There will be a few pints hoisted in the UK at this news:
General Mario Menéndez, Argentine commander - obituary
Military governor of the Falklands during Argentina’s brief occupation of the islands in 1982
General Mario Menéndez, who has died aged 85, was the military governor of the Falkland Islands during Argentina’s brief occupation of the archipelago in 1982; 30 years later he was arrested and detained for his alleged role in human rights abuses.
Argentine troops arrived on the islands on April 2 1982 and swiftly overwhelmed a 78-strong detachment of Royal Marines who put up a courageous defence of the islands’ capital, Port Stanley. As commander of the occupying troops, Menéndez, a military hard-liner, arrived in Stanley on April 7 to take over as governor.
Infantry officer who led a high-risk assault in a battle that was 'hell on earth'
At 0500 hours on July 10, an attack was launched on Hill 112, which the Germans believed was a key feature in holding Normandy.
Hutchinson described the battle as “hell on earth”. The Hill was captured but at an immense cost in casualties. After just three weeks in the theatre, 4 SOM LI required reinforcements of 19 officers and 479 other ranks.
In the darkness of early morning on March 8 1945, Hutchinson commanded a company attack on Xanten, south-east of Nijmegen and close to the Rhine. This was carried out behind a rolling barrage and was supported by two flame-throwing Crocodile tanks.
As the forward troops reached a large anti-tank ditch they were pinned down by heavy fire from spandaus. Fire from the Crocodiles proved ineffective and Hutchinson realised that he had lost the benefit of both the artillery and the armour and must fight an infantry battle against a crack paratroop unit.
He issued fresh orders to his platoon commanders. The assault was entirely successful and resulted in the killing or capture of many of the enemy. His courage in exposing himself to danger throughout the battle and his inspiring leadership were recognised by the award of a Bar to his MC.
Commando who witnessed the 1942 raid on Dieppe and was wounded behind enemy lines in Sicily
Fred Walker, who has died aged 91, was a former Army Commando who, in June 2014, was one of 19 Pensioners at the Royal Hospital Chelsea appointed Chevaliers of the Légion d’honneur by the French ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, in recognition of the part they played in the liberation of France and Europe.
Frederick John Walker was born in London on July 29 1924 and volunteered for military service with a friend during the early years of the Second World War, when both were under age. As neither could provide parental letters of consent they each wrote a signed letter for the other and Walker was accepted for the Commandos.
Following basic training with the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, he joined 3 Commando, and in his first action was involved in the disastrous 1942 raid on Dieppe, on a leading gunboat towing smaller craft. The boats came under fire from German E-boats, “creating havoc,” as he recalled, and the gunboat had to return to Newhaven.
Commander Ian Inskip, attacked by an Exocet missile in the Falklands – obituary
Commander Ian Inskip, who has died aged 72, saved his ship after an Exocet attack during the Falklands War.
Inskip was on the bridge of Glamorgan on the night of June 11/12 1982 as 45 Commando advanced on Two Sisters ridge. Soon after midnight, Inskip, who was the navigator and officer of the watch, nudged the destroyer closer to the coast. There was little wind and half a moon that night as Glamorgan, in response to calls from ashore, rained 145 shells, nearly four tons of high explosive, on enemy positions.
Towards dawn the Royal Marines signalled “VMT [very many thanks] and good shooting”, and, as Inskip worked out a course for Glamorgan to take up her daytime role of air defence of the task force, there was a sudden lull in the fighting ashore.
Everyone’s eyes were caught by the very bright efflux coming from Eliza Cove: watchers ashore followed the flare seawards until there was an equally dazzling flash in the distance followed by an ominous red glow.
At 0636, Inskip, looking at the radar screen, realised that Glamorgan was under attack by an Exocet missile, and ordered full starboard rudder.
“I concentrated very hard on the turn,” he recalled, “since I would need to reverse the wheel at precisely the right moment to steady on 190 degrees if we were to successfully bounce the missile off the ship’s side; I had less than 5 degrees leeway for error… Too soon and I would have to ease the rudder, thereby lengthening the time to turn, and time was not on our side. Too late, and I risked the missile and its debris running the length of the Seaslug [missile] magazine…
"On the bridge we heard a seemingly unremarkable thud, followed almost immediately by a 'whooomph’ as the fuelled helicopter in the hangar erupted into flame… Night turned into day as 100 ft flames towered above masthead height.”
The flash of the explosion was seen as far away as Darwin and Goose Green, and after a few minutes’ lull, the fighting ashore resumed.
Inskip’s action in turning the ship undoubtedly saved her from worse damage; nevertheless, 14 men were killed. The fight to save Glamorgan, however, had just begun, and Inskip played a major part in fighting the fire which followed.
His mention in despatches recorded that Inskip’s personal stamina and leadership had inspired others, in the face of extreme danger from exploding ammunition, to act with the determination and resolve which undoubtedly prevented the fire from spreading.
Throughout the three months of the Falklands War, Inskip displayed fortitude, resolve and determination, which, combined with his professionalism and cheerful influence, made a marked contribution to the ship’s readiness for and achievements in action. He was promoted to commander in 1983.
Ian Inskip was born at Thorpe Bay, Essex, on November 2 1943 and educated at Alleyn Court prep and Felsted School. He learnt to sail in a 12ft Gunter-rigged dinghy on the Thames, explaining to his anxious mother that his irregular absences and returns for meals at unusual times were dependent on the tides and visits to the Kent coast.
In 1962 he entered the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, where he became coxswain as the captain of the college’s fast motorboat, and learnt a love of precise seamanship which endured throughout his naval career and extended to family canal boat holidays.
Inskip qualified as a ship’s diver while in the destroyer Cambrian in 1966, and, unusually, retained his qualification throughout his 30-year naval career, recording an extraordinary 30,000 minutes in his diving log.
In 1968 he became a submariner, serving in the diesel-driven boats Onslaught, Sealion, Odin, and Onyx, where he particularly enjoyed the challenge of navigation in the Far East without radar, becoming – before the days of GPS – an astronavigation expert, using hand-held and artificial horizon periscope sextants.
Promoted to lieutenant-commander in 1975, Inskip reached “dagger N”, the highest level of navigating expertise in the Royal Navy in 1979. He celebrated by bringing his ship, the frigate Apollo, into the confined Mevagissey harbour and startling bystanders in the quay by playfully asking: “Where are we?”
He was appointed flotilla navigation officer in Glamorgan in 1980. One of his successes came during an exercise in the Arabian Sea when, by disguising the ship’s electronic signature and her lights, he closed undetected to within firing range on a US carrier battlegroup.
After the Falklands, Inskip served (1982-97) in a series of key training and planning and security roles before retiring to Cornwall. There he lectured on health and safety at Cornwall College Business School, and rented out self-catering holiday homes at Croft Farm. He also served as a governor of Goonhavern primary school and as a Crantock parish councillor, and was a keen competitor at the Goonhavern Horticultural Show.
Inskip wrote Ordeal by Exocet – HMS Glamorgan and the Falklands War 1982 (2002, reissued 2012), one of the best books about war at sea in the age of the missile. He drew on his contemporary journal plus four other diaries and the letters of his shipmates, to create a moving portrayal of the daily life of a destroyer in modern war. Inskip, as a master storyteller, contrasted the gruesome realities of war with glimpses of what the families and friends were doing at home.
Inskip was much in demand to talk about his Falklands experience, but all fees and the profits from book sales were donated to charities, including Combat Stress, the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, and the HMS Glamorgan memorial which was erected at Hookers Point in the Falkland Islands in 2011.
Later Inskip was the Royal British Legion’s county events officer and the Poppy Appeal organiser for the Perranporth Area (2007-12), tripling the monies raised.
Inskip was a family man and though of few words, he had a strong sense of duty, a competitive nature, and a wicked sense of humour. When he died he was working on a 6 ft model of Glamorgan.
Inskip married Marianne Petersen in 1975; she survives him with their two daughters, one of whom, inspired by her father, is an astrophysicist.
It was an interesting war from the 'honours and awards' perspective.
Unlike a COIN campaign, being a general conflict with so much going on everywhere it was almost impossible for those who deserved them to get the awards they likely merited. It was therefore likely similar to WW 1 & 2 from that point of view.
I spoke to several people I know, who were in the thick of it, who said things like 'he should have got something for that but al those who might have been witnesses were killed or wounded'.
Exemplary member of the SAS who saw service in Aden, Oman, Northern Ireland and the Falklands
LIEUTENANT COLONEL SAM MALLETT, who has died aged 77, was one of a select cadre of officers and NCOs who formed the backbone of Britain’s 22nd Special Air Service Regiment during the last decades of the 20th century.
Born at Shoreham on January 14 1941 and brought up at Portslade, East Sussex, he was one of seven children of Andrew Mallett, a Royal Marine Commando during the Second World War, and his wife Bridget.
Sam left school at 15 and at 17 decided to join the Army with the primary aim of obtaining a driving licence.
He enlisted into the Royal Army Service Corps and, upon discovering that paratroopers received several extra shillings per day “jump pay”, immediately applied to undergo the physically and mentally demanding “P” Company selection, which he passed at his first attempt. After undergoing parachute training at RAF Abingdon he received his parachute wings while still only 17.
He was posted to 63 Company RASC (Parachute Brigade), later 63 Parachute Squadron, Royal Corps of Transport.
Paras from the supporting arms such as 63 Squadron often found themselves acting as infantrymen in support of members of the Parachute Regiment battalions.
It was in such a role in the mid-1960s in Aden and the Radfan campaign in South Arabia that he first encountered members of the Special Air Service Regiment. As a result, in 1967 Mallett volunteered for and passed the notoriously difficult SAS selection.
In the early 1970s much of the SAS effort was devoted to fighting the Communist-backed rebels, the Adoo, and sometime Yemeni army regulars, in the Dhofar region of Oman. Mallett, along with everyone else, did multiple tours and was involved in a great many actions.
Although the campaign gained little coverage at the time, the fighting was by no means low key. One colleague noted that early in the campaign they had 30 “contacts” with the enemy in just 10 days. During one five-month tour of duty Mallett was the only one of two patrols who was left unscathed. In total 14 SAS men were killed or died of wounds.
Mallett decided that he would make himself more useful if he could speak the language and accordingly learnt Arabic fluently. This was especially useful because the SAS men trained local soldiers, the Firquat, many of whom were surrendered enemy personnel and were persuaded to switch sides. Instrumental in this persuasion was the hearts-and-minds work carried out by the SAS.
After Oman the SAS found itself having to change and develop its role, not only for the situation prevailing in Northern Ireland but for counter-terrorism worldwide.
New skills included bodyguard duties, close-quarter battle, aircraft and house assaults and the room clearing for which the SAS became famous and entered public awareness during the Iranian Embassy siege in London in May 1980.
In training Mallet found his forte and with some close colleagues was instrumental in developing the expertise for which the SAS became the benchmark for Special Forces throughout the world. At one time or another he commanded every training sub-unit within the regiment and he was also the Commanding Officer of the Nato Long Range Patrol School in Germany.
He served in Northern Ireland and was of assistance to the RUC when they were desperately in need of professional training.
Commissioned in 1977, he enjoyed several operational roles before being made adjutant, the key administrative officer within the unit. Here, yet again, he found his métier.
One commanding officer, later General, Sir Michael Rose, said: “Sam’s undoubtedly sound advice and wise counsel kept me on the right path, allowing me to take decisions which not only made good sense but also had humanity.
“Whenever a decision was required on how heavy I should go with the disciplinary action, Sam’s judgment was always impeccable and what was even more remarkable was that he remained to the end a very modest person, in spite of his great achievements.”
One of Mallett’s saddest duties was during the Falklands war in 1982 when he and his commanding officer had to arrange the delivery of simultaneous death messages to relatives of 20 members of the regiment who were killed after a helicopter crashed while cross decking between ships.
Much of the success enjoyed by the SAS in that campaign can be attributed to the training regimes instigated by Mallett and his colleagues.
In retirement he was a tireless worker for the SAS Association in welfare and associated matters.
Sam Mallett is survived by his wife Judith and their daughter.
Lt Col Sam Mallett, born January 14 1941, died January 31 2018
I've never really been much for history; not sure why, it just never caught my eye. But out of curiosity I clicked on the most recent post in this thread, read that, read the one before it, and then ended up reading the entire thread. To say many of these people have colourful pasts is a huge understatement. A very interesting read!
Soldier awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery and leadership during the Korean war
As a rank-and-file professional soldier, Bill Speakman, who has died aged 90, won the Victoria Cross in the Korean war with a sustained display of indomitable personal bravery of a kind no writer of fiction would have dared to invent. He spent much of his later life trying with varied success to live down the resulting fame.
It was during one of many large-scale counterattacks by the Chinese during this to-and-fro phase that Private Speakman, a Black Watch soldier temporarily attached to the 1st battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, was acting as a runner for B company, positioned on a ridge known as Hill 217 at the beginning of November 1951.
The battalion came under fierce artillery fire in its exposed position. The Chinese then sent in 6,000 infantry troops, advancing in waves on B company. At dusk the company’s position looked hopeless, but Speakman, who was imposing and well-built at 6ft 6in tall, decided otherwise. Filling his pouches and all available pockets with the hand grenades he had been priming, he rose to his feet. Asked where he thought he was going, Speakman was reported as saying, in contemporary speech: “I’m going to shift some of them bloody Chinks.”
Standing in the dark, he pelted the attackers with grenade after grenade, aiming at their rifle flashes, pausing only to return to refill his pockets. Inspired by his actions, six men then joined him in a concerted drive to clear the ridge of the enemy.
War broke out in divided Korea in June 1950, when the communist north invaded the western-backed south by crossing the 38th parallel of latitude which was (and remains) the provisional border between them. Korea, occupied by Japan during the second world war, was divided in 1945 between the Soviet Union in the north and US forces in the south.
Protracted negotiations failed to reunify the two segments and the north made its bid to overrun the south. At first the massed northern troops carried all before them and all but expelled the smaller, ill-prepared southern army and its US reinforcements from the entire peninsula.
But the American General Douglas MacArthur was appointed commander-in-chief of UN forces in Korea in July and led a daring counterattack. A temporary boycott of the UN security council meant there could be no Soviet veto of the American proposal for UN intervention. British and Commonwealth units with other allied troops joined in. The US Marines made a bold amphibious landing at Incheon, near the southern capital of Seoul, and allied forces then advanced north to the Chinese border, whereupon the Chinese army entered the war and forced them back to the 38th parallel.
It seemed only a bullet could stop the furious defender. Yet even that was insufficient: he was indeed shot – in a leg and again in the shoulder – but, directly ordered to seek medical help, he went back to the fight when the medics were not looking. His rage reached new heights when a medic treating a comrade was shot and killed. He and his friends were finally reduced to throwing stones, ration tins and even, the legend has it, beer bottles (their contents had been used to cool gun barrels) before a final charge cleared the ridge and the remnants of the company could withdraw.
The citation for the VC said he had imposed enormous losses on the enemy and saved the lives of many of his comrades as they withdrew. It was the first such award to be presented by the Queen, shortly after she came to the throne.
Bill was born in Altrincham, Cheshire (now Greater Manchester) to Hannah Speakman, an unmarried domestic servant; he never knew his father and she never named him. About seven years later she married Herbert Houghton, a veteran of the first world war, who became his stepfather. Bill left Wellington Road secondary school in Timperley aged 14 and held various ordinary jobs before volunteering for the Scottish Black Watch regiment at the age of 17 near the end of the second world war, seeing service in Germany, Italy and Hong Kong. Returning to Germany in 1950, he volunteered for Korea and was detached to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
A month after he received his VC, Speakman returned to Korea at his own request, to get away from all the adulation. Demobilised in 1953, the year the Korean war ended in an armistice, he could not settle down to civilian life without qualifications and volunteered for the army again, to fight the communist insurrection in Malaya. In 1955 he served for a short period with the SAS, rejoining the King’s Own Scottish Borderers when they arrived in Malaya and rising to his final rank of sergeant.
He left the army after 22 years in 1968, the year following his arrest in Edinburgh for stealing £104 from a woman’s purse. He received an absolute discharge after repaying the stolen sum in full: his decoration probably saved him from prison.
Once again unable to settle down into civilian life, the “beer-bottle VC” tried various jobs, sold his medals to raise money, and was married and divorced three times, fathering seven children, all of whom survive him.
He emigrated to South Africa, called himself Speakman-Pitt for a while, returned to Britain and spent a year as a pensioner at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, before going back to South Africa for a second time. Eventually he returned to Altrincham before retiring permanently as a Chelsea pensioner in 2015.
• William Speakman, soldier, born 21 September 1927; died 20 June 2018
In a short memoir Downie recalled that he had “tramped from one war to another constantly for 10 years and then sporadically for a further nine. I finally ‘retired’ from war zones in 1991, at age 45, apart from a very brief skirmish in Iraq in 2003 [when he was an embedded cameraman for the US military].
One of the things that drove me was a fascination with the people to be found in the front line. The closer to the killing ground that you get, the more the layers of pretence are peeled away, until all that is left is naked, raw character.
“The wannabees, the poseurs, the bombasts have all found an excuse and left. Those that remain are among the most admirable individuals I’ve ever met – quiet-spoken, friendly, and sometimes fantastically brave.”
Downie in Afghanistan Nick Downie, who has died of Covid-19 in South Africa aged 74, was a former SAS soldier widely regarded as one of the world’s best combat cameramen.
Downie had been a professional soldier for six years, three-and-a-half of them in the SAS, and also fought as an irregular alongside Bedouins in the Sultanate of Oman against Marxist-led insurgents from 1972 to 1974, and with Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Second Iraqi – Kurdish War (1974-75).
The skills he learnt served him well as a cameraman, whose single-handed missions to world trouble-spots made him the darling of television awards committees and the despair of television unions paranoid about preserving members’ rights to “normal crew back-up”.
Nicolas Jon Downie was born on May 27 1946 and educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College. His father was a doctor and it seemed that Nick would follow him into the medical profession. He trained at Middlesex Hospital medical school, but found hospital life boring, and even began to experience blackouts in which he would fall asleep unpredictably – on one occasion across the bed of a patient he was meant to be examining.
Instead, he developed a keen interest in revolutionary guerrilla warfare, and signed on for the SAS territorial selection course. Dropping out of medical school in his final year, he applied to join the gruelling selection course for 22 SAS. Although he was the only civilian among 120 candidates, he was one of only seven who passed.
From 1971 the SAS were involved in suppressing the Dhofar Rebellion, a clandestine war in Oman against communist-backed insurgents from South Yemen. Downie was sent to Oman as a trooper, but after a while decided to buy himself out to join the Sultan of Oman’s Yemeni exile Bedouin irregulars as a contract mercenary.
Downie, left, with Richard Cecil in Rhodesia Promoted to sergeant, he was put in charge of a unit with orders to penetrate deep into South Yemen to carry out acts of sabotage and foment insurrection among the tribes. On one raid from their base on the edge of the Empty Quarter they captured a large fort, 80 miles across the border. After the garrison surrendered, Downie decided to blow it up “as a demonstration that we had arrived”. His calculations showed the need for 300 lb of gelignite, so he laid 1,000 lb. The fort, he recalled, “literally vanished”.
The demolition of the fort and the subsequent success of “Nick’s Guides”, a camel unit he founded, so impressed the Sultan that he wrote out a cheque for £500,000. However, disillusioned by what he saw as obstructionism by the British officer corps, Downie returned to London, though he felt vindicated when his irregulars mutinied with the aim of having him brought back as their leader.
Downie was not idle for long. In late 1974 he got into his Renault 4 and drove from London to join the Peshmerga guerrillas in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he trained a group of saboteurs for an attack on Baghdad, only to be frustrated by Iran’s agreement to cut off its support for the Kurds, leaving the way free for Saddam Hussein to annihilate the rebels.
On all these adventures, Downie took his 16mm clockwork Pathé camera with him, though it was only from the last operation that he got any marketable footage. As he recalled in a blog post in 2011, the one time he had taken his camera on an SAS op in Oman, “I was also the signaller (carrying a heavy A41 radio) and the medic, with a medic bag. All that, plus my ammo and water, food, etc, plus a 250-round belt of [machine gun] ammo, meant I was carrying 80-90 lb.”
All this nearly got him killed when an enemy machine gun opened fire: “I hit the deck hard and then found, with all this weight on my back, that I couldn’t get up, with bullets lashing into the ground all round me. Finally, naked terror forced me to my feet and I joined my mates.”
Having recovered his composure, he got out his camera and, from a vantage point behind a rock, focused on a machine-gun crew 20 yards away in the open, firing at the enemy: “Just as I was about to press the start button, one of the crew rolled away from the gun, clearly having been hit. I paused, to find everyone looking at me – I was the medic, you see.
“Muttering something very rude under my breath, I grabbed my medic pack, scrambled to my feet, sprinted through a veritable hail of fire, and flung myself down next to the wounded man.
“ ‘Are you OK?’ I gasped. ‘Hello Nick,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. It’s only me finger.’ He held up a bloody digit for my inspection. I gave him a dirty look, and then ran the gauntlet of fire once more.
“After that, I was engaged, as the signaller, in bringing down mortar fire, then artillery, then airstrikes, in an attempt to silence the enemy weapon.
“In the end, we sent for [an Arab fighter], gave him binos and asked him to find the bugger. It took him 10 minutes to pinpoint his position, and a long burst from our [machine gun] settled the matter, which I was sad about because he was a very, very brave man.”
Downie’s film of the destruction of the Yemeni fort was lost on its way to a lab in London, but a 40-second film clip of Peshmerga guerrillas in action earned him £60 from the BBC, launching his career as a freelance cameraman.
His first serious attempt at filming behind the lines was in 1975 when he and the reporter Gwynne Roberts walked from the Sudanese border to Asmara to cover the Eritrean War. Their 30-minute documentary was shown on Thames Television.
But being a lone cameraman was a precarious living, owing to hostility from the unions, and at one point Downie was forced to remortgage his house for working capital.
The most notable controversy occurred in 1980 when the ACTT (the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians), which he had recently joined, threatened to “black” a report he made of rebels in action against the Afghan government in the period immediately preceding the Russian intervention.
A strike had been called in London, over a domestic dispute, while Downie was absent, and on his return the ACTT objected to the footage being shown – on the grounds that he had not immediately downed tools.
His union card bore an endorsement that made his membership conditional on “hazard assignment”, allowing him to work without normal union backup in dangerous conditions, but invalid at other times.
As he recalled, during one action in Afghanistan he was holed up behind a ridge, with a group of 25 former members of the Afghan army who had joined the Mujahideen, and subjected to 10 days of attacks by vastly superior government forces: “The infantry assaults were prefaced by mortar barrages. We had no overhead cover: we just crouched in crevices as hundreds of 120mm bombs rained down … I have never been so frightened … I was certain at least half of us were going to die, and I started doing deals with the Almighty … By the end, everyone’s nerves were in shreds, but they clung on grimly, fought like demented wildcats – and won.”
The ACTT finally conceded that the assignment had indeed been hazardous and “Afghanistan: with the rebels”, shown on Thames Television’s TV Eye in 1980, won a special Royal Television Society award for TV journalism. A documentary on the Vietnamese boat people was never shown, however, because the union refused to agree that the conditions had been hazardous enough.
Downie won other RTS awards for programmes about the guerrilla war between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco over control of the Western Sahara, and about the Bush War in Rhodesia, where he spent six months on the front line in 1978, to produce a TV Eye documentary in which he predicted, with some prescience, that if there were to be a “white collapse” in Rhodesia, it would be followed by a civil war which would make the 13,000 casualties so far fade into insignificance.
Tragically, Lord Richard Cecil, the freelance journalist who accompanied him on this expedition, lost his life when he encountered one of Robert Mugabe’s Zanla fighters who shot and killed him at close range.
Downie built a reputation for exceptional toughness and composure under fire. In the Western Sahara he was involved in a savage close-quarter firefight in open desert in which 30 out of the 40 combatants died in the space of 10 minutes; his footage recorded the moment when a Polisario guerrilla a few yards away had his head blown off.
Downie in the field: his union membership was conditional on ‘hazard assignment’, allowing him to work without normal union backup in dangerous conditions, but invalid at other times Downie was most proud of Survive, a series broadcast on Channel 4 in 1985, in which he demonstrated the art of survival in extreme situations. His first episode, filmed in the frozen wastes of northern Canada, was described by one critic as “absolutely riveting, blood-curdling”. Other episodes dealt with survival techniques in the jungle, at sea, in concentration camps, under torture and interrogation and after a nuclear war.
In 1993 The Daily Telegraph reported that he had been killed in Afghanistan, prompting Downie to write a letter correcting the error: “I have no wish to appear a pedant … [but] for the benefit of my friends, colleagues and erstwhile comrades-in-arms (not to mention the Inland Revenue and my somewhat startled 80-year-old mother) I would like to make it clear that I survived all my visits to that country and am living peaceably in Sussex with my two young daughters.”
In a short memoir Downie recalled that he had “tramped from one war to another constantly for 10 years and then sporadically for a further nine. I finally ‘retired’ from war zones in 1991, at age 45, apart from a very brief skirmish in Iraq in 2003 [when he was an embedded cameraman for the US military]. One of the things that drove me was a fascination with the people to be found in the front line. The closer to the killing ground that you get, the more the layers of pretence are peeled away, until all that is left is naked, raw character.
“The wannabees, the poseurs, the bombasts have all found an excuse and left. Those that remain are among the most admirable individuals I’ve ever met – quiet-spoken, friendly, and sometimes fantastically brave.”
Professionally, however, his time in the SAS was the happiest: “We never stopped laughing. Even when we had our faces pressed hard into the dirt as bullets tore through the air overhead or slammed into the ground around us, some joker would somehow see the funny side and we’d crack up. It was worth every second of the pain of the [selection course] endurance march to be greeted as an equal by men like that.”
In 2012, in a blog post replying to enquiries about his whereabouts, Downie wrote: “Until recently I lived for three years in a tent, with my mules, on a mountainside in Andalucia (I was broke – couldn’t afford a solid roof), but for now I’m in South Africa, looking after my extremely stroppy 99-year-old mother.”
Nick Downie married Hilary Payne in 1977. The marriage was dissolved in 1992 and he is survived by their two daughters. Nick Downie, born May 27 1946, died May 12 2021