There had been speculation recently that the disbandment of the 1st Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) was in some way connected with an incident in the Battalion in the early 1960’s. This surfaced in a review of A Concise History (of the regiment) by Trevor Royle by Brigadier Allan Mallinson in the Times Literary Supplement . Royle alluded to it briefly in his book. Such a possibility had not occurred to any of the officers who were serving with the regiment at the time of the disbandment and it caused considerable surprise that it should surface, apparently from nowhere, 40 years after the event.
This short paper aims to set out the events which occurred in the period 1962 to 1968, the last six years of the Battalion’s existence.
In mid-April 1962 there was a fight in the Coliseum Bar in Minden. It was a rough place frequented by soldiers from the Minden garrison and by bargees (not all German) who plied their trade on the River Weser and the Mittelland Canal which meet near Minden. The fight spilled outside and an affray took place. No one was seriously injured. As a result 18 soldiers from the Battalion were rounded up and incarcerated. Of these, 15 were dealt with summarily by the Commanding Officer, two were court marshalled, and one was released without charge. The events got some limited publicity in the Scottish press over the Easter weekend (19-22 April).
For some time another issue had been brewing in London. The press were gunning for the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo. They knew of his affair with Christine Keeler . In those rather more circumspect days this was not sufficient to hang him out to dry, so the press bided their time. Such events as the Minden bar fight were not that unusual in Germany and nor were courts marshal. National Service was still in being and no garrison was without its badhats. A court marshal took place in another part of Germany, in a town called Hilden. It concerned the brutal treatment of an NCO by a group of men from his own unit. Although the court marshal was announced in the usual way none of the press had picked it up. Profumo, when asked about that in parliament, unwisely said, “The press have missed a trick!” This was enough for them to seek revenge; this was their opportunity to get Profumo.
The sequence of events now is not entirely clear. There are stories of corrupted telex messages (Milden for Hilden?) and of a court marshal for mutiny in a town called Menden. All that matters is that the press searched their collective memories and very quickly came up with Minden and the April brawl. This was enough. They descended en masse. The fact that the events were long in the past, and the Battalion was not even in Minden when they arrived, mattered little . The press had the stick with which to beat Profumo, and they used it. It took another year before he was forced to resign but the damage was done.
The arrival in BAOR of correspondents from the newspapers, radio and television coincided with the Whitsun holiday in June. One of the terms picked up by the press in Minden was the word Giftzwerg which was translated as ‘poisoned dwarf’. It was used by a Minden citizen in a television interview in which he also said, “We have them too”. From that moment on the name stuck. But it would be quite wrong to see relations between the Battalion and the burghers in a bad light. In a long letter to The Times the Colonel of the Regiment, General Sir Horatius Murray, said, inter alia, ‘During my [recent] visit I called on the Bűrgermeister of Minden and he expressed his surprise at the attack on the Cameronians by the British press. He said that the people of Minden appreciated very much the help the battalion had given to the town, and he would be only too pleased to show his appreciation for it in any way that lay within his power.’ (Earlier in the same letter General Murray had referred to the fact that no fewer than 8,000 locals had turned out to support the battalion football team in one of its matches - the team which went on to win the BAOR Cup.)
When the Battalion was posted to BAOR it was for a normal tour of three years. Within months of the summer brouhaha they were told that their tour had been extended by another year; they were to remain in Minden for a fourth year. With the opportunity to move the Battalion quietly elsewhere it would seem that the authorities considered that this was neither necessary nor desirable. The remaining period passed relatively quietly. But it was not without incident. In late 1962 there took place a sickening assault by two Riflemen on a totally innocent local. The result was that they were tried by a General Court Marshal for assault occasioning grievous bodily harm, and both sentenced to lengthy terms in prison and dismissed the army. It was a shameful, shocking and unforgivable act so why rake it up it now? For the very good reason that it received almost no publicity and there was absolutely no outcry; the events of the previous summer were never referred to, far less cross-referenced. They were history.
It is worth noting that the Commanding Officer from 1961 to 1964, Lieutenant Colonel Reggie Kettles OBE MC, not only completed a successful tour in command but was later promoted.
When, in spring 1964, the Battalion was posted away from Minden they were posted not to some obscure role in a backwater like Colchester or Salisbury Plain but for two years on public duties in Edinburgh. This was the most prestigious and high profile role that any Scottish regiment could have. While there in 1964 and 1965 they also provided the Queen’s Guard at Balmoral. And later in 1965 the 1st Battalion, simultaneously, provided guards on public duties in London. This is thought to have been a unique distinction.
After two years in Edinburgh the Battalion was sent (May 1966) for a nine month unaccompanied tour to the hotspot of Aden. Their role called for the highest standards of morale and discipline. They fulfilled it to the highest expectations. At its close a letter was written by the GOC Middle East Command, Major General Sir John Willoughby, to the CGS. A copy is attached. In forwarding the letter to the then Colonel of the Regiment, Lieutenant General Sir George Collingwood, the CGS said: ‘I saw your Battalion in Aden in January, and everywhere I went there was nothing but praise for the way all the men had behaved and acted. I should therefore like to add my most grateful thanks and congratulations for the splendid work that they did.’ (CGS/835 dated 24 February 1967) It was with this to hand and praise still ringing in their ears that the Battalion returned to Edinburgh.
On 8 May 1967 the CGS held a briefing in London for all Colonels of Infantry Regiments. This was to tell them of forthcoming cuts to the Army. The same day he sent each of them a copy of his script together with a letter (20/Gen/7196(CGS - Personal and Confidential)). In it he asked for recommendations. In a further briefing paper specific to the Lowland Brigade various scenarios are explored . Discussing methods of effecting a reduction and under the heading of Large Regiment it says (para 4a): (if that route were to be chosen) ‘In the event of reductions the 4th battalion would be disbanded and then the 3rd and so on’. Interestingly, on the subject of disbandment (but not from a large regiment), it says (para 7): ‘Clearly no Colonel of a Regiment will “volunteer” for disbandment, so if this method is selected the Army Board would have to make the decision and everyone abide by it loyally’.
It was decided that it would be right then to consult as widely as possible and in an effort to assess the mood of the Battalion the Commanding Officer took soundings down to the rank of corporal. The question put: in the event that we are chosen for the chop (which no one believed a realistic possibility following the Willoughby letter and CGS’s support of it) should we amalgamate or disband and, if the former, with whom? The overwhelming view at all levels was that disbandment was preferable to amalgamation . This was almost certainly not for any snobbish reason but for purely pragmatic ones. It was felt that in the event of an amalgamation no other regiment would accept the wholesale loss of identity by being changed into a rifle regiment and the Cameronians would never accept giving up that status or their original name. The word unique is banded about freely, and quite rightly applies to each and every infantry regiment, but The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) had more reasons to think of themselves in this light than any other. It must be said also that there was an element of ‘it can’t happen to us’.
And so it was that the Council of Lowland Brigade Colonels made their recommendation. The deadline for this was 15 June. The Colonel of the KOSB (Lieutenant General Sir William Turner) was of the view that a large regiment would be a good idea but the unanimous recommendation did not contain this suggestion . Interestingly his suggestion was for a large Scottish (as opposed to Lowland) regiment but this was not an option open to them. In the event no amalgamations were proposed. One could say that as the Cameronians had ‘opted’ to disband it let the other three off the hook. What the other regiments decided is academic and it is not known if soundings were taken in them to the same extent as they had been in the Cameronians.
The basis on which the Army Board decided to proceed were described in a parliamentary answer by James Boyden MP, Under Secretary of State for Defence on 15 July 1968. “ … The Chief of the General Staff is reported to have said … last in, first out”. It is clear from that as well as an examination of all of the reductions effected that this was the principle followed.
Baynes in Volume IV says:
‘The optimism which members of the battalion felt about their future was soon to prove groundless. On 18 July 1967 the long awaited announcement was made in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Dennis Healey, about cuts in the Army. During the phase of his speech specifying detailed decisions, he announced: ‘Lowland Brigade. The brigade will reduce by one battalion, which is to be the 1st Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). The Council of Colonels did not recommend an amalgamation with another battalion in the event of reduction’.
This is not strictly correct. The announcement came in the morning by way of a Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy 1967 (Cmmd Paper 3357 18/7/67). In Chapter IV paragraph 7 it says:
‘As a result of the cuts in commitments outside Europe, we plan by April 1971 to reduce the Army by 17 major units (or their equivalent) - four armoured units; the equivalent of four artillery units; the equivalent of one engineer unit; and eight infantry battalions. Details are given at Annex II of this Statement.’
Annex II lists the eight infantry battalions nominated (starting with the Lowland Brigade) and the quote above. The same wording is used for the Yorkshire Brigade where again the junior regiment, the 1st Battalion The York and Lancaster Regiment was nominated. (It went into suspended animation and was eventually expunged from the Army List.) In three cases (Fusiliers, Light Infantry and North Irish Brigades) the choice was to opt for a large regiment and in each case this was agreed and in each case the junior regiment disappeared at the same time. Other brigades remained unscathed at this time though further cuts were to follow soon.
One might ask why the Lowland Brigade and not the Highland Brigade was cut first. As all of the Highland regiments were junior to all of the Lowland ones, on the basis of last in and first out, one might see some logic in opting to cull from the former first. The major problem with that was that the junior regiment in the Highland Brigade was the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and they were in the middle of a high profile and very active tour in Aden . It would have been unthinkable to axe them at this juncture. Their turn would come in 1970.
Let us now turn to the suggestion that for some reason The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) were chosen for disbandment as a result of their reputation for what can best be described as irremediable bad behaviour and ill discipline most recently and prominently demonstrated in Minden five years earlier which culminated in the nickname ‘the poisoned dwarfs’. It has been difficult to trace where this rumour started. One reference to it in print is in a book The Atlantis of the Sands by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (1992). In it (page 40) he says:
Qaboos (bin Said), the Sultan (of Oman)’s only son , had grown up in Salalah, then been educated privately in England. After training at Sandhurst he became an officer in the Cameronian Regiment. Following street fights leading to the murder of German citizens in the garrison town of Minden, the regiment was disbanded.
Could there be a better example of Chinese whispers and the NAAFI rumour mill working flat out? We have gone from an affray with no one seriously injured to fights (plural) and murders (also plural). We have gone from cause (1962) to effect (1967) without pause. The above also implies that the events in Minden followed after Sultan Qaboos’ secondment, which is not the case.
In a letter to Sir John Baynes (author of the official history Volume IV) dated 30.4.94 Fiennes then wrote:
‘Dear Sir John
Thank you for your letter of 22.4.94 …
I am extremely sorry that I was taken in by the false stories about the Cameronians and regurgitated them (in two lines) on p40 of the Oman book. Thanks to your letter I now realise that the stories had no basis in fact. I cannot apologise enough and assure you that, in future, I will be sure to correct any re-issue of the Oman book giving the correct events as recorded in the typescript you sent me. I am fully aware that the UK press are capable of inventing stories out of thin air and am more than sorry for proving totally gullible to this one.
With my sincere apologies to you and to the proud regiment of the Cameronians as a whole.
To the list of reasons given earlier (extended tour in Minden, Public Duties, Aden etc) one might add that it would seem strange in the extreme that the future Sultan, having been so carefully groomed at RMA Sandhurst, would have been sent to Minden and to a regiment allegedly notorious for its bad behaviour and ill discipline. In fact he arrived in Minden in early September 1962, barely weeks after the whole poisoned dwarfs episode had so spectacularly hit the UK press.
Anxious to try to track down the basis of the original story this writer spoke to Sir Ranulph Fiennes (telecon 31 March 2010). He said that it was “common currency in BAOR in the late ‘60’s”. Which brings us back to the original rumours because it is quite clear that they were rumours and bar room tittle-tattle and no more than that. To suggest that they are true is to imagine that there was somehow a link between an event of 1962 which, for reasons known only to the press, was blown up out of all proportion, and the decision that the regiment should be nominated for disbandment in 1967. There is no evidence to support this whatever. Indeed the evidence in the Defence Statement Annex is quite clear: it was the junior regiment in each brigade which was to be chopped irrespective of any other considerations and there were no exceptions to this. The policy was as outlined in the parliamentary answer a year later: it was last in; first out. The choice of disbandment as opposed to amalgamation was the overwhelming choice of the battalion and therefore accepted and respected by the Lowland Brigade Colonels and the Army Board.
Given that the reduction in each brigade, including the Lowland Brigade, should be by the most junior regiment of that brigade and that the choice of the regiment was to disband rather than to amalgamate it is hard to see how and why any rumours to the contrary could stand up. Conspiracies are always more alluring than bald facts. Given the bald facts of this case it is to be hoped that conspiracies and rumours will be allowed to take their place where they belong. They have no place in the history of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).
Windsor, April 2010