Marshal Sir Nigel Bagnall
FIELD MARSHAL SIR NIGEL BAGNALL, who has died aged 75, won an MC and Bar in the Malayan jungle, and spent the latter part of his career defending the Army against the cuts demanded by politicians as they increased its responsibilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The most gifted thinker among the post-war generation of soldiers, Bagnall played an important role in developing the concept of operational warfare, encouraging the modernisation of training, and warning that the three services' quarrels over a depleting Defence budget was only hurting their cause. His immense popularity with both officers and men was earned by an early concern that the steadily increasing demands on the modern Army were damaging both the morale and the marriages of personnel.
With the nickname "Ginge" - reflecting a peppery nature as well as the red hair of his youth - Bagnall was prevented from making the ultimate step to the top from Chief of General Staff to Chief of Defence Staff, partly because it was felt that the Ministry of Defence would have a quieter life without him. He had little time for tactical nuclear weapons. His reluctance to go along with the policy of fudge as expressed in the document Options for Change, led him to being mauled by Mrs Thatcher in the presence of the Defence Secretary and other members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee; thereafter he was regarded as unreliable - but many thought he was right.
The son of an officer in the Green Howards, Nigel Thomas Bagnall was born in India on February 10 1927 and educated at Wellington. Joining the Army at 18, he was granted a regular army emergency commission in the Green Howards in 1946, then transferred to the Parachute Regiment with whose 8th Battalion he served in Palestine; he later went to the 1st Battalion the Duke of Wellington's Regiment.
Bagnall returned to the Green Howards in time to serve with the 1st Battalion in the Malayan Emergency. For much of the time, he was in an isolated position at Kampong Menchis. When he took over the position, the whole area was effectively under terrorist control; in less than two months combing the area with his small force, he captured 11 terrorist agents and located and destroyed 16 terrorist camps.
By Christmas 1949, the area had been sufficiently pacified for the police to relieve military forces. On May 27 1950, Bagnall led a night patrol into a terrorist-infested area. With cool patience he located the terrorist camp, and then led a small encircling party through dense jungle. After an hour, they reached an assault position 30 yards from a terrorist-occupied hut.
Bagnall then threw a grenade into the hut, flushing out three terrorists, whom he and his patrol shot dead. Praising what he described as his "gallantry, coolness and ruthless energy", Bagnall's commanding officer said, in the citation for his Military Cross, that he was a "source of inspiration to his platoon and company, and an example which can seldom have been surpassed".
By January 1952 Bagnall was operating in the Tampin area as an Intelligence officer, and being employed on any difficult operations requiring exceptional skill. With a combination of carefully planned fighting patrols and improvised track-side ambushes, he and his men killed a total of 18 terrorists, including a Communist branch committee member, whom Bagnall shot personally. They also wounded one enemy and captured another. In a conflict in which the killing of a single terrorist was considered a major success, Bagnall's operations devastated the local Communist network. The citation to the Bar of his MC commented: "This officer's brilliant tactical leadership, his skilful tracking and complete disregard for his personal safety are a byword throughout the battalion and also, according to surrendered terrorists in the Tampin area, among the enemy themselves."
On returning home, Bagnall had a personal setback when he was found guilty of dangerous driving and disqualified for three years after an accident in which a cyclist was killed. But after a period as an instructor at the OCTU at Eaton Hall, Cheshire, he was posted to his regiment's 2nd Battalion, serving with them in the Suez Canal Zone and Cyprus. There he was again involved in counter-insurgency operations, this time against the Greek Cypriot terrorist organisation Eoka.
Bagnall transferred to the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and attended the Staff College, Camberley. From 1960 to 1961 he served at the Directorate of Military Operations at the War Office before going on to attend the Joint Services Staff College.
There followed a period of regimental duty until he became military assistant to the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff. In March 1966 he became GSO1 (Intelligence) at the Directorate of Borneo Operations, and GSO1 at Headquarters, Far Eastern Command, as military assistant to the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Michael Carver.
A month later he was back with his regiment as Commanding Officer, first in Omagh, and then at Sennelager, West Germany, where he supervised the regiment's conversion from armoured cars to main battle tanks. After serving as an instructor in the Joint Services Staff College, Bagnall was appointed Commander, Royal Armoured Corps, in 1 (British) Corps, BAOR. It was in 1972 that his reputation as an expert on armoured warfare led him to be given a Defence Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford, after which he was secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee at the Ministry of Defence.
After being GOC, 4th Division, he returned to the MoD in 1978 as Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Policy), then was given command of 1 (British) Corps before being appointed Commander-in-Chief, BAOR.
The following year he became Commander of Nato's Northern Army Group, in which post he inaugurated and oversaw major changes in Nato's operational doctrine. A fluent German speaker, he had unprecedented success in persuading the German military leadership to agree that, in the event of a Soviet attack, Nato troops could withdraw to a fallback position which would be an effective killing ground.
Bagnall was finally Chief of General Staff for three years until his retirement in 1988 with the rank of Field Marshal. He was Colonel Commandant of the Royal Armoured Corps from 1985 to 1988; of the Army Physical Training Corps from 1981 to 1988; and an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, the honour which he said gave him greatest pleasure.
In retirement, Nigel Bagnall became an enthusiastic duck breeder. He also published The Punic Wars (1990), in which he brought a soldier's insight to bear on the struggle between Rome and Carthage, and drew lessons for our time on the importance of military preparedness, and clear and consistent strategic planning. Enoch Powell, who reviewed the book in The Daily Telegraph, regretted that the author had deployed the matter-of-fact "aloofness of a Staff College lecturer addressing a class of Camberley students". But it was well received elsewhere, particularly in Germany, and he worked on a book about the Peloponnesian Wars during his last years.
Although intolerant of incompetent staff officers, Bagnall was loyal to those who lasted the course - he was so tone deaf that he depended on them to ensure that he saluted an anthem at the right moment. He disliked wearing what he called his "f . . . . . . jewellery", and preferred to walk with a shuffle instead of a crisp military strut.
Bagnall was appointed CVO in 1978, KCB in 1981, and GCB in 1985.
He married, in 1959, Anna Caroline Church, who survives him with their two daughters.
Sir John Keegan writes: Nigel Bagnall was a most unusual soldier. He had a real personal following in the Army, and news of his death will bring sorrow to hundreds of his comrades-in-arms. Quick-tempered but warm-hearted, he aroused much more affection than fear, and was also greatly admired for his intellect and academic bent.
Not only did he introduce the Army to "the operational level", a concept borrowed from the panzer generals which he successfully domesticated by brilliant exposition; he also made the study of war respectable and transformed the outlook of a whole generation of officers. Civilians greatly liked him also, and he was very popular at Balliol, as shown by his election to an Honorary Fellowship.
He was blessed by an exceptionally happy family life, in partnership with his beloved Anna and two boisterous daughters. The girls' explosions of impatience with official pomposity may have been a safety valve for his own. His complete down-to-earth nature made him greatly loved, and he will be missed by a very wide circle of friends, men and women, in an out of the Army.