Major General Bryan Webster, who has died aged 88, commanded an infantry brigade in Northern Ireland during a period of rapidly escalating violence.
In September 1975 Webster drove to Liverpool and embarked for Belfast on the night ferry. On his arrival to take over command of 8th Infantry Brigade in Londonderry he was met by his Royal Military Police bodyguard and his driver.
During his 18-month tour he had under command four regular battalions, and two battalions of the Ulster Defence Regiment, together with several smaller units, including a helicopter squadron.
On his first day, standing outside Brigade HQ, he watched five bombs explode in Foyle Street, just across the river which divided the two communities. The next day, a soldier was shot and killed, the first of 30 he was to lose to terrorist operations.
Webster briefing his platoon during the Korean War
Making its way through the city to areas like the Creggan or Bogside, his Land Rover would encounter a hail of bricks and bottles thrown by children on the estates. In August 1976 there were 24 shooting incidents and 14 bombings in Londonderry alone. His wife, Elizabeth, was followed several times by suspicious vehicles, and on one occasion a bullet narrowly missed her head when she was gardening.
One evening he was attending an official dinner at Stormont with Merlyn Rees, the Secretary of State, when he learnt that a major IRA incident was expected. Halfway through the main course he ran to a Scout helicopter which had landed on the lawns outside and flew back to Derry through the darkness.
Sound intelligence was the key to success but trust between the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Londonderry had been eroded by the events of Bloody Sunday three years before and the sharing of information was poor. By establishing a close working relationship with the head of Special Branch, however, the situation improved.
On handing over his brigade in March 1977, Webster wrote in his notes: “The skill, courage, fortitude, tolerance and restraint shown by my soldiers in the face of enormous military, political and command difficulties have been remarkable.”
Bryan Courtney Webster was born in Leicester on February 2 1931. He was aged nine when his father, a captain in the Royal Fusiliers, was killed. One of the last of the troops to be evacuated from France, he was in the Lancastria when it was hit by German bombers off St Nazaire, with enormous loss of life. He was reported “missing presumed dead”, but his death was not confirmed for a year.
Young Bryan was educated at Haileybury, where Stirling Moss became a friend. Moss kept a car hidden in a nearby village and the two would play truant and drive to London to go to nightclubs in Soho. Webster was a good enough jazz drummer to take over from the drummers in the clubs if they wanted a break.
In 1949 he enlisted in the Army. He went on to Sandhurst, where he was a Junior Under Officer and in 1951 he was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers (RF). While he was a training officer he had Maurice Micklewhite (later Sir Michael Caine) and the Kray twins under his command. After a year in BAOR, he joined the 1st Battalion (1 RF) in Korea as a rifle platoon commander.
In May 1953 1 RF moved up to the notorious Hook feature to relieve the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, which had taken heavy casualties. Webster’s platoon occupied a forward position and was subjected to constant shell and mortar fire and “probes” by the tough and determined Chinese infantry. He and his platoon sergeant drank the loyal toast on Coronation Day while mortar rounds fell on and around their position.
After a spell in the Canal Zone, for the next three years Webster served as ADC to Major General Rome, GOC 16th Airborne Division. He returned to regimental duties as signals officer and took part in the ill-fated Suez Operation.
In November 1956, 1 RF landed at Port Said shortly after the main assault. They had no transport because of a serious error in loading ships in England, but Webster’s men “liberated” a shiny new Cadillac from an Egyptian showroom for their officer’s use.
After two years in Hong Kong as General Staff Officer (Grade 3) (OPS) with 48 Gurkha Brigade based in the New Territories, he rejoined the Royal Fusiliers in Malta as adjutant. In 1963 he was posted to the Intelligence Directorate at the War Office.
His duties required visits to Berlin to liaise with the British Services Security Organisation, and when “spy swapping” was involved there could be long, cold evenings at Checkpoint Charlie. Command of a rifle company in Germany was followed by a staff appointment in Whitehall and then a move to the Staff College, Camberley, as an instructor.
In 1968 the amalgamation of four English Fusilier Regiments saw the creation of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (RRF). Webster took command of the 1st Battalion of the new regiment in 1971. The situation in Northern Ireland was reaching a critical stage, and 1 RRF deployed to the Province for two short emergency tours in Belfast during the summer on operations in the Shankill and Falls Road district.
The following year he took 1 RRF to Gibraltar. While they were there an attempt was made to shoot down an aircraft carrying King Hassan II of Morocco; pilots, acting for a rebel faction, strafed Hassan’s plane. Some of the passengers were killed or injured, but the plane landed safely at Rabat’s airport.
The commander of the Moroccan air force base at Kenitra, Lt-Col Mohamed Amekrane, fled with another officer to Gibraltar to seek asylum. The Governor ordered Webster to hold them in the barracks under close guard while their future was determined. The British Government refused asylum and directed the Governor to return the fugitives to Morocco.
Webster was instructed to get the men to the airfield under cover of darkness and hand them over to Moroccan security officers who had flown in earlier that day. Amekrane was subsequently shot by firing squad. Webster later gave evidence to a Foreign Office inquiry into the affair.
An attachment to HQ SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) in Bangkok was followed by a move to the Military Secretary’s department at the MoD. After returning from his 18-month tour in Ulster he became Chief of Staff HQ SE District at Aldershot and deputy to General Sir Tony Farrar-Hockley.
In 1979 he attended the National Defence College in Delhi; he and his wife made many friends in the Indian Armed Forces and developed a lifelong affection for the country. He returned to the MoD the following year as Director of Administration Planning (Army) and played a notable part in the logistics support for the Falklands campaign.
In a tribute to his services, a colleague said: “Bryan Webster has shown a tenacity, operational foresight, and ability to lead, that has been an inspiration.” He was appointed CBE and promoted to major general.
As Director of Army Quartering from 1982 until 1986 he was responsible for the provision of living, working and training accommodation for the Army worldwide, a task that involved extensive travel. He then retired from the Army and was appointed CB.
He joined a leading firm of chartered surveyors in London as their head of administration, and also became a tour leader for a travel company. He led tours – filled with his friends – to India and Africa, as well as continuing to play a part in the management of his Regiment. He was Deputy Colonel, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (City of London) from 1976 to 1989.
His interest in the Peninsular War took him to Albuera, where the Royal Fusiliers had distinguished themselves in battle. His interests also included ornithology, shooting and wine, and for some years he was on the council of the Wine Guild of the UK.
Bryan Webster married, in 1957, Elizabeth (Liz) Smithers, who survives him with their two sons and a daughter.
Major General Bryan Webster, born February 2 1931, died December 10 2019.
Taken from The Telegraph
Webster briefing his platoon during the Korean War
Webster greets the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, on a visit to Ulster in 1975
Webster with Harold Wilson and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, on the Londonderry city walls
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