Major Colin Herbert Bligh

Officer who captured an Italian airfield and later survived an air crash in Somalia.

Major Colin BLIGH who captured Forli airfield on the road to Bologna in November 1944, when at the age of 20 he was commanding a troop of three Churchill tanks of the 51st Royal Tank Regiment. Following a night reconnaissance, which entailed lifting mines to clear an entrance on to the airfield, he led his tanks at first light across the airfield in a “silent” attack without the preliminary artillery bombardment which was customary at that time. The enemy was taken by surprise and the follow up infantry took many prisoners. Having achieved his objective and captured the airfield buildings Bligh found himself behind the German defensive positions along the river Ronco to his right flank and with a clear field of fire down a straight one mile stretch of roadway which the enemy had to cross; his tanks inflicted many casualties on the retreating Germans throughout the day. With the aid of rocket firing aircraft a counter attack by enemy tanks was beaten off and the advance towards Bologna took another hesitant step forward. Bligh was mentioned in despatches for his part in this action which he regarded as his only decisive contribution towards winning the war.

Having enlisted in the Young Soldiers Battalion of the Royal Armoured Corps, Bligh was commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment aged 19 and within months he was drafted overseas to Italy as an armoured corps reinforcement. However, on arrival he and a score of other young tank officers found themselves posted to infantry regiments such was the shortage of infantry soldiers and platoon commanders following the casualties on the invasion beaches at Salerno – even complete armoured regiments had been temporarily taken out of their tanks and deployed as infantry. On posting to 2/4 Bn The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry there was only one other platoon commander in the company he joined in the mountains on the approaches to Monte Cassino which was to defy capture for almost six months. Accidently injured when a jeep overturned, and after two months in hospital, he managed to return to the Royal Tank Regiment; his brief experience as an infantry soldier left him with a lasting admiration for the cheerful fortitude of the ordinary infantryman, who lived and died in the most atrocious conditions of fatigue, cold, wet and the constant danger from bullet, shell and anti-personnel mines.

At the end of the war Bligh was awarded a regular commission in the Royal Tank Regiment and served extensively overseas – for thirteen of his seventeen years service.

He joined the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment in Austria but returned to Italy with them to counter the threat of Marshal Tito’s designs on the disputed port of Trieste and later he moved with his regiment to join the British Army of Occupation in Germany.

A short spell at the age of 21 as a Staff Captain at the Headquarters of 4th Armoured Brigade was followed by a posting to Palestine as an Air Liaison Officer during the troubles at the end of British mandate in 1948; Bligh then took the opportunity to return to Africa where he had been born and volunteered to serve with African soldiers.

On his way by air from Kenya to join the 1st (EA) Armoured Car Squadron, in what was then British Somaliland, the ancient twin engine Avro Anson aircraft in which, as the only passenger, he was travelling with freight got lost after the navigator’s map blew out of the cockpit window during a severe thunderstorm over Mt. Kenya. Consequently the pilot lost his way and the plane ran out of petrol but not before the pilot had found the coast of Somalia and was following it northwards to Mogadishu where they were more than an hour overdue. When the plane ran out of fuel and the engines spluttered into silence the pilot carried out a “wheels up” crash landing on the beach, resulting in the plane somersaulting when it unluckily fouled a wadi which caused it to trip over onto its back.

With the armoured car squadron he saw service in both British and occupied Italian Somalilands as they were known then, and he was involved in keeping the peace, riot control and “showing the flag” patrols in support of the Colonial administration in such far flung areas as Abyssinia and Uganda.

While temporarily in command of the armoured car squadron, Bligh – an African colonial by birth – was able to use his empathy with, and understanding of the African soldiers, to defuse a mutinous incident by the whole Squadron. Following an ill-humoured drill parade taken by the European Squadron Sergeant Major, all 120 soldiers and N.C.Os simply sat down on the parade ground and refused to be dismissed to their duties. Unrest had been simmering for some time because the Squadron, on its way back to Kenya after three years duty in British Somaliland, had been diverted back to Mogadishu to help control rioting by the indigenous Somali population against their defeated Italian colonial administrators; as far as the soldiers were concerned, the ”white man” had gone back on his word. The matter was diplomatically resolved internally through the African Squadron Sergeant Major and senior N.C.Os, but to protect the reputation of the squadron, it was not reported to any higher authority except to the Squadron Commander on his return.

Following two years with the armoured car squadron, of which he was Second in Command, he was appointed ADC to the General Officer commanding East Africa Command in Nairobi.

In this capacity Bligh accompanied his General on visits to all the Governors and military Commanders in East Africa from Aden to Zimbabwe via Mauritius, Zambia and French Madagasca and to Petoria for the funeral of Field Marshal Smuts.

When he returned to regimental duty with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment first in England and then in Germany he was appointed Adjutant and made a name for himself as an administrator by re-writing Regimental Standing Orders which had been in abeyance since the outbreak of war in 1939; a strict disciplinarian he never the less had a reputation for fairness.

In 1956 Bligh attended the staff College Camberly and afterwards, on promotion to Major, he went to Jordan as the Senior Staff Officer at the Headquarters of “O” Force, a small garrison guarding strategic military stores at Aqaba at the head of the Persian Gulf.

He was appointed MBE following his organisation of the successful evacuation of the garrison and all the military stores that the shortage of shipping would allow – surpluses had to be sold to the Jordanian Army and Arab traders who, aware of the limited shipping and the short time available, tried to drive prices down, obliging Bligh to dump two much sought after Land Rover vehicles off the jetty into the sea in order to demonstrate his determination not to give way on the realistic prices being asked. It worked.

The unexplained crash of one of the RAF Valetta transport planes carrying 22 troops out of Aqaba created a fall in the morale of the soldiers being evacuated by air – outstanding leadership by the commanding officer of 17121st Lancers who spontaneously boarded the next plane with his Adjutant restored a critical crisis of confidence. The final evacuation and handover to the Jordanian Army took place with full military formalities and Bligh and his Commander sailed away to Aden in HMS Mermaid.

Jordan was followed by a spell in Cyprus during the EOKA troubles and finally an appointment at the War Office in London where, as a consequence of army cuts and the eight Royal Tank Regiments being reduced to four, he took a “golden bowler” and went to Guys Hospital from where he qualified as a dental surgeon five and a half years later. He always remained a soldier at heart.

Colin Herbert Bligh was born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) the second son of a tobacco planter from Sevenoaks in Kent and he always regarded himself as one of the old colonials for whom he had a life-long admiration and an intolerance of the “politically correct” critical denigration of the old British Empire which was much more at peace with itself then than it is today.

Educated at Caterham School in Surrey, where he gained his colours for rugby and at the Royal Military College Sandhurst; following his military career which he himself chose to cut short, he joined his brother in dental practice in Crowborough where he lived among his patients and despite its shortcomings and frequent political interference he was and remained a staunch up-holder of the NHS until his retirement at the age of 69. He specialised, and not without success, in preventative dentistry and to this day his children remain examples of what could be achieved.

In retirement Bligh regarded himself as a part-time peasant; he lived simply, was a keen gardener, a modest silversmith and a supporter of various Service charities and especially Service widows whose treatment by successive Governments he considered to be reprehensible.

A very private man with a kindly disposition sharpened only by an intolerance of inefficiency; Bligh was a loyal friend and in his youth a good horseman and competent show jumper; he played his first and only chukka of polo at the age of 82 on his son-in-law’s estancia in Argentina.

Colin Bligh married in 1962 Hazel Thomas, who predeceased him, and is survived by their two daughters and eight grandchildren.

A devoted husband, father and grandfather.