Obituary: Michael James Ivey

Former military man who ploughed his experience into humanitarian projects. Picture: Contributed
Former military man who ploughed his experience into humanitarian projects. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 8 December, 1940. Died: 27 June, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 74.

Mike Ivey was educated at Staunton’s grammar school in Southampton. He was set on pursuing a military career, no doubt influenced by his father’s sense of accomplishment from his years with the Air Force, and by growing up in a city which had been heavily bombed during the war years.

In 1959 his excellent school record earned him a place at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, one of a small number of grammar school boys refused at first but then accepted after comment in the press had highlighted the bias at Sandhurst towards public school applicants. Mike enjoyed Sandhurst, did well, and was duly commissioned into 40 Squadron RASC, based in Cyprus.

By this time, the Makarios insurgency against the British in Cyprus was over. British forces were withdrawn to sovereign bases and the authorities of a newly independent Cyprus were supposedly keeping the peace in the rest of the country. But tension was high and violence between Greek and Turkish communities was not unusual.

The UN took on the role of peacekeeping and Mike soon had the difficult job of leading unarmed UN convoys across road blocks manned by hostile Greek militia, to deliver supplies to beleaguered Turkish enclaves. Occasionally he found himself extricating his men from developing hostage situations.

But perhaps his most memorable mission was to deliver fuel to a beleaguered group of Cambridge University archaeologists at Kufra, an oasis deep in the Libyan Sahara desert. The group was threatened by insurgents hostile to British rule and was rapidly running out of supplies. After a few hours’ training in navigation by sun compass, Mike and a cohort of raw recruits set off across the Med and then into the desert, where the intense heat caused some of their precious load of petrol to evaporate but they arrived safely, much to the joy of the grateful recipients.

In the close quarters of army life in Cyprus, lifelong friendships were formed and it was in this setting that Mike, now promoted to Captain, first met Ann, his future wife. Ann was a nurse and much in demand in as a midwife at the base.

Mike had developed a taste for desert life and when his next posting was due, he volunteered for the Social Oman Scouts. The War Office sent him to Brunei, a self-governing British dependency that had recently seceded from Malaysia.

The Sultan of Brunei, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin, was setting up a defence force with the aid of personnel seconded from the British Army and RAF, and a civilian helicopter company. Mike found himself in command of the Brunei navy, consisting of several motor patrol boats still under construction in Singapore, and the Sultan’s purchase of a new device, a hovercraft, not yet delivered.

Mike was despatched to Westlands Aircraft Ltd on the Isle of Wight for pilot training. Here he gained his hovercraft pilot’s wings, and incidentally was in the first party to cross the Channel in a hovercraft. Ann and Mike were married here before setting off on the Brunei adventure together.

Their time in Brunei proved to be exciting, part of a vibrant cosmopolitan army community with a new country to build. As O/C of the Sultan’s navy, Mike’s responsibilities included coastal patrols and rescue work, as well as ceremonial duties that included receptions at the palace.

In leisure time, Mike and Ann would travel up country in a river-taxi, spending the night with tribespeople in long-houses in the forest, or visiting the Great Caves of Niah in Sarawak. Both looked back on Brunei as a golden period of their life together.

Mike’s next posting was to BOAR in Germany, to Duisberg. He was often away from the base, taking part in mysterious secret exercises, supposedly anticipating World War 3. Ann was able to resume her nursing career. In 1967 an Inter-service unit was formed to evaluate the military potential of hovercraft and Mike was delighted to be posted to the 200 Hovercraft Trials Squadron of RASC, based in Gosport. Thereafter Mike was frequently away from home, travelling in Europe and Turkey, or in Norway for winter Arctic trials with the Norwegian Armed Forces.

The trials were deemed complete in 1969 and then came a posting to Canada as Staff Officer to set up a new army training unit in Alberta. Next, Mike organised troop movements at Cirencester. At Camberley he became the first Commander of 44 Squadron. While at Camberley, one of Mike’s more challenging assignments was to reorganise the transport arrangements for Sandhurst, with a view to greater economy.

No longer were all the officers of the rank of Lieut-Colonel and above to have a car and driver for their personal use. They were now required to use a vehicle from a car pool when in need of official transport. The proposal was not well received by those losing their individual privileges since Mike, a mere Major, was assigned his own car and driver for the duration of that job but diplomacy won the day.

Mike’s last military posting was to HQ Army Scotland at Craigie Hall, just outside Edinburgh. He was frequently away on exercises and on one of them, he met David Reeks, then a member of the Royal Engineers: later, they both independently volunteered for Edinburgh Direct Aid, and remembered their earlier meeting while organising humanitarian aid convoys.

Ann and Mike settled in Edinburgh after Mike’s early retirement from the army in 1979. Ann continued working as a nurse in one capacity or another until her retirement in 2001. Finding himself on Civvy Street for the first time in his life, Mike joined a travel company for one year before becoming administrator of the Protein Fractionation Unit of the Scottish Blood Transfusion Service for nine years. Next he served with Edinburgh Council and spent five years as a volunteer with the High Court Witness Service in Edinburgh. He remained committed to voluntary work thereafter.

In 1991 he joined Edinbugh Direct Aid’s third convoy to Bosnia. In those days, aid convoys passed over “Route-Triangle”, a hair-raising track which British army engineers had bulldozed through the mountains of Herzegovina to avoid shelling on the main road through Mostar. The route traversed swathes of contested territory, with unfriendly and threatening checkpoints. It was always a relief to get to the British UNPROFOR base at Vitez where Edinburgh Direct Aid’s convoys were sheltered, and the volunteers fed and watered.

I did not then know of Mike’s military background – in his polite and unassuming way, he hadn’t spoken much about himself – but at Vitez he clearly very much at home. While there, the army invited him to go out with an armoured escort to deliver aid to a remote village in hostile territory, and on his return he gave the impression that bullets flying overhead rather made his day, clearly reminding him of former times.

But Mike did more for Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) than travelling with convoys. He was responsible for managing EDA’s warehouse in the days when a 12-truck convoy was on the road to Bosnia every few months – a warehouse in which goods were collected and sorted, but which also functioned as a vehicle servicing base.

Mike, who usually turned up in faded military fatigues with hovercraft pilots wings still showing, imposed proper military order while he was in charge. He also had a spell as EDA treasurer and served on the management committee for many years.

Later, his interests focused on his and Ann’s other main social concern for Freedom from Torture and he became treasurer for the Edinburgh branch of the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture. But he always maintained his connection with EDA, turning up as occasion demanded. All of these interests and activities were maintained until his final illness. He was always welcoming, always friendly. He will be missed by many beside his family.