Obituary: Col Ralph Stewart-Wilson of Balnakeilly

Landowner and soldier who displayed great guile and daring in Italy during the war. Picture: Contributed
Landowner and soldier who displayed great guile and daring in Italy during the war. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 26 January, 1923 in Bridge of Earn. Died: 2 February, 2015, in Dundee, aged 92.

He was barely 21 but Ralph Stewart-Wilson already embodied all the qualities of leadership required to face down the enemy and command a scout platoon under relentless fire in the aftermath of the bloody battle for Monte Cassino.

While confidence, courage and tactical judgment were prerequisites – and attributes he possessed in abundance – it was the guile and daring he displayed during a mission to identify German-held territory that marked him out in May 1944.

A young lieutenant with the 10th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, he was on reconnaissance, operating in the Liri Valley north-west of Cassino, when he was ordered to take his carrier platoon forward to establish whether the Germans controlled the town of Aquino, a key point on the Adolf Hitler Line.

Just after dawn on 19 May he led his men forward. One section shot up an enemy roadblock, the other, accompanied by Stewart-Wilson, took out a large German anti-tank gun at 30 yards’ range but then came under heavy machine-gun fire with his carrier being knocked out, set ablaze and the wireless destroyed.

Despite concentrated machine gun and mortar fire, and in full view of the enemy, he dismounted and proceeded to move across the open ground, giving orders and directing the fire of his two sections. With complete disregard for his own safety, he continued to command his men from an exposed position in the open, inflicting many casualties on the enemy which was forced to redeploy its positions.

Having discovered the strength and positions of the enemy, it should have been time to pull back but his platoon’s withdrawal was blocked when a carrier at the back of the line was hit by another mortar round. Ordering the rest of the platoon to return on foot, he elected to remain, telling them he would stay for “a bit”, look around and rejoin his men later.

That solo scouting exercise stretched on for the next six hours while he stealthily traversed the town, precisely pinpointing enemy positions.

All the time he was just 100 yards from the Germans, who were aware of his presence and tried but failed to hunt him down.

He personally brought back fresh information providing such a detailed description of German defences that an imminent attack by the Allies was called off and a new brigade brought in to launch a much greater offensive the next day, a decision that undoubtedly saved numerous lives.

Later, when asked how he had managed to survive under the noses of the enemy, he explained: “There was nothing the Germans could teach me about stalking – after all, I had been brought up in the Perthshire hills.”

Stewart-Wilson was awarded the Military Cross for his valour that day. After the Second World War ended he became a regular soldier and went on to serve with distinction on anti-terrorist operations in Kenya and Malaya and take command of the 1st Battalion, Staffordshire Regiment before retiring from army life to return to Perthshire as a hill farmer and, on the death of his mother, 11th Laird of Balnakeilly.

Born in Bridge of Earn, he was the son of Aubyn Wilson and Muriel Stewart-Stevens, the 10th of Balnakeilly. His sister Prue later became Lady Penn and a Lady in Waiting to HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, his younger brother was the late Sir Blair Stewart-Wilson, a Deputy Master of the Royal Household and Equerry to HM The Queen, and his step-brother was the late Sir Jocelyn Stevens, publisher, newspaper executive and chairman of English Heritage.

As a three-year-old he and his sister sailed with their mother to Australia, where his father had a sheep farming station near Melbourne. After his father’s death in 1934 they returned to Britain where young Ralph was educated at Eton. In April 1942, aged 19, he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade and served with the 10th Battalion from the landings in Algiers until the German surrender in Tunis in 1943.

Then, in Italy the following year, after the long fight to capture the monastery of Monte Cassino, he excelled on the battlefield, displaying the courage that won him the MC and, remarkably, losing just one man in the Italian campaign.

He ended the war in Austria and spent most of the next decade with the British Army of the Rhine before going on operational duties, as B Company Commander 1 Rifle Brigade to Kenya, against the Mau Mau, and Malaya during the Emergency there in 1956-57.

Later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he took command of 1 Staffords, a regiment then recently created from the merger of North and South Staffords. Facing a difficult challenge in bringing a new regiment together harmoniously, he succeeded after declaring he was neither a North nor a South Stafford but a proud Stafford and expected the officers and men to join him, which they did.

After promotion to colonel and a tour in the Ministry of Defence, he left the army in 1971 and moved north again to farm at Tulliemet on the Atholl Estates and to manage the nearby family estate at Balnakeilly.

He also ran grouse shooting across the local moors of Tulliemet, Edradour and Balnakeilly, once inviting an entire team of Green Jacket generals as his guests, one of whom he caught practising his vehicle escape drill in anticipation of his host rolling his truck down a peat hag.

He moved to Balnakeilly, as the 11th Laird, on the death of his mother in 1982, maintaining a line of succession stretching back 463 years.

A member of the Atholl Highlanders since 1948 and of the Royal Company of Archers (the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland), since 1962, he was deeply involved in his local communities of Moulin and Pitlochry, particularly in the Moulin Hall and re-formed Curling Club, the Moulin Hotel of which he was landlord and the Bowling Club which he served as president.

A lifelong interest in golf, sparked as a boy when he used to observe and follow the golfers on the Links while visiting his grandfather’s holiday home in St Andrews, culminated in life membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews which, along with his life membership of the MCC, allowed him to achieve a rare double.

He was also a keen ornithologist and greatly interested in and involved with the Stewart Society.

Married for 65 years to Rosalind, whom he met in 1948, he is survived by her, their children Maria, Lorna and Aubyn and extended family.