Obituary: Ben Strachan

Major Benjamin Leckie Strachan CMG. Soldier and diplomat. Born: 4 January, 1924 in Edinburgh. Died: 12 July, 2016, in Strachan, Aberdeenshire, aged 92

Major Benjamin Leckie Strachan CMG. Soldier and diplomat. Picture: contributed

As a soldier, Ben Strachan had a lot to live up to: his father was a gallant doctor who had been decorated with the Military Cross for rescuing wounded under fire during the Great War.

It was perhaps not surprising then that, going into battle wearing his father’s old military uniform, he performed similar heroics a generation later, rescuing his driver when their armoured car was blown up and being Mentioned in Dispatches after dodging explosions paddling solo across a stretch of water to identify enemy positions.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Unfortunately the old Great War uniform got him into a little more trouble, accused of spying because of his suspicious, unusual clothing. The truth was slightly more prosaic – the long-armed, gangly 6ft 4in officer had simply been unable to find a Second World War uniform to fit.

It was just one of a number of extraordinary episodes in the life of the Edinburgh-born soldier who went on to forge a diplomatic career that took him from Kuwait and Jordan to Canada and then war-torn Beirut where he met Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat. His last posting was in Algiers where he and Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis flew over the desert to locate the Prime Minister’s missing son Mark, who had disappeared during the 1982 Paris to Dakar car rally.

The son of Charles Strachan and his wife Annie, a member of the family who founded Crieff Hydro, the schoolboy attended Rossall boarding school in Lancashire on a scholarship and won another to Oxford University but decided to volunteer for the Army instead. He was commissioned into the Royal Dragoons at 18 and saw action with the Armoured Corps in France and Germany during the Second World War.

He was wounded twice during his army career. The first occasion was as he led armoured cars in the advance through Holland. Whilst clearing houses he decided to investigate a sighting of enemy soldiers nearby but his vehicle was blown up by a panzerfaust anti-tank weapon launched from the last house. Knocked unconscious, when he came to he confirmed his gunner was dead, jumped from the burning wreckage and ran. Then, realising he had not checked his driver, he ran back to the blazing vehicle and rescued his comrade but was shot in the leg as they ran for cover.

Captured as they attempted to shelter in a crater, he was taken to a Dutch hospital where he was the only Allied soldier among the German wounded. He was interrogated by the Germans and accused of being a spy but a Dutch doctor apparently threw himself across his bed to prevent his patient being snatched from the hospital.

Playing chess with the German in the next bed, he marvelled that just a few days earlier he would have been trying to kill him. After becoming gravely ill from blood poisoning he was saved, in the nick of time, when the hospital was overrun by the Allies, and was flown back to Britain. On returning to the area more than half a century later, he discovered a street named Wilson Way, in memory of his driver who was killed there, and heard the story of how a “tall lieutenant” had been captured trying to free the town.

After the war he joined the 4th Hussars and was wounded for a second time during the Malayan Emergency, which erupted in 1948, when he was shot in the arm during an ambush. At the scene he saluted a senior officer with his wounded arm, not realising that the bullet had gone straight through the limb and lodged in his chest, just inches from his heart. A born survivor, he later went into the 10th Hussars, taking command of his regiment as major.

During his service he also studied at the Royal Military College of Science, learned Arabic at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the army’s Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies in Shemlan, Lebanon and served as an intelligence officer for MI5 and MI6 in Egypt.

After concluding his military career as deputy head of MI10 (technical intelligence) in London he went into the diplomatic service as head of the Middle East section of the Foreign Office’s counter-propaganda department and ran the information services of the British Colonial Government in Aden.

He followed that with stints in Kuwait as commercial attaché and at the British Embassy in Jordan. By this time he was married with children and when civil war broke out in 1970 he remained while his family was evacuated.

His next postings were in Canada, firstly as trade commissioner in Toronto and then as Consul General in Vancouver, before returning to the Middle East as ambassador to the Yemen Arab Republic in 1976 and, three years later, as ambassador to Lebanon, a job fraught with danger.

Whilst there he became the first senior British official to meet Yasser Arafat, in a private meeting that had not been sanctioned by the British government. It opened dialogue which continued until many years later the Oslo peace accord between Israel and the PLO was eventually signed.

He retired as ambassador to Algeria in 1984 but returned to the Foreign Office as a special adviser (Middle East) during the first Gulf War in 1990.

After an action-packed career he settled on his farm, Mill of Strachan in Aberdeenshire, where he started several business including a language school, trout fishery and importation of Algerian wine. He was also active in local politics, championing the Liberal Democrats and sitting on their policy committee.

In his 80s he was asked to stand as Chief of the Clan Strachan and, though unsuccessful, his son Rob is clan Commander and hopes to become clan chief.

A bundle of restless energy, Strachan read and studied throughout his life, completed a four-year maths degree in his 80s and becoming interested in philosophy.

He is survived by his second wife, Lize, sons Christian, Rob and Jamie, stepchildren Tricia and Chris and ten grandchildren.