Sandy Boswell was the unflappable Army commander tasked with leading the 39th Infantry Brigade in Belfast in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday.
He took command in 1972 as The Troubles were at their height: 13 Roman Catholic civil rights protesters had been shot by British soldiers in Londonderry that January and more than a dozen were injured.
By the summer he was involved in Operation Motorman, one of the British Army’s biggest military operations since the Second World War, a huge initiative with many thousands of soldiers flooding towns to successfully regain control of Northern Ireland’s no-go areas in Belfast, Londonderry and other urban areas.
Boswell, with classic understatement, described it as “never a dull moment”. But then he was a veteran of various hotspots around the world including Korea, Berlin during the erection of the wall, Suez and Borneo – the latter earning him a Mention in Despatches.
Born to Scottish parents in Malaya, where his father worked in the Malayan Forestry Service, he was educated at Edinburgh’s Cargilfield and Merchiston Castle Schools, serving as an officer in Merchiston’s Combined Cadet Force.
Although there was no family tradition of soldiering, the army provided an adventurous alternative to a career in the family’s leather goods business in Edinburgh’s Hanover Street and he enlisted in 1947. He was commissioned into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders the following year from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
For the best part of the next decade he served at home and abroad, notably in Hong Kong, British Guiana, Suez and in Korea, where he was an intelligence officer. With the role came responsibility for laying out the recognition panels that allowed Allied aircraft to distinguish their own troops’ position from those of the enemy. But during the brutal battle for Hill 282 US aircraft attacked the Argylls’ position, dropping napalm and turning the hill into an inferno. As the fighting went on Boswell was tortured by doubt , but it later became crystal clear that the error was in the sky and not on the ground.
While in Korea he inadvertently went AWOL after being sent behind the front line to find the body of a fellow officer killed in a separate battle. Having swiftly achieved his mission, he accepted a lift in a US aircraft that was returning to the Argylls’ area. But he was horrified when he discovered – too late – that the flight was going via Tokyo, where he spent several days desperately trying to resume his journey. Somehow he managed to return without anyone discovering the detour.
In 1960 he began two years as military assistant to the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Berlin’s British Sector as the Berlin Wall was built. He recalled: “The latest intelligent report promised a minimum of 48 hours’ warning. In the event the East German army appeared and started building with no notice. A busy, fascinating and rewarding appointment.”
The mid-1960s saw him as company commander, then second-in-command in Edinburgh, Singapore and in Borneo where he was Mentioned in Despatches for operations to combat Indonesian infiltration across the border during the violent conflict. A spell on the directing staff of the Staff College Camberley followed before he was finally appointed commanding officer in 1968. But the news was bittersweet as it came at the same time as a plan to disband the 1st Battalion within three years. A last-minute decision eventually saw a reduction in company strength rather than abolition. He then served as a colonel on the general staff at HQ Strategic Command before commanding 39 Infantry Brigade, for which he was made a CBE. Subsequent posts included Chief of Staff at HQ 1st British Corps until, in 1978, he became GOC, 2nd Armoured Division in Germany.
His tenure as GOC Scotland and Governor of Edinburgh Castle, which saw him awarded a military knighthood, came after a couple of years in London as director of the Territorial Army and Cadets, another rewarding appointment.
Although proud of the Edinburgh Castle role, it was rather tame after his previous postings and he did not appreciate the politics surrounding the castle and the Tattoo. When new defence secretary Michael Heseltine reputedly summoned all senior military commanders to explain how they justified their existence, Boswell’s retort, “I eat and drink for Scotland”, went down like a lead balloon.
But he had always had a special interest in young people and, as most of the forces in Scotland were Territorial Army and Cadets, he found that part of the job very satisfying. That theme continued when, in 1985, he became Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Bailiwick of Guernsey.
He and his wife Jocelyn, who met on a troopship en route to the West Indies, threw themselves into island life and he developed a special scheme for Guernsey’s teenagers. Determined to find a way to better connect Government House to local youngsters, and to recognise exceptional members of uniformed youth organisations, he established Lieutenant-Governor’s cadets. The first were sworn in in 1988 and each year around half a dozen youngsters become part of the Government House team assisting His Excellency with official duties, including helping to conduct Royal Visits and assisting with ceremonial functions.
The post had been “a wonderful bonus” at the end of a long service career and the couple retired to Gifford, East Lothian.
Boswell, who was predeceased by his wife, is survived by their sons Leslie, Lorne, Lindsay, Lyall and Louis, eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
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