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John Graham

Soldier and diplomat;

Born: January 18, 1923; Died: December 14, 2012.

Major General John Graham, who has died aged 89, was Commanding Officer 1 Para and later commanded the multinational Sultan's Armed Forces in Oman before becoming GOC Wales.

Maj Gen Graham was a remarkable man. He was a professional soldier, linguist, author, diplomat and the beneficiary of the Freedom of the City of London. He enlisted in the Argyll & Sunderland Highlanders as a private soldier and by the age of 21 was already a Major and had fought in north-west Europe during the Second World War as Adjutant and Company Commander in the second Battalion. He was also Mentioned in Despatches in 1945.

At the end of the war he decided to stay in the army and thus began a career which lasted until 1978 and took him to more than 60 countries and a variety of those conflicts which were a continuous feature of the Cold War.

His military career, however, nearly came to an abrupt end. The regimental hierarchy made it clear they disapproved of his proposed marriage with a Guianese girl whom he met while serving in the colony of British Guiana (now Guyana), but they married nevertheless. Fortunately, not everyone shared the advice handed down to the young Graham and he remained in the army. The marriage proved not only to be a great success but they remained totally devoted to each other and their two children.

Much of his service was in the Foreign Office, the British Embassy in Czechoslovakia and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Parachute Regiment. Further postings followed. The most challenging was his job as Brigadier to the Omani forces at a time of great turbulence in the Persian Gulf.

He had the difficult task of planning and supervising the Salalah coup d'état on July 23, 1970, which secured the abdication of the then Sultan and his removal to the UK, and the installation of his son, Qaboos, the present Sultan.

On arrival in Muscat he took over an army, air force, tiny navy and auxiliary police force with a combined strength smaller than 4000 in a country the size of the UK. It was ruled by Sultan Said bin Taimur, whose inflexible nature and repressive policies caused nine-tenths of the rich southern province of Dhofar to fall under the brutal control of rebels and outside forces.

At the end of the 1971 monsoon, the Sultan's armed forces, reinforced by the SAS and native firqas, began the process of retaking the rebel-held areas on the Dhofar jebel. Two years later the main military positions were secured, helped by the bold operation of the SAS in defending Mirbat, which became the turning point and ended the war in 1975 in total victory.

When he left Oman in 1972 he handed over an army of 11,000, an air force of 49 aircraft and a growing navy of modern warships.

He never spoke publicly about his role. This is not surprising, given the sensitivity and secrecy of the operation. What is certain is that he was admired and held in high regard by many in Oman.

Typically, he wished for no personal accolades. His view was that the credit that flowed should be enjoyed by those who had contributed to that decisive operation. To some he was the "Lawrence of Oman".

The following year he was posted to New Delhi at the Indian National Defence College. This was a wise move on the part of London. India had close interest in the Gulf affairs, especially her military contribution in manning and modernising Oman's armed forces and civil infrastructure.

In 1976 he was promoted to Major General and General Officer Commanding (GOC) Wales.

John David Carew Graham was born into a Scottish family whose members had included James Graham, Marquess of Montrose; General Sir Thomas Graham, who had raised in 1794 a regiment which was to become the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), and who as Lord Lynedoch founded the United Service Club (now the Institute of Directors) in London; and Colonel John Graham, 13th of Fintry for whom the town of Grahamstown in South Africa is named.

The eldest of three sons, he was educated at Fernden School in Haslemere and at Cheltenham College. His ambition was to take up a career in the diplomatic service but like many others of the time this was upset by the outbreak of the Second World War. Instead he chose not to follow his grandfathers into the Royal Berkshire Regiment but enlisted in 1941 as a private soldier in the Argyll & Sunderland Highlanders.

Two years later he was commissioned and sent to France. His baptism of fire came with the launch of Operation Epsom, aimed at exploiting a gap between 12th SS Panzer and the armoured division Panzer Lehr. His unit captured intact two bridges essential to the advance over the River Odon, south-west of Caen. Later, he became a casualty during the Rhine Crossing, soon after the war ended.

He had always been interested in the airborne arm and at the end of 1946 was seconded to the Parachute Regiment for a tour of duty with the 5th (Scottish) Parachute Regiment in Hampshire and Schleswig-Holstein. Two years later the Berlin blockade and airlift occurred, and as he already knew some Russian, secured a place at London University to learn Czech. After a year at the British embassy in Prague he was employed on sensitive work at GCHQ.

A fluent French speaker, he was posted to Fontainebleau in France in the appointment of Military Assistance to the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces Europe, a major Nato command. There he met Maurice Challe, a senior French General, who later was to lead an unsuccessful coup against General de Gaulle, a folly for which he was sentenced to 15 years.

After France he was invited to become the second in command of 2 Para station in Bahrain, where Britain maintained a strong military force as part of her commitment to defend Kuwait. This posting introduced him to the issues of the Persian Gulf. Two years later he was selected to command 1 Para, a challenge which he seized with enthusiasm.

His energy and zest seem to have rubbed off on his subordinates, for on the conclusion of the annual inspection, the inspecting officer reported: "This is the best unit with which I have ever been associated. To write more would be superfluous; to write less would be unjust."

On retirement in 1978 he and his wife, Rosemary, an accomplished poet and artist, moved to Kent and he took up the post of administrator of Chevening, the country house of the Foreign Secretary. Eleven years later, when his tours of voluntary appointments came to an end, he planned to settle down with Rosemary in their Barnes house to write his memoirs, Ponder Anew: Reflection on the Twentieth Century. The book was written but he was on the move again.

This time his wife took him on a short visit to Guyana, her place of birth, and on the way back they stayed for 10 days in Barbados. After 48 hours they decided to stay and bought a house, and had been there ever since.

In 2007 he co-authored Caribbean Wars Untold: A Salute to the British West Indies, which was published by the University of the West Indies and won its award for best selling general interest book.

He is survived by his wife Rosemary Elaine Graham (née Adamson) and two children, Jacqueline ("Pinkie") and Christopher.

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