Fusiliers of Interest
Lieutenant General Sir George Lea KCB DSO MBE
The last Colonel, XX The Lancashire Fusiliers
Sir George Harris Lea, (1912-1990) was born on 28 December 1912 at Franche, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, the eldest in the family of two sons and three daughters of George Percy Lea, chairman of the family textile business, and his wife, Jocelyn Clare, née Lea (his mother and father were distant cousins). Educated at Charterhouse School and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he was commissioned into XX The Lancashire Fusiliers in 1933. Lea was handsome, broad, and tall-well over 6 feet-a robust and skilful games player, but a gentle and considerate man. He served in Britain, China, and India with the Regiment before the Second World War.
In India in 1941, Lea was among the first to join airborne forces, becoming in 1943 brigade major of 4th Parachute Brigade during operations with the 1st Airborne Division in Italy. Within this organization was 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.
The 11th Battalion had proved
to be something of a problem after a series of administrative mishaps,
and also the previous commanding officer was not a firm enough man to
whip the Battalion into shape. So in early 1944 he was relieved of his
post and replaced by George Lea, then Brigade Major, who was promoted
to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In the coming months he made much progress
in bringing the 11th Battalion up to speed.
He continued his service with
airborne forces in India and at home, and in staff posts with the Royal
Marine commando brigade and NATO, as a lieutenant colonel, prior to taking
command of the Special Air Service regiment in 1955. Revived for the emergency
in Malaya, the unit lacked direction. Within ten days of his arrival,
a sergeant remarked: "the whole outfit came to life. He stretched
us-and himself-to the limit, but we could see it was leading to an operational
Fellow Lancashire Fusiliers who served with 22 SAS, or its predecessor the Malayan Scouts, included Major John Harrington, Captain Ian Cartright, Captain Billy Crawshaw, Captain Ray England, Captain Rodney Carey, Staff Sergeant "Rocky" Mountain, Sergeant 'Chopper' Essex, Corporal Geoff Brighouse, Corporal Geordie Plant and Corporal Harry Goodman. A young Lieutenant Peter de la Cour de la Billiere of the Durham Light Infantry, who was later to command, also joined the Regiment during his tenure.
In the summer of 1955, a squadron
of SAS was raised in New Zealand and after rigorous selection and basic
training arrived in Malaya towards the end of the year, where they carried
out their parachute course. The total strength of the squadron was 140,
a third of whom were Maoris who found it easy to work with the aborigine
tribesmen. After a brief shakedown period they went on to make a valuable
contribution to the strength. Another squadron was added at the end of
1955, formed from volunteers from the Parachute Regiment where it was
known as the Parachute Regiment Squadron and commanded by Major Dudley
Coventry. These additions brought the strength of 22 SAS to 560 all ranks,
divided into five squadrons each with four troops of sixteen men, plus
headquarters personnel and attached specialists.
As a consequence of his success with 22 SAS, Lea was promoted directly to a brigade command in England in 1957. He was then competing with peers in the more favoured armoured warfare environment in Germany.
Appointment to command the 42nd Lancashire Territorial Division and North-West District in Preston, Lancashire, in 1962 appeared to limit his further employment. But he was selected in 1963 to the politically sensitive command of the armed forces of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, colonies moving imminently to self-government. His political tact and decisive containment of dissident groups were judged exemplary. As this task concluded, he was chosen to succeed General Walter Walker as Director of Borneo Operations early in 1965. His successive aides-de-camp during these three command appointments were Captains John Steeds, Lawrence Stacey and Christopher Berry of XX The Lancashire Fusiliers.
Responsibility for the civil government of the former British Borneo territories had passed to Malaysia, whose authority was disputed by neighbouring Indonesia and Chinese communists in Sarawak. Lea was required to secure a mountainous border 1000 miles in length amid dense jungle, and to pacify the communist faction. He served three authorities: the British commander-in-chief in Singapore, the Malaysian government in Kuala Lumpur, and, to an extent, the Sultan of Brunei.
Lea possessed only a proportion of the powers necessary to ensure the co-operation of civil government, the Malaysian police and armed services, and the Australian and New Zealand sea, land, and air elements which reinforced his British forces from time to time. The rest depended upon goodwill, which he won by his open manner, humour, and modesty. Nothing ruffled him. Even when his wooden house caught fire and he lost in minutes the greater part of his personal possessions, he continued as if it were a matter of the least importance.
Making adroit use of air and sea resources, Lea developed the policy of pre-emptive cross-border strikes by his troops, while containing the Chinese communists with police backed by military units. The success of these methods contributed to the change of political leadership in Jakarta and the emergence of an accord between Indonesia and Malaysia in 1966.
Promoted to lieutenant general, he was posted in 1967 to Washington, DC, as head of the British Services Joint Mission, the link between the British and American Joint Chiefs of Staff. Maintaining the close alliance in a period of British economic difficulty and defence retrenchment was not easy. But the Americans opened their offices and confidences to him more fully than protocol demanded, because they liked and respected him, as the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs observed on his retirement in 1970. He had evoked similar responses throughout the greater part of his professional life
Colonel of XX The Lancashire
Fusiliers from 1965 to 1968, George Lea was deputy colonel and then colonel
(1974-7) of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. He was appointed MBE (1950),
CB (1964), KCB (1967), and to the DSO (1957). For his services in Borneo,
he was made Dato Seri Setia, Order of Paduka Stia Negara, Brunei (1965).
He retired to live in Jersey and died at home in St Brelade, Jersey, on
27 December 1990.