|Robert Elliott Urquhart
Urquhart outside his headquarters during
Operation Market Garden
|Born||28 November 1901|
|Died||13 December 1988(aged 87)|
|Years of service||1920–1955|
|Unit||Highland Light Infantry|
Major General Robert "Roy" Elliott Urquhart, CB, DSO (28 November 1901 – 13 December 1988) was a British military officer. He became prominent for his role commanding the British 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden.
Educated at St. Paul's School, London, Urquhart attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst before being commissioned into the Highland Light Infantry in 1920. When stationed in Malta with his battalion he became friends with Academy Award winning actor David Niven. In his autobiography, "The Moon's A Balloon", Niven described Urquhart as, "A serious soldier of great charm and warmth..."
Second World War service
Urquhart was serving in India during the early years of the Second World War. He remained there until 1941 when he was posted to North Africa before an appointment as a staff officer in the 3rd Division in the UK. Thereafter, his career accelerated. Between 1941 and 1942, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and commanded the 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry until 1943, when he was appointed as a staff officer in the 51st Infantry Division, which was stationed in North Africa. For a short time, he commanded the British 231st Infantry Brigade, which faced action in Sicily.
Until 1944, he was a senior staff officer in XII Corps. However, in that year, he was given command of the 1st Airborne Division. Its former commander (Major-General George F. Hopkinson) had been killed in Italy, and his successor, Brigadier Ernest Down had been given a command in India. Ironically, Urquhart was prone to airsickness and had never commanded or, for that matter, been a member of an airborne unit. Although a newcomer to airborne operations, Urquhart commanded his division during Operation Market-Garden in September 1944 as it was dropped into Arnhem in the Netherlands in an attempt to secure a crossing over the River Rhine. For nine days Urquhart's division fought unsupported against armoured units of the II SS Panzer Corps. Suffering increasingly heavy casualties, the British airborne forces desperately held on to an ever-shrinking defensive perimeter until orders were received for the remnants of the division to withdraw across the Rhine on 25 September. During these nine days of heavy fighting the 1st Airborne Division had lost over three-quarters of its strength. Shattered as a fighting formation, the division was withdrawn to the UK and saw no further action in the Second World War. Urquhart was awarded the Dutch Bronze Lion for his command.
In May 1945, following the German surrender, Urquhart led a reconstituted 1st Airborne Division as the advanced guard of Force 134 in Operation Doomsday, the Allied occupation of Norway. During its time in Norway, the division was tasked with supervising the surrender of the German forces, as well as preventing the sabotage of vital military and civilian facilities. Due to delays in troop arrivals, Urquhart ended up driving into Oslo in a captured German staff car, accompanied only by four military policemen and two platoons from 2nd Battalion the South Staffordshire Regiment. Until the arrival of other units from Force 134, as well as the Headquarters of Allied Forces, Norway, Major General Urquhart and his headquarter staff had complete control over all Norwegian activities. This meant that it was Urquhart who welcomed Crown Prince Olaf of Norway and three ministers representing the Norwegian Government when they arrived on a Royal Navy cruiser. General Thorne arrived on 13 May to take command of all Allied troops in Norway and at the end of August, 1st Airborne Division returned to the UK and disbanded. Urquhart was rewarded with the Norwegian Order of St Olaf.
Following the end of the war Urquhart served in several staff positions, including service as the General Officer Commanding Malaya (1950–1952) during the Malayan Emergency. He also commanded the 16th Airborne Division, a Territorial Army formation, from 1947 to 1948, then the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division until 1950. Urquhart retired from the army in 1955.
After leaving the army Urquhart became an executive in the heavy engineering industry, retiring in 1970. In 1958 Urquhart published Arnhem: Britain's Infamous Airborne Assault of World War II (ISBN 0-9644704-3-8) detailing his exploits in the battle.
Urquhart was portrayed by Sean Connery in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, for which he himself served as a military consultant. Despite his earlier-mentioned friendship with David Niven, in a publication about the filming of the movie, he was quoted as saying that he wasn't much of a movie fan himself and didn't understand why his daughters were so excited at Connery's selection to play him.
Urquhart and his wife Pamela had four children, among them Elspeth Campbell (wife of the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party Menzies Campbell) and Suki Urquhart, author of The Scottish Gardener.
In his memoirs, Campbell says that Urquhart told Elspeth's first husband, Philip Grant-Suttie, "there's no need to be formal; just call me General", and that he also insisted on tasting all the food and champagne for Elspeth and Menzies' wedding before paying for it. He is also known to have told his daughter never to trust men who bought half-bottles of wine; Campbell bought Elspeth a full bottle on their first date.
Major General Urquhart died on 13 December 1988, aged 87 years.
- Urquhart, R. E., Arnhem: Britain's Infamous Airborne Assault of WW II, Royal Pub. Co., London 1995 (1st edition 1958)
- Private Papers of Major General R E Urquhart CB DSO can be found in the Imperial War Museum, Documents and Sound section, ref: Documents.15783 (07/64/1-12).
|General Officer Commanding 1st Airborne Division
|General Officer Commanding 16th Airborne Division
Sir Charles Boucher
Sir Hugh Stockwell