General Sir John Bryan Akehurst
(12 February 1930 – 20 February 2007)
General Sir John Akehurst, who has died aged 77, commanded the Dhofar Brigade which played a key part in defeating a 10-year insurrection against the Sultan of Oman.
Dhofar province in western Oman shared a frontier with the newly independent People's Republic of South Yemen, and was almost entirely in the hands of Marxist rebels in 1970. After five years the sultan had done little to retain the allegiance of the fiercely independent Dhofari tribesmen, and his son, Sultan Qaboos, had seized power in a palace coup.
When Oman's oil revenues increased sharply the new sultan expanded his forces, but he had to regain control of the province before he could start to modernise the country and win back the support of his people.
The future Lieutenant-General Sir Johnny Watts of the SAS then put forward a plan to recruit firqats, bands of local fighting men who were prepared to take up arms against their former comrades. As rebels surrendered, those prepared to support the new sultan were organised by the SAS into these tribal groups. They were avaricious, unreliable and unruly. But Akehurst believed that, if their homelands could be secured and wells dug for their cattle, they would return to these areas against outside interference and persuade other insurgents that it was in their interest to change sides.
The firqat leaders were enthusiastic, and the plan was implemented. The enemy quickly realised what was happening; some of the operations to secure the regions were fiercely contested, but they were successful. In November 1975, at his birthday celebrations, the sultan asked Akehurst how the war was going. "Well, Your Majesty," Akehurst replied, "I reckon you have won it!"
John Bryan Akehurst, the son of a bank manager, was born at Chatham on February 12 1930. At the age of two, his mother liked to recount, he got very drunk when his pram was parked carelessly next to some beer crates stacked with partly empty bottles.
Akehurst was educated at Cranbrook School before enlisting in the Army in 1947. After Sandhurst he was commissioned into the Northamptonshire Regiment and joined the 1st Battalion in Trieste, where he was the signals officer. He represented his regiment at cricket and shot for his battalion at Bisley.
In 1952 he volunteered for secondment to 5th Battalion, Malay Regiment, which was involved in anti-terrorist operations during the "Emergency" and was mentioned in dispatches. After re-joining 1st Northamptons in Hong Kong Akehurst served as a transport officer and then weapons training officer. He went to Staff College in 1961, and was posted to 12 Infantry Brigade Group in Osnabruck as brigade major.
Akehurst's delight at this appointment, obtained in the face of stiff competition, was tempered by the discovery that Brigadier Philip Tower was due to take command of the brigade a few months later. Tower was an ocean-racing sailor, a fine horseman and polo player, and had a reputation for quickly getting rid of people who did not match his own high standards.
When they met for dinner at Tower's club Akehurst confessed that he had never sailed or watched polo and that horses frightened him. "It is obvious," he added, "that you will sack me within minutes of us working together. Why not get it over now, sir, and we can enjoy our dinner?"
"My dear boy," replied Tower, "let's be clear. I sail the boats, I ride the horses, you run 12 Brigade." And so it was. In more than two years there was scarcely a cross word between them. The Northamptons and the Royal Lincolns amalgamated to form 2nd East Anglian Regiment, and Akehurst joined the 1st battalion in Cyprus in 1965. After a spell on the directing staff at Staff College he commanded the 2nd battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment, in 1968.
During his tour the battalion, part of the Strategic Reserve, served in Cyprus, Gibraltar, Kenya and Malaysia. Two years on the directing staff of the Royal College of Defence Studies was followed by command of the junior division of the Staff College, Warminster, and then command of the Dhofar Brigade.
On Christmas Day 1975 in Oman a helicopter in which he was flying was fired on from the ground. Eight bullets hit the helicopter, one of them narrowly missing Akehurst, and it had to make an emergency landing. A rescue helicopter arrived quickly to pick them up. His death, wounding or captures were variously reported in more than 100 newspapers around the world.
In 1976 Akehurst moved to the MoD as deputy military secretary and then commanded the 4th Armoured Division in BAOR. After being commandant of the Staff College, Camberley, he took command of the United Kingdom Field Army as Inspector General of the Territorial Army.
Akehurst's final appointment was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe at the Nato headquarters at Mons. In 1990, shortly after retiring from the Army, he appeared on Newsnight as a commentator on the Gulf war. In retirement he enjoyed golf, fishing and travel.
Akehurst was colonel of the Royal Anglian Regiment from 1986 to 1991, chairman of the Council of TA&VRAs from 1990 to 1995 and chairman of the governors of Harrow from 1991 to 1997. He was appointed CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1984.
John Akehurst died on February 20. He married, in 1955, Shirley Ann Webb, who survives him. Their son and daughter died in childhood of cystic fibrosis.