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Major-General D. B. Alexander-Sinclair Obituary
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Major-General David Alexander-Sinclair

Commandant of the Staff College, Camberley and outspoken critic of theoretical battlefield nuclear warfare


Seldom in peacetime has a burgeoning military career been so abruptly curtailed as when David Alexander-Sinclair suffered a heart attack while commanding the 1st Armoured Division in Germany. He recovered and returned to duty but not to the degree of robust vigour required to compete for a position in the Armys top echelon. This was a loss to the Services, as he matched a fine intellect with experience and a manner politicians would have found persuasive.

That he was a strong contender to be Chief of the General Staff (Head of the Army) there is no doubt. The 1st Armoured Division faced the Soviet Army in the key sector of the 1st British Corps area of Natos Central Region, so the post had challenge and prestige. Moreover, his two immediate predecessors both reached the top. His principal contemporary rival for the post was Major-General (later Field Marshal Sir) Nigel Bagnall. Only a few months separated them in age and both were iconoclastic, innovative and usually curtly dismissive of other peoples ideas. But Bagnall had won two MCs in operations against communist terrorists in Malaya, giving him the edge of marked success on active service.

Widely and correctly credited with being a brilliant staff officer, Alexander-Sinclair could have passed himself off as a classics don both in appearance and conversation. He was also, however, a commander of authority and quiet confidence. He demanded an imaginative performance and the highest standards from his officers; those with pretensions beyond their capabilities being shrugged off with the damning phrase, He is the most awful fraud.

He had deep consideration for his soldiers, taking great pains to keep them informed of what was happening at any given moment and what the immediate future might hold.

David Boyd Alexander-Sinclair was the son of Commander M. B. Alexander-Sinclair of Freswick, RN. An Eton Kings Scholar, he received an emergency commission into the Rifle Brigade in 1946. After early service with the British Army of the Rhine, he went to Malaya in 1950 to become ADC to the GOC South Malaya District during the early stage of the communist terrorist campaign. Later in the 1950s, he was Adjutant of 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade in Kenya during the Mau-Mau rebellion, when he demonstrated his excellence as a regimental officer and won many friends locally.

At the Staff College in 1958, he was an outspoken critic of the theoretical tactics being newly taught for the use of battlefield nuclear weapons in the Nato Central Region, citing them as completely unrealistic. Perhaps taking his cue from the policy he derided, he wrote some of the more strikingly witty lyrics for the annual Camberley pantomime. Good staff appointments were scarce that year, but he got the best of the bunch as Brigade Major (chief of staff) to Brigadier (later Field Marshal Lord) Michael Carver commanding the 6th Infantry Brigade in Germany.

They made a good partnership, despite Carvers reputation for being devilishly difficult to please. In his memoir Out of Step written in retirement, Carver related how Alexander-Sinclair showed remarkable imagination, ingenuity and tact, while working with a German brigade to provide the umpires for a major Nato exercise. When a British division involved sought to cheat in the exercise battle by hoodwinking the umpires, he was able to persuade Carver, against his iciest disinclination, to attend the offending divisional commanders end-of-exercise buffet lunch. As an act of persuasion, this was a remarkable achievement made in the interest of good relations.

He commanded 3rd Royal Green Jackets, as his regiment had become by 1967, after three years teaching at the Staff College and a Grade 1 appointment in the Defence Policy Staff in the Ministry of Defence. He ran a happy battalion because his riflemen knew he had their interests at heart and no pressure would persuade him to adopt any policy he considered detrimental to their well-being. Despite his frequently expressed scorn for the standards of other units and for the staff, he was invariably modest of his own qualities, preferring results to speak for themselves.

Command of 6th Brigade which had become an armoured formation in the interim since he was the Brigade Major, followed in 1971. This involved him and other brigade commanders in a wide-ranging re-examination of deterrent tactics against the Soviet threat to Central Europe. He contributed positively but was scornfully dismissive of over- optimistic scenarios suggested by others. Still only 44, he was widely respected within the Whitehall/BAOR element of the Army for his opinion, although both contemporaries and even his seniors were wary of his exacting temperament and stinging tongue.

A year at the Royal College of Defence Studies in 1974, which he contemptuously spurned as a waste of time, was followed immediately by promotion to major-general and command of the 1st Armoured Division in Germany. His route to the top then appeared clear but the seriousness of his heart attack in the second year of his command put him out of competition.

When well enough to return to duty he served as Chief of Staff HQ UK Land Forces at Wilton, until appointed Commandant of the Staff College in 1980. This was exactly his scene, as he enjoyed encouraging rigorous debate, but he was not able to regain his earlier physical stamina and retired in 1982, having been appointed CB in 1981.

He lived quietly in retirement, his uncertain health denying him any seriously active part in public life. He became the head of the Freswick, in Caithness, branch of the Sinclair Clan on the death of his father.

Hi wife Ann, daughter of the late Lieutenant-Colonel Graeme Daglish, survives him with two sons, one a journalist and broadcaster on all aspects of gardening, and the other a show and lighting designer working with such performers as Adele , Pulp and the Pet Shop Boys, and a daughter who is an art director for concerts and shows for major rock bands.

Major-General D. B. Alexander-Sinclair, CB, Commandant of the Staff College, Camberley 1980-1982, was born on May 2, 1927. He died on February 7, 2014, aged 86

'As published in The Times on April 2nd, 2014.


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