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Major J N Murphy
Late Irish Guards and Special Air Service

by Lieutenant Colonel Brian O’Gorman DL
formerly Irish Guards

Jim Murphy died aged 87 in June 2020 of a heart condition. He had an extraordinary military career, starting with the Irish Guards and ending in the Middle East, via the Guards Parachute Company and the Special Air Service.

Born in Cork in 1933, he trained to be a school teacher at St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Dublin, but after taking up a teaching post he found the profession offered insufficient scope. He joined the Irish Guards in 1955, serving with the 1st Battalion in Cyprus, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

In 1956, after serving with the Battalion in the Canal Zone in Egypt, Jim volunteered to join the No 1 Guards (Independent) Parachute Company, The Parachute Regiment. That year 16 Parachute Brigade was deployed to Cyprus to combat the threat of Greek Cypriot EOKA terrorists. The Brigade was also poised to act should Egypt nationalise the Suez Canal. This came about in early November when Op MUSCATEER was launched. The Guards Parachute Company came under the command of 2 PARA Group but No 1 ‘stick’, which included Jim, jumped with the French parachute force before the seaborne landing by the Royal Marines the following day.

On landing, Jim Murphy was shot in the stomach by an Egyptian soldier concealed in a nearby trench. Astonishingly, the Egyptian threw back the grenade lobbed at him by ‘les paras’. The ‘jundi’ took no further part in the battle. Later, the French doctor treating Jim’s injury intimated that he only had a slim chance of survival. To the surprise of those assembled around his bed Jim stood up and relieved himself onto the boots of the French medical officer. After a mere six hours, Jim’s war was over and he was evacuated by the Royal Navy and made a full recovery. Somewhat absurdly, the MOD argued that Jim was not entitled to the campaign medal (GSM Near East) because he had not spent 24 hours in the combat zone. The matter was resolved, but only by the intervention of Field Marshal Alexander, who was Colonel of the Irish Guards at the time.

In 1958 Jim completed his Colour Service and left the Army. Yet again he found civilian life was not to his liking and re-joined after three months, on a 22 year engagement, in time to go to Cyprus with the Battalion.

On 17th March 1961, when Mary, The Princess Royal presented the shamrock to the Regiment in Caterham, a gold shamrock brooch was given to Her Royal Highness from all members of the Regiment. Guardsman ‘Spud’ Murphy was selected to make the presentation in the Mess Hall, which he did with a speech that was long remembered by those present for its eloquence and Irish charm. Incidentally, on The Princess Royal’s death four years later, the specially commissioned Cartier brooch was sold with her personal effects; the Regiment felt compelled to buy it back, and it is still in use today and is now worn by The Duchess of Cambridge when present on St Patrick’s Day.

Throughout his time in the Battalion Jim was an outstanding athlete. He was a very successful cross-country runner, represented the Army, and he was a distance runner in the Battalion athletics team which won the Army Athletics Championships in 1964. In 1966 he was the Combined Services Marathon Champion. Jim was also a pioneer in establishing and encouraging the Scandinavian sport of orienteering in the British Army, later winning the senior section of the National Orienteering Championships.

In 1965 the MOD announced the formation of a Guards Squadron of the SAS and Jim joined the first selection course the following year, which he passed with considerable credit. This was the start of a distinguished career within the Special Forces; his first Squadron Commander happened to have been his stick leader at Suez 10 years earlier.

In the 1960s The Guards Magazine ran a series of full page articles titled ‘Serving Personalities’ featuring members of the Household Division with interesting careers. The only Irish Guardsman to ever feature was one Sergeant J N Murphy in the Autumn 1966 edition.

In 1967 Jim deployed to Aden with G Squadron. He was appointed Squadron Sergeant Major of G Squadron two years later and in 1971 he took over as Squadron Sergeant Major of the Training Wing at 21 SAS(V). He returned to Hereford to be Operations and Intelligence Warrant Officer for two years before being appointed RSM of 23 SAS(V) in 1975.

Commissioned in 1977, Jim was posted to Ballykinler to assist the Northern Ireland Patrol Group (NIPG) preparing Infantry Recce Platoons for covert surveillance operations. Then, in 1979, he was appointed Training Officer of 21 SAS(V) Regiment, advising on training and selection. In 1982 he returned to the Province to assume command of the NIPG and advised Army and Police commanders on all aspects of covert surveillance and the employment of Infantry Close Observation Platoons.

Retiring from the Regular Army in 1984, and being fluent in Arabic, he went as a ‘contract’ Officer to the Middle East where, for 10 years, he took responsibility for the Sultan of Oman’s Special Forces Training Wing. The Omani soldiers, the ‘Jebalis’, called him ‘Shayba’ or ‘Old Man’ because of his grey hair but they soon realised they were in the company of an athlete; a fit, lean, whippet of a man, who in his 50s could still out-run most of them in the ‘19 miler’ on the Qatar road. He fully deserved his Commendation Medals at the end of his long service in the Middle East and it is no surprise that the Sultan of Oman sent his personal condolences to Jim’s family when he died.

By his choice, Jim did not stand out in a crowd. He was the ‘quiet man’ and never chose to talk of his personal achievements. Although Jim was hugely respected within the military, he was always a modest, friendly and unassuming character who had that rare combination of being an outstanding operational soldier and an excellent administrator.

Jim was a great supporter of the SAS Regimental Association and kept in touch with his Irish Guards contemporaries, attending Regimental events when possible. Jim will be remembered as a quiet, kind, professional Irish Guardsman with a delightful dry sense of humour. ‘A proper Mick’ as they say. Jim was devoted to his family, his wife Cynthia and daughters Tracy, Jacqueline and Nicola; to them we send our sincere condolences.

Quis Separabit

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