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Lieutenant Colonel Sir Simon Bland KCVO
Late Scots Guards
By Major J W B Blackett DL
formerly Coldstream Guards

Simon Bland

Simon Bland followed his elder brother David into the Scots Guards straight from Eton in 1942. His father, Sir Nevile Bland, who had been our ambassador to The Hague until narrowly escaping detainment following the German occupation, had his chauffeur drive Simon to the gates of the Guards Depot at Caterham. The sergeant of the guard, impressed by this apparition, shouted to a regimental policeman: ‘Take this gentleman’s suitcase’. After they had gone a little way, the corporal asked whether he wished to go to the Officers’ Mess. Simon replied, somewhat puzzled, that as a recruit he imagined he should go to the Scots Guards lines. ‘You’re a new recruit, are you?’ snarled the corporal, dropping the suitcase with, Simon recalled, ‘an oath with which I was not acquainted’.

He was then ultra-quick-marched for what seemed like miles to a Nissen hut and handed over to the trained soldier of the brigade squad with the words, ‘This one thinks he’s an officer already’. The remark haunted Simon to the amusement of all until he was commissioned six months later, barely two months after his 19th birthday.

Shortly after Simon was commissioned, David, to whom he was devoted, was killed in North Africa aged 22, shot by a German sniper just as the war in the desert was drawing to a close. Simon was posted to the Westminster Garrison Battalion and then to the 1st Battalion in Italy where he took part in the gruelling attritional battles attempting to pierce the Gothic Line in 1944-45. In later life Simon recalled with typical modesty, ‘I had to grow up exceedingly quickly, and I have never understood how I retained the loyalty of my platoon during the discomforts of that winter’.

When the breakthrough finally came, the battalion headed north rapidly as part of 24th Guards Brigade to liberate Venice, and beyond to Trieste, partly held by Tito’s Yugoslav partisans.

One evening outside the disputed port, shots were heard, and Simon was ordered to take a patrol to investigate. They saw lights and ‘shadowy figures’ where they reckoned the shots had come from and closing in quickly found two Slav partisans lying dead, one male, the other female, both young and in an embrace. They had been executed, apparently for sexual relations on operations.

His love for horses brought Simon’s war to a rather sudden and painful end when the battalion liberated a number of thoroughbred racehorses from the Germans. Simon couldn’t resist taking one for an impromptu point to point across country, only to be thrown onto a dry stonewall, sustaining a badly broken back. In his hospital bed in Venice, he charmed his way into the affections of a pretty nurse who scooped him up and took him home. Only for it to turn out that she was a Countess with a vast palazzo.

In 1947 Simon became ADC to General Sir William ‘Monkey’ Morgan, commander of the British army staff in Washington. Prior to the formation of NATO this was still a key 4* appointment at a critical time for UK/US liaison during the Cold War, with a deteriorating situation in Korea and the Berlin Airlift. Simon loved his time in America, though it was not without accident. After a particularly jolly dinner at the General’s residence the gentlemen’s enjoyment of their port and cigars was interrupted by the women, impatient for the men to join them, throwing stones at the windows of the dining room to flush them out. The general, apoplectic with rage, dispatched Simon to reprimand the ladies and Simon leapt through the open window, failing to notice that the dining room was not actually on the ground floor. Both of his ankles shattered on impact. In 1949 he left Washington to join the second battalion as a company commander in Malaya. Simon was amused to find that, when one of the 4* American officers with whom he had been dealing asked him where he was being posted, the general didn’t have a clue where Malaya was.

On one occasion in Malaya, Simon’s company managed to surround a terrorist stronghold undetected, but just as they moved in for the assault, the camp dogs started barking. The terrorists sprang into action and one of them jumped up in front of Simon and fired point-blank at his chest. He felt no pain, however, and ran on into the camp, his orderly dealing with the terrorist. When the attack was finished, Simon went back to examine the dead terrorist and found that his pistol was ‘in bad order’ – so rusted that the bullet had jammed in the chamber. For this action, and others, he was mentioned in dispatches.

In 1954 he married Olivia Blackett, from a family of Coldstreamers. It was a blissfully happy marriage and they had four children, Catie, Rachel, David, and Henrietta. Catie was to follow Simon into royal service and worked in The Prince of Wales’s office.

Simon was a company commander in Germany from 1953 to 1957, and from 1959 to 1960 was the Assistant Military Adviser in Pakistan in the aftermath of partition. This allowed him to indulge in his love of polo. But this congenial post-Raj lifestyle was not to last. While in Pakistan he was summoned to return by the Colonel of the Scots Guards, The Duke of Gloucester, to be his Equerry. This was an offer Simon could not refuse and it brought about a second career as a courtier, one to which his charm, tact and diplomacy were perfectly suited. He swiftly moved to being the Duke’s Assistant Private Secretary then Comptroller and Private Secretary. He also looked after the younger Gloucesters, Prince William and Prince Richard. Simon and Olivia bought Gabriels Manor, near Edenbridge in Kent, dividing their time between there and the Clock Tower flat in Kensington Palace, usually surrounded by a houseful of friends and extended family enjoying Simon’s legendary dry Martinis. He found time to ride and shoot whenever he could.

In 1972 Prince William was killed in a plane accident, taking part in an air race. It fell to Simon to identify his body by the signet ring, bearing a W, designed by the Prince, with the coronet of grandson of the Sovereign, which Simon had ordered for him on his 21st birthday. The old Duke of Gloucester died shortly thereafter and Simon’s good sense and unflappability assisted in the smooth transfer of royal duties to the young Duke and Duchess.

There were frequent royal tours overseas to organise, both for the Gloucesters and for Princess Alexandra to whom Simon was often seconded, and he stuck pins on a map to record his travels. There are few parts of the world he didn’t visit and his children and grandchildren collectively have so far failed to match the number of pins.

On the current Duke and Duchess’s first overseas visit in 1973, to Mexico, Simon couldn’t resist the invitation to take a turn on a beautiful horse only to find that the arena in which he was directed to ride was actually a bullring complete with bull. After a few frantic circuits of the ring doing his best to avoid the bull, Simon was required, as tradition dictates, to throw his cowboy hat to a lady of his choosing. He launched the hat in the general direction of the visiting party only for his audience to watch it sail through the air and land plum in the Duchess’s lap. Simon lapped up the applause but later had to admit that it was a complete fluke, as his eyes were firmly fixed on the bull at the time. The Private Secretary to The Queen, who was shortly to pay a visit of her own to Mexico, was not impressed when reports reached Buckingham Palace and felt Simon had set a precedent that he would rather not have to follow.

Simon was appointed KCVO in 1982 and retired in 1989 but he remained as an extra Equerry. He was then a Vice President of Raleigh International and pursued numerous charitable interests. He was President of the Kent branch of the Royal British Legion. He was appointed a Knight of St John in 1988 and was a Freeman of the City of London.

In later life Simon and Olivia sold Gabriels Manor and moved into a smaller house in Edenbridge where Olivia died in 2013 just short of their diamond wedding anniversary after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, through which Simon nursed her devotedly. Simon lived on to his 99th year, a remarkable achievement given the near misses in his early life. His cheerfully warm and positive nature never left him. He attended Third Guards Club and Blue Seal dinners well into his ninth decade. After being persuaded to give up his car (or what was left of it) he took to a mobility scooter and could often be spotted riding around Edenbridge wearing a UN beret totally oblivious to the lengthy queue of cars building up behind him.

Simon was a devoted family man, never happier than when surrounded by his children, seven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. He was sustained throughout his life by a strong Christian faith. At the packed funeral in Edenbridge, attended by The Duke of Gloucester with other members of the royal family represented, news of The Queen’s death came through. The very last entry in the Court Circular of the late Queen’s reign was a record of Her Majesty being represented at Simon’s funeral by a lady in waiting, an apposite historical footnote reflecting a lifetime of service.

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