Brigadier Peter (‘Scrubber’) Stewart-Richardson
OBE Croix De Guerre
Late Coldstream Guards
by Colonel H G R Boscawen
formerly Coldstream Guards
In mid-1943, Peter Stewart-Richardson, then aged 17½, wrote to the Coldstream Guards Regimental Adjutant proposing that he leave Eton in order to join up. His Tutor, Claude Beasley-Robinson (a distinguished Great War soldier whose House produced numerous Foot Guards officers) had told the Adjutant that ‘physically [Peter] is very much tougher than he looks, and I am sure it would delight you to see how hard he goes in [at] football ... however much he got squashed he always bounced up smiling’. Peter stayed at Eton but, although he enlisted in 1943, he did not, to his lifelong regret, reach Germany until 1 May 1945, too late for active service there. Peter’s individual thinking, tenacity and charm never left him, and many friends, comrades and family members attended his funeral at North Creake, Norfolk on 17th December 2015.
Born in London on 9th February 1926, and brought up at Pitfour Castle beside the River Tay, Peter Stewart-Richardson developed a love for the outdoors, and field sports, early in life, although he lost his Father when young. Once commissioned into the Coldstream, Peter found himself in a Europe teeming with displaced people, starving children, and political crises. The British Army was also demobilising at an extraordinary pace. In 1945 Peter spent time with 5th Coldstream Guards near Cologne before moving to 3rd Coldstream that October, and sailing to Haifa in Palestine. In mid-1946 Peter served in III (British) Corps’ Defence Company in Greece during the chaos surrounding the Plebiscite. Back in Palestine, Peter experienced the Jewish refugee crisis and Zionist violence.
In 1948, Peter gained a Regular Commission and joined 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards as a Captain; he trained in jungle warfare while the Battalion sailed to Malaya: the Battalion patrolled around Tapah and in the Cameron Highlands. His Commanding Officer thought Peter enthusiastic and capable, but his luxuriant moustache occasioned the nickname ‘Scrubber’: four brother officers proved unable to hold him down to shave it off!
Scrubber’s adventurous nature led him to Indo-China in 1950 under an Army ‘exchange au pair’ scheme: French troops were then fighting a Vietminh-led insurgency. While with 5eme Cuirassiers, the Vietminh ambushed Scrubber’s convoy near Bencat: he assisted his hosts in silencing one Vietminh position and then attacking another machine-gun, which wounded him, fortunately not seriously. Evacuated to Saigon for treatment, as Scrubber described it, ‘now we come to the tragic bit, and there was no way of stopping it [but] General Charpentier [the French Commander-in-Chief] arrived and presented me with a Croix de Guerre des théâtres d’opérations extérieurs [TOE]. I couldn’t refuse it as there’d have been an awful scene’. The action, he said, was ‘really very dull and I was quite behaving myself’. Although congratulated by Regimental seniors, Whitehall’s ‘Foreign Orders Regulations’ would not allow Scrubber to wear the medal: appeals continued (unsuccessfully) on the subject for 40 years.
In mid-1951, Peter Stewart-Richardson returned to Britain to join No 1 (Guards) Independent Parachute Company, which deployed for two years in Middle Eastern and North African countries, and the Suez Canal Zone. Peter took the opportunity to visit Lebanon and Sinai as well as Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn American pathfinder methods.
Returning home in 1954 Scrubber Stewart-Richardson commanded a company in 3rd Coldstream at Wellington Barracks, before leading the Guards Parachute Company. He attended the Army Staff College, Camberley in 1958, but his subsequent staff posting to 3rd Independent Infantry Brigade in Episkopi, Cyprus was, Peter claimed, ‘dull as ditchwater’. Nine months later, in 1960, he joined Headquarters Tripolitanian Area, Libya, as a Grade II Staff Officer and a Major once again. The School of Infantry, Warminster, now sought his experience for instructing student Company Commanders, which he enjoyed: he received the award of Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE (Military)) for his efforts. In October 1964, Peter reinforced his airborne credentials through an attachment to 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment in Bahrain, with exercises in the Trucial Oman states.
Coldstream requirements now intervened, however, and Scrubber became Second-in-Command of 1st Coldstream at Iserlohn (British Army on the Rhine) in mid-1965. The Battalion suddenly deployed that October on internal security duties in Aden State for six months. When a barbed-wire fence was proposed to restrict dissident movement and smuggling, Scrubber oversaw building of this major, 11-mile barrier, which proved its worth, and became known as the ‘Scrubber Line’.
Scrubber took command of 10th (Volunteer) Battalion the Parachute Regiment, in White City, London, on 25th May 1967. Leadership of the Guards Parachute Company and attachment to 3 PARA meant that he was known to many in the Airborne Forces: he channelled his enthusiasm into ensuring that 10 PARA could fight alongside its regular counterparts. He arranged the Airborne support for 25th Anniversary commemorations for Op MARKET GARDEN, parachuting onto the original Arnhem Dropping Zones - and managed a speech in Dutch. After command, Scrubber returned to the staff, was promoted to full Colonel and took responsibility for UK Land Forces training.
A further opportunity arose through the insurgency in Oman. In 1976, Scrubber, on secondment, took command of the Northern Oman Brigade of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF). Away from peacetime British Army minutiae, some saw SAF as akin to the C19 Indian Army, but others felt that standards of military effectiveness needed ‘gripping’. Brigadier Scrubber approached various units with very much that intention, although some did not understand the potential benefits. When visiting the Sultan’s Armoured Car Regiment, and finding the vehicles lined up with camp followers and cooking pots nearby, the Brigadier peered inside the turret of a Saladin, before challenging the troop commander (from a smart cavalry regiment) that ‘there are too many flies in here’. ‘Oh dear, Sir,’ came the reply, ‘how many flies should there be?’
In September 1978, Scrubber returned to become Brigadier Infantry at Headquarters UK Land Forces. Once again, short-notice inspections kept battalions on their toes, although recipients did not always appreciate the attention. He did not spare the Coldstream Guards, arriving, promptly locking up the Gate Sentry and finding the Barrack Guard in bad order. Fortunately the Regiment Adjutant was on hand (the senior officers were elsewhere): he quickly diverted the Brigadier to the Mess for breakfast, quietly pointing out that Scrubber’s uniform and fly buttons were undone! No further mishaps occurred during the visit.
On leaving the Army in 1981, Scrubber set up a security company with another officer but he also turned his energy towards charitable work. He presided over the Coldstream Guards Association King’s Lynn Branch; tirelessly raised funds for The Royal British Legion (running his first sponsored Marathon for them in his 60s) and the Army Benevolent Fund, The Soldiers’ Charity; and was Churchwarden in North Creake. He was High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1989.
Peter was drawn to the Middle East from his time in Palestine post-War; he felt an affinity for its peoples, and those in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Scrubber supported efforts to aid victims of the Bosnia war, driving a charity truck and visiting 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, serving in UN blue-berets, in Vitez in 1994.
Three years later, Scrubber travelled to Afghanistan. Observing the chaos following the Russian invasion, he was determined to help the resilient but impoverished Afghans. A cousin of ‘Commander’ Ahmad Shah Massoud, who played a key role in ousting the Soviets, asked him to help rebuild a hospital at Rokha (Panjshir Valley). Scrubber and other retired British Officers raised money for ‘Afghan Mother and Child Rescue’ and, despite difficulties with the Taliban in Kabul and local warlords, delivered practical help in the Panjshir. With local help, Rokha’s basic first aid post was developed into a maternity clinic by the year 2000; several clinics followed in Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces. Setting up local bakeries and sewing businesses also helped war widows support themselves. Understanding the Afghans, Scrubber contrived effectively to get things done to help them. In 2009, Peter Stewart-Richardson’s Membership of the Order of the British Empire was deservedly raised to the level of Officer (OBE (Civil)) for ‘... services to Humanitarian Aid in Afghanistan and to the Army Benevolent Fund in Norfolk.’
In 1954 Scrubber married Tricia Evans-Lombe, and they had four children: Neil, Michael, Mary-Ann and Janie. Neil and Michael were both commissioned into the Coldstream, but Neil’s tragic death in a road accident in 1978, and Michael’s short service in the Regiment caused huge sadness to Peter and Tricia, and their family and friends. Scrubber and his wife were devoted to their six Grandchildren; Tricia died in 2012.
Scrubber Stewart-Richardson possessed great enthusiasm, courage and dedication to helping people. He disliked ‘bureaucrats’ whether in uniform or Whitehall, and ‘gripped’ adjutants and staff officers, responsible for smartness, discipline and proper planning, on occasions. That said, courtesy, good manners, kindness and determination to further his aims, whether military or helping people through charitable projects, earned Scrubber respect from many for his leadership: he achieved distinction as a soldier, and leaves an enduring legacy today in many villages in Northern Afghanistan.