Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Gopsill – Obituary (Soldier who was an expert in jungle warfare and later campaigned for a Gurkha memorial)

(Obituary courtesy of the The Times)

methode-times-prod-web-bin-121625fc-663f-11e6-af8b-80a9f4e67eabEdward Gopsill earned the nickname “Fairy” as one of the original parachute volunteers in 1942. Instead of keeping his arms to his sides on leaving the aircraft, he flung them wide as if to help him fly, inspiring his instructor to liken him to a fairy — qualified by the habitual Army adjective. The name stuck — the joke being that Gopsill was barrel-chested and 6ft 2in tall. 

His bravery was conspicuous, whether plunging with a company of Gurkha platoons into the jungles of Malaya, or in his native Liverpool, where he dived once into the Mersey to rescue a boy from drowning. Few could rival his tactics in jungle warfare. Gopsill also excelled in training soldiers, once turning Sarawak tribesman into a new regiment within 18 months. 

By then Gopsill held a distinguished record. At 23, he won the MC for deft command of the 3rd Battalion 1st King George V’s Own Gurkha Rifles in fighting in Cochin-China (now Vietnam) in 1945. He later became a commander with the 7th Gurkhas during the Emergency in Malaya. There, in December 1949, he led his men in hot pursuit of a 150-strong group of communist fighters. Darkness forced a halt in the jungle. Gopsill moved before first light to catch the enemy breaking camp. Immediately, he led one of his three platoons into an assault, ordering the remaining two around the flanks of the camp to cut off escape routes. Though his party killed several, most managed to flee in the jungle. 

Before his two flanking platoons could get into position, the terrorists launched a tenacious two-prong counter-attack. Despite heavy fire, Gopsill’s men held off the first attack, regrouped and then flung back a second attack before pursuing the fleeing enemy into a swamp. Using routes known only to them, the fighters escaped. Picking up their tracks next morning, Gopsill brought them to action again, inflicting further casualties. The citation for the DSO he was subsequently awarded stated: “His company of young soldiers has the best battle record in the battalion and their fighting spirit reflects that of their courageous leader”. Off-duty, he was a generous host to his officers. 

Edward Gopsill was born in Birkenhead in 1921 into a family suffering hardship. He began work at 14, joining a local brick-making company and studying accountancy at nightschool. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he enlisted in The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment. 

Selected in 1942 for officer training, he was commissioned from the OTS Bangalore into the 1st Gurkha Rifles, joining the 3rd Battalion serving with 20th Division in Burma. Later he saw action in Indochina and in Dutch Indonesia. 

After partition the 1st Gurkha Rifles were incorporated into the new Indian Army, and Gopsill transferred to the 7th Gurkhas who continued in British service. The onset of the communist insurrection in 1948 saw him in Malaya, taking platoons into the jungles. Issuing orders in Nepali, he became a father figure to junior officers, teaching them how to set up camp away from rivers prone to sudden flash floods, and to work out bearings with a compass in the absence of reliable maps. His bravery was exemplary. Upon hearing that communist fighters had ambushed a platoon on patrol near the camp, Gopsill summoned his batman, grabbed a machinegun and ammunition, and headed for the fighting. Waist-high grass made it impossible to fire lying down so Gopsill bent down, ordering his batman to place the gun on his shoulders and fire over his head. 

Subsequently, he became the chief instructor at the Brigade of Gurkhas Training Depot and was asked to raise a new regiment, the 1st Malaysian Rangers, formed of the Ibans, or native jungle tribesmen of Sarawak. They did not know at first how to wear shorts. He led them into battle during Indonesia’s confrontation with newly formed Malaysia. In 1965, he was appointed OBE for his services to the Malaysian Armed Forces. 

Single until the age of 37, he met his future wife, Susan Gates, in 1958 while on leave in England. Wanting eggs, she cycled into the yard of the farm where Gopsill was staying. Within three days, he proposed and they married 15 months later on his return from Malaya. The couple had three children: Rachel, who is a nurse; James, who is a tax lawyer; and Mary, who is a business consultant. They recall their father’s laughter, love of slapstick japes, and boundless kindness. Blessed with a fine bass voice, he sang since childhood in church choirs. 

Those who met him after he left the army in 1967 rarely guessed at his military feats. The unassuming Gopsill worked as bursar and clerk to the governors of the Royal Wolverhampton School, a foundation for orphans established in 1847. 

Yet if he did not speak of his past, Gopsill never forgot the Gurkhas. He pushed for a memorial to mark the 200th year of their service in the British Army at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The Princess Royal unveiled the Chautara, or memorial stone bearing the regimental badges of every Gurkha unit since 1815. Gopsill was elated. “We owe so much to the Gurkha — there’s a great danger they could be forgotten,” he said. “It is a hard life for them but they are the most joyous people I have ever met.” 

Edward Gopsill DSO, OBE, MC, soldier, was born on December 22, 1921. He died on July 25, 2016, aged 94.