Obituary – Lieutenant Colonel Denis O’Leary

Gallant officer who was four times decorated after fierce battles in the jungles of Burma and Malaysia In a career of vigorous active service that took him across the Far East from the jungles of Burma in the Second World War to the Indonesia confrontation with Malaysia in the mid-1960s, Denis O’Leary was decorated four times — twice with the Military Cross. As a young mortar officer with a regiment of the British Indian Army — the 6th Rajputana Rifles — he won his first MC in 1945 during fierce fighting against the Japanese in the advance to the Irrawaddy as part of the 19th Indian “Black Cat” Division. His second came two decades later, in 1964, when his company of Gurkhas, with whom he was then serving, fought a bitter battle with a group of Indonesians on the small island of Lobe in East Malaysia. He also won a military MBE fighting against lawless gangs of dacoits in the chaotic period in Burma after the end of the war, and was advanced to OBE in 1968 for his command of 1/7th Gurkha Rifles in Hong Kong during a difficult period of Beijing-inspired violence in, and border incursions against, what was then the Crown Colony.

His younger colleagues, who met him as he moved around the Far East, were struck by his remarkable Irish fearlessness and humour. In the autumn of 1944, General Sir William Slim’s Fourteenth Army was closing in on the Irrawaddy river as it advanced across Burma, but the Japanese were fighting as tenaciously as ever. As mortar officer, O’Leary found that getting fire down quickly was crucially dependent on orders from the front. So he accompanied his battalion’s leading platoon in every action from mid-November until 19th Division reached the Irrawaddy opposite the town of Thabeikkyin on January 14, 1945. During fierce fighting on Pear Hill in the bridgehead on the other side of the river in February, he kept his mortars in action for eight consecutive days despite intense counter-bombardment fire. The citation for his first MC concluded “by his courageous example and skill he was responsible for inflicting heavy losses on the enemy”. Peace of a kind followed the Japanese surrender in Rangoon on August 28 that year, but armed Burmese gangs of various political persuasions still roamed the countryside. The 17th Indian Division therefore remained in the country to consolidate law and order as Burma approached independence. In co-operation with the “Patriotic Burmese Forces” it began a drive, in March 1947, to flush out the remaining gangs. O’Leary, by then commanding a rifle company of 3/6th Rajputana Rifles, received reports that two gangs, each up to 200 strong, had joined forces at a village on the eastern bank of the Sittang River. He crossed the Sittang during the night with 50 men after swimming the river helped by two men to collect ferry boats from the far bank. Recognising that he was outnumbered, O’Leary placed cut-off positions on tracks leading from the village and, at dawn, ordered a long burst of fire into an anthill. The dacoits raced out of the village to be cut down by automatic fire. More than 30 were killed, 30 wounded and four taken prisoner for the loss of two and three wounded in O’Leary’s company. After a period in Hong Kong — where he met his future wife, Jan Tedstill, an officer of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, while visiting a soldier on her ward — O’Leary fought a bitter battle with a group of Indonesians on the small island of Lobe in East Malaysia during Indonesia’s confrontation with the new Federation of Malaysia. On information from a police informer that he had led the enemy to the island O’Leary set off with two platoons — and considerable private misgivings that the whole thing might be trap. His tactics were similar to those he had used against the dacoits in Burma. On this occasion, however, they resulted in what was later described as a “tough, untidy and uncomfortable little battle”. Lobe island was a hideous tangle of mangrove roots and black swamp. The enemy were alerted before the cut-offs got into position and fought with great tenacity. One of his platoon commanders was badly wounded and could not be recovered until O’Leary outflanked the Indonesians’ position with the rest of his group. On getting close, he heard moans of pain and shouted in Bahasa for the enemy to stand up and surrender. This elicited the piteous response, “We can’t, we are all dead.” One unwounded man made a dash for it and was killed. All but one of the remainder were indeed dead.

Denis Oswald O’Leary had a lifelong affection for India. He had been born in Srinagar, Kashmir, the elder son of Lieutenant-Colonel M. P. O’Leary of the 6th Rajputana Rifles, and returned to India during his school holidays from Cotton College in Staffordshire. In later life he was a great collector of first day covers, regimental invitations and Christmas cards and also kept every letter written to him by his children and those he wrote to his own mother as a boy. After attending the Officers’ Training School at Bangalore, he was commissioned in the 6th Rajputana Rifles in 1943. Following Indian independence he was granted a commission in the Royal Artillery but sought secondment to the 7th Gurkha Rifles who had been selected for conversion to the artillery role. An increased demand for infantry due to the Malayan emergency led to the conversion being cancelled, however, and O’Leary went to Egypt with 26 Field Regiment RA. He felt more at home with Gurkhas than Gunners and was back with 1/7th Gurkhas in Malaya by 1952 and appointed adjutant. He achieved his boyhood ambition to command 1/7th Gurkha Rifles in the Colony in 1966-69.

Family life involved numerous moves around the Far East, as well as rugby and cricket in his spare time. He is survived by his wife and five children: Tim followed him into the 7th Gurkha Rifles and now works for a security company; Jane is married and lives in Ireland; Claire is an art teacher and lives in Yarmouth; Sarah lives in Portsmouth; and Kate is married to a recently retired RAF officer. After retiring from the Army 1979 O’Leary worked as a firing range liaison officer in Norfolk before settling in North Yorkshire and, latterly, Suffolk. Lieutenant-Colonel D. O. O’Leary, OBE, MC and Bar, commanding officer 1/7th Gurkha Rifles, 1966-69, was born on July 24, 1924. He died on March 13, 2014, aged 89.