Major-General Ronald McAlister
Gurkha officer who confronted Chinese forces in Hong Kong in 1967
The voice of the British Gurkha battalion commander could be heard across the paddy fields: “Kukris out!” Within an instant, the sun reflecting off the steel of the Gurkhas’ curved, unsheathed knives sent a flash of brilliant light into the sky.
It was the defining moment in an action that could have led to war between Britain and China over Hong Kong — and it instilled sheer terror into the minds of the hundreds of Chinese troops who had burst over the border into Hong Kong’s frontier village of Sha Tau Kok. They retreated.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald McAlister, commander of the 1st Battalion 10th Gurkha Rifles, had been ordered to secure Sha Tau Kok, using minimum force. Destined to become a general — he already had a distinguished war record — Colonel McAlister took two companies from his battalion, about 240 Gurkhas, and advanced across mostly open paddy fields. With troops on either side of him, he marched up the road backed by a troop of armoured cars provided by the Life Guards. He was to fire only if fired upon.
With Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in full sway across the border in China, pressure was mounting in Hong Kong; there had already been a border incursion the previous month when a civilian mob threatened Sha Tau Kok, a tiny fishing port where the border was marked only by a line of stones.
On July 8, about 500 Chinese troops entered the village. They attacked the police post and opened fire on a police contingent heading to the scene, killing two and wounding several others. A mob of armed men, believed to be Chinese militiamen, rushed the police post and shot dead two more officers who had manned loopholes in the walls. By midday, the incident was being reported around the world.
The besieged policemen sent out appeals for help. McAlister was ordered to clear the British territory of aggressors. He gave the order to his Gurkhas to unsheathe their kukris when they were 300 yards from the village. There followed a burst of gunfire from Chinese troops across the border, providing cover as their comrades withdrew. The policemen were released and the dead and wounded evacuated. The relief of Sha Tau Kok had been achieved without a shot being fired.
The drama of that summer was not over. A month later, soldiers manning the Man Kam To crossing point were besieged by a howling mob while McAlister was visiting the small garrison. Chinese troops were positioned only yards away across the Shum Chun river, which formed the border. McAlister was joined in the wire compound by Trevor Bedford, district officer for the New Territories, but they struggled to calm the mob. Just before midnight, a gang of armed Chinese leapt over the fence and both McAlister and Bedford found themselves with knives at their throats. After negotiations lasting all night, the two men were released minutes before the 1st Battalion 10th Gurkha Rifles was due to move on the compound to prevent them from being taken into China. The story of the incident, naming Colonel McAlister, was on the front page of The Times.
Ronald William Lorne McAlister was born in 1923 in Teddington, Gloucestershire, the second son of Colonel Ronald McAlister and his wife, Nora. He was educated at Sedbergh and joined the army in January 1942. He was known to his family as Lorne, but the army said no one had ever heard of the name. He gave them Ronald as an alternative and, from then on, was known as Ronnie to his military colleagues. When he was appointed major-general, he was called General Ronnie.
He was sent by ship to the officer cadet training unit in Bangalore, for a commission in the Indian Army. Arriving at Bombay in April 1942, he warmed to his new life in which he was served by smart bearers in white uniforms and green turbans in the cadet mess, and cycled to Urdu lessons. He was commissioned into the 3rd Gurkha Rifles in October 1942, and was selected to be a jungle warfare instructor even though he had no experience of the jungle.
After six months, he was switched to a secret establishment in Poona, where agents of a branch of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) known as Force 136 were being trained to harry the Japanese behind enemy lines. During one training programme, he instructed his students to lay a mock explosive charge along the main Madras to Bombay railway. When the night express approached, it set off the low-powered detonator with a muffled bang. There was no danger to the train, but the driver brought it to a screeching halt. McAlister sneaked off quickly.
In December 1944, McAlister was posted to the 1st Battalion 3rd Gurkha Rifles, which had been fighting the Japanese as part of the 17th Indian Division since January 1942. He took part in the advance from the Chindwin river in Burma, which led to the defeat of the Japanese 33rd Army, and the 350-mile fighting march to relieve Rangoon. He was mentioned in dispatches.
At one point in the advance, he was sent off to discover what progress was being made up ahead. He took a Jeep and headed off. When he returned, he found that Japanese shells had landed on his battalion headquarters, killing seven men, including his orderly.
McAlister was mentioned in dispatches on two more occasions; during service between 1948 and 1950 with the 10th Gurkhas fighting the communist insurgency in Malaya; and for his outstanding leadership of the 1/10th Gurkhas operating against Indonesian special forces encroaching on the Sarawak border in 1965 during President Sukarno’s confrontation with Malaysia. He went on to command the Berlin infantry brigade from 1969 to 1971, and from 1975 to 1977 he was Major-General Brigade of Gurkhas and deputy commander British Forces Hong Kong.
He married Sally Marshall, a nurse, in 1964 and they had two daughters: Angela, who works for a firm of management consultants, and Caroline, who is an insurance broker. He became a grandfather — to Alastair — at the age of 84.
When McAlister retired, he lived with his wife in Broadstairs, Kent, playing golf, a sport at which they both excelled. He was captain and president of Royal St George’s Golf Club at Sandwich. He was chairman of the Gurkha Brigade Association. He loved poetry and would quote from Shakespeare.
A modest man who said little about his distinguished military career, McAlister’s name will long be linked with the relief of Sha Tau Kok and his leadership of the Gurkhas.
Major-General Ronald McAlister, OBE, CB, was born on May 26, 1923. He died on September 8, 2015, aged 92