Widely respected head of the army during the Gulf war who was a stabilising figure during a period of swingeing defence cuts.
As a child, John Chapple was introduced to Rudyard Kipling at Brown’s Hotel in London, where the great imperial author had written The Jungle Book. If Kipling had lived longer, he would surely have found a place in his books for the awed four-year-old and later colourful soldier, for Chapple was a late product of empire and steeped in its history, fighting some of its final battles as a Gurkha in the jungles of the Far East.
The apex of his career, however, was at the Ministry of Defence in the aftermath of Nato’s victory in the Cold War. And it was bittersweet. Chapple had taken over as chief of the general staff (head of the army) in September 1988 as cracks began to appear metaphorically in the Berlin Wall. In November the following year, the cracks became real and the wall was torn down by Berliners on both sides. By October 1990, Germany was reunified, triggering the swift collapse of the other eastern bloc regimes. Thirteen months later, on December 25, 1991, President Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union was dissolved. Yet fast as the pace of the Soviet Union’s disintegration was, faster still was the subsequent dismembering of Britain’s armed forces.
With the prevailing “end of history” world view, the Conservative government wanted a “peace dividend”. Chapple argued that any dividend should go to the forces, which for decades had subsisted on poor pay, poor living conditions and inadequate equipment, as well as being over-committed, especially in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, in July 1990 the defence secretary, Tom King (later Lord King of Bridgwater), announced the so-called Options for Change review, which would cut the army by almost half.
Then, on August 2, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Chapple and his fellow service chiefs were able to put the cuts on hold while they assembled a force in the Gulf, along with the Americans, to liberate Kuwait. Doing so revealed serious shortfalls in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), but Chapple could make little headway afterwards in clawing back resources, despite being extended in post until 1992 to see through the cuts. Even his beloved Gurkhas were to be reduced severely. He did, however, manage to preserve the army’s strong Northern Irish links by the amalgamation of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment, a masterstroke of his own conception.
On leaving the appointment he received the customary field marshal’s baton, the last chief of the general staff to do so. Deeming that the army (and the other two services) were no longer big enough to justify “five-star” rank to its retiring heads, his successor, on appointment as chief of the defence staff (CDS) as a field marshal, abolished the practice, as well as, indeed, the active five-star rank for the appointment, the rank now solely honorary.
John Lyon Chapple was born in 1931 in Maida Vale, London, the son of Elsie Lyon, a doctor, and Charles Herbert Chapple, a Royal Engineers officer who served in France and Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the First World War. At the urging of his paternal grandmother, who greatly admired Kipling, the young Chapple was sent to school in Windsor, to the Imperial Service College, which had absorbed Kipling’s old school, the United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon. In 1942, the college merged with Haileybury, in Hertfordshire, which had originally been founded as the East India College to prepare administrators for the Honourable East India Company. At Haileybury Chapple learnt to recognise the approach of the German V-1 rockets known as “doodlebugs”. One day while watching cricket, he heard a V-1 coming and everyone fled, except the headmaster, who was umpiring and was half deaf. The bomb exploded just behind the trees and the match resumed as if nothing had happened. Chapple and another boy went for a look round the school and found lots of broken windows: “We finished off one or two that the Germans hadn’t managed to blow out.”
As well as a little light vandalism at Haileybury, he also went in for acting, playing a memorable Polonius,and took part in five expeditions of the British Exploring Society, including to Newfoundland and Lapland, which fostered a lifelong interest in conservation.
Chapple did his National Service as a subaltern in the Royal Artillery before reading German and history at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he acted in five plays directed by Peter Hall. On graduation in 1954 he joined 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Goorkhas (The Sirmoor Rifles) on a regular commission. The 2nd considered themselves an elite within an elite (the Brigade of Gurkhas), much cherishing their historic double-o spelling, although it had officially changed in 1902. There were two battalions, and it was said that the 2nd/2nd spoke only to the 1st/2nd, and the 1st/2nd only to God.
Meanwhile, through a Cambridge friend, he had met Annabel Hill, a diving star on whose fingertips entering the water a UK girls’ diving trophy was modelled. “I proposed to her almost immediately,” he said later, “but it took three and a half years to persuade her to say yes.” The attempts included a pursuit across America. They were married in 1959, and Annabel survives him with four children: Rachel, a social anthropologist and founder of the Real Stories Gallery Foundation charity; David, a consultant spinal surgeon; Kate, chief sub-editor at the Financial Times How to Spend It magazine, and Sasha, a mother.
Chapple joined the 1st/2nd in Malaya in the middle of the 12-year campaign against the communist insurgency, “the emergency”, in which British, Commonwealth and Gurkha battalions were intensively engaged until 1960. He served his first three years in the jungles of South Johore, particularly notorious “bandit country”. In 1962 he attended the Staff College, Camberley; his subsequent appointment as chief personnel and logistics officer of a brigade in BAOR, highly unusual for a Gurkha officer, marked him out as an officer being groomed for high rank.
On return to the 1st/2nd as a company commander, Chapple was in the jungle once more, this time in Borneo during the Indonesian “Confrontation”. It was a campaign that hardly dared speak its name, especially the cross-border operations to deny the Indonesians the initiative in setting up bases from which to raid into the newly independent states of Sarawak and North Borneo within federated Malaysia. Chapple recalled how, one morning in late summer 1966 at his jungle base at Ba Kelalan in Sarawak, “out of the mist at very low level came a [Indonesian] Hercules transport aircraft with a parachutist standing in the doorway”. It took a few moments for his Gurkhas to recognise it as hostile, then shouting “Dushman, dushman!” (enemy) opened fire. “The pilot quickly realised he was somewhere he was not supposed to be and turned steeply back and was shot at again before escaping across the border apparently unharmed.” That evening some of Chapple’s men saw the aircraft as it approached for a second time “only to be hit on this occasion by the Indonesians’ own 37mm Russian-made anti-aircraft guns at Long Medan. Two of its engines were set on fire. About 20 parachutes were seen to open at quite low level as it lost height but they seemed to get down all right while the aircraft crash landed on the Long Medan football field beyond the border, where it remained as a wreck for long after”.
Some 25 years later, when Chapple was CGS, he recounted the story to an Indonesian general, who then revealed its true import. That week the Indonesian opposition in Jakarta had planned to stage a coup against President Sukarno, not least because they knew the elite paratroop garrison unit was being deployed from the capital to the Sarawak border. The first phase involved flying a company to Long Medan, to be followed by the rest of the battalion. This first phase was the aircraft engaged by Chapple’s Gurkhas, which then flew back to Jakarta, whence it was sent off again in the evening “to do better”. Because the Indonesians had then shot down one of their own aircraft, the rest of the deployment was aborted. Most of the paratroop unit was therefore still in central Jakarta when the coup started, and were able to put down the opposition. Chapple’s company had unintentionally thwarted the coup. Sukarno was ousted six months later, but not in the manner planned.
Chapple subsequently commanded 1st/2nd Gurkha Rifles in Singapore and Hong Kong, the latter during the final stages of the border troubles excited by Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, before going back to Camberley as a member of the directing staff. His promotion to the leading colonel’s post in the MoD in 1973 coincided with the difficult period of Operation Motorman in Northern Ireland to end the “no-go” areas for the army and RUC, as well as the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus, and the new Labour government’s resumption of cuts by Denis Healey, the previous Labour defence secretary, to forces east of Suez. Yet pressure of work never ruffled Chapple. “All my life I’ve been surrounded by people who thought they could do my job better than I could” he liked to say; “and by and large I’ve let them.”
Command of 48 Gurkha Infantry Brigade in Hong Kong followed, after which he returned to the MoD as principal staff officer to the chief of the defence staff, marshal of the RAF Sir Neil Cameron, and then to the admiral of the fleet Sir Terence Lewin. On promotion to major-general, Chapple went east again to be Commander British Forces (CBF) Hong Kong.
His destination at the top by now evident to many, in October 1982 he returned to the MoD as director of military operations, responsible not only for the direction of land operations worldwide, including Northern Ireland, but for the army’s budget planning and management. In this role he unsuccessfully advocated giving prisoner-of -war status to captured IRA men so they could be detained “for the duration”, forcing their commanders to give up the struggle, or as he preferred it, the war.
The defence secretary was John Nott, with whom he had served in Malaya with the 1st/2nd. Perhaps to Chapple’s disappointment, although he never showed it, Nott stood down three months later, and in his place Margaret Thatcher appointed Michael Heseltine, who at once began a scheme of MoD centralisation. Chapple was the army’s representative on the working group, which axed the post of vice-chief of the general staff to which he was meant to be appointed next. Instead, he was made deputy chief of the defence staff for programmes and personnel, one of Heseltine’s new central staff posts. This was followed two years later by an unusually short tour of 15 months as commander-in-chief UK Land Forces before in 1988 becoming CGS.
Chapple was expected by many to be the next chief of the defence staff, a post much strengthened by the Heseltine reforms. However, the bruising Options for Change exercise and presence of a charismatic chief of air staff probably conspired to make it the turn of the light blue again. Chapple was said to have been disappointed “for an afternoon”.
The compensation on leaving in 1992 was appointment as governor and commander-in-chief, Gibraltar. Chapple displayed a deft political touch and never minded dressing up. Although not very tall and never by any yardstick possessing a martial figure, he could, with his field marshal’s baton, like the colonel in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, claim: “Gold lace has a charm for the fair/ And I’ve plenty of that, and to spare.” One of the Gibraltar police’s fast enforcement boats is named after him.
Chapple believed an officer should have a hinterland (and a field marshal never retires). His own was vast. He was a patron, fellow, president, ambassador, trustee and member of a dizzying number of organisations, 99 at one count, including the Zoological Society of London, the Royal Geographical Society, which he had joined at 16, and the WWF. Like his wartime predecessor, Alan Brooke, he was also a keen and knowledgeable ornithologist. His office in the MoD, before it moved to that of the chief of the general staff with its walls adorned with photographs of past occupants, was furnished with exquisite paintings of birds. As well as Kipling first editions, from childhood he collected militaria. Over the years he amassed some 9,000 cap badges of Empire, specialising in the Indian Army, including the regiments of the princely states, and the regiments of Ireland. The Irish collection is now at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. The remaining collection is housed in the National Army Museum.
Chapple was a great admirer and supporter of Gurkha soldiers, their history and homeland of Nepal. He helped to establish the Gurkha Welfare Trust and the Gurkha Museum, while his conservation work in Nepal was recognised by the king of Nepal in 2002 with the award of the Order of Gorkha Dakshina Bahu.
Above all, Chapple was his own man. On his first day in the brigade headquarters in BAOR, his brigadier had come to his desk towards lunchtime in a tracksuit, telling him to put aside the paperwork and come for a run. “Oh, no, brigadier,” he replied; “I don’t do that.” To the credit of both, nothing more was said. He was not built for athletics or games, but he could trek for miles.
He also had a mischievous sense of humour. An old friend, John Money-Kyrle, had served on Hong Kong’s frontier with China in 1950 during the Korean War. Several decades later when Chapple was CBF, Money-Kyrle and his wife paid him a visit. The Chapples took them to see an old observation post that Money-Kyrle’s platoon had manned. Out of a trench climbed two aged men in aged uniforms: “Oh, at last, Mr Money-Kyrle, we’ve been waiting for you for 30 years and wondered when you’re going to release us from sentry duty.”
Although well abreast of matters to the end, Chapple remained defiant about some aspects of modernisation. He carried only cash and a chequebook, proud of leaving no digital footprint. He usually had a glass of Manzanilla before dinner, but had few rituals and no superstitions or regrets.
His one bad habit, he said, was small Philippine leaf cigars. After he gave up cigarettes in Malaya, his Gurkha orderly had put a packet of these by his bedside. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Sahib, you got so bad tempered when you stopped smoking that I thought these would help you.”
Field Marshal Sir John Chapple, GCB, CBE, DL, chief of the general staff, was born on May 27, 1931. He died on March 25, 2022, aged 90, after a short illness
Article extracted from the Times Newspaper 26th March 2022.