Major General Andrew Watson, soldier of the Black Watch who served in Malaysia and Northern Ireland and as military attaché in Washington – obituary

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Andrew Watson speaks to the Queen Mother, Colonel-in-Chief of the Black Watch, alongside Major GD Cochrane, centre, and Lieutenant-Colonel WA Teed, in 1962
Andrew Watson speaks to the Queen Mother, Colonel-in-Chief of the Black Watch, alongside Major GD Cochrane, centre, and Lieutenant-Colonel WA Teed, in 1962

Major General Andrew Watson, who has died aged 95, was a highly experienced soldier whose successful career included accelerated promotion to command of a brigade.

Andrew Linton Watson was born on April 9 1927 in Meerut, near New Delhi, in India. His father was an officer in the Indian Medical Service and his mother had served as a nurse during the First World War. The family lived at Abbottabad (now in Pakistan) and young Andrew went to school riding on a pony and wearing a solar topee, or pith helmet. He kept a mongoose as a pet.

He returned to England to go to preparatory school and then to Wellington, where he spent many nights sleeping in bomb shelters. During one bombing raid the headmaster was killed.

Watson joined the Coldstream Guards and served in the ranks for nine months before being commissioned into The Black Watch in February 1946. In 1950, he was in charge of the bearer party at Field Marshal Lord Wavell’s funeral.

At the Coronation in 1953, he carried the Queen’s colour of the 2nd Battalion. It poured with rain, the colour became saturated, the harness supporting it broke and it had to be held up throughout the march, a considerable test of stamina.

Shortly after he was married, he was serving in West Germany and living in married quarters. Late one night, hearing an intruder, he crept down stairs and seeing a shadowy figure, he whacked it with his swagger stick, snapping it in two. His wife, Ginty, hearing the thud, rushed down shouting, “You bloody fool! You’ve killed him!” He had not – but he had given the au pair’s boyfriend a considerable shock and the young man never came in through the bathroom window again.

After serving in British Guyana as adjutant of the 2nd Battalion followed by attendance at Staff College and a spell as brigade major, from 1960 to 1962 he commanded a company in Cyprus. In the winter, the house was so cold that he and his wife spent every evening huddled in the bathroom. Watson returned to Cyprus later as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force.

In 1967, he was posted to Seremban, Malaysia, as General Staff Officer Grade 1, 17 Division. Two years later, he assumed command of 1st Battalion The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment). This involved two emergency tours to Belfast and Londonderry and a four-month tour in Armagh. When General Franco threatened to invade Gibraltar, the battalion moved there at short notice and dug in. The assault never materialised.

In 1971, on his rapid promotion straight from lieutenant-colonel to brigadier, he assumed command of 19 Airportable Brigade. From 1975 to 1977, based in Washington DC, he was Commander British Army Staff and military attaché. His duties included organising the state visit of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for the bicentennial celebrations of American independence. He secured a month’s attachment for his son, Patrick, at the West Point Military Academy.

There were military tattoos and contributions from some of Britain’s great military bands but American battle re-enactment groups were pressing for staged engagements of British soldiers in 18th-century uniform showing them being mown down or surrendering to American militiamen. For the small British contingent at the Academy, it was payback time.

At Muster Parade, at West Point, on July 4 1976, America’s finest cadets looked up to the ramparts of Fort Putnam where, to their horror, they saw not the Stars and Stripes but the Union Flag fluttering over them. Attached to the base of the flagstaff, in bold lettering, was the message, “It has taken us 200 years but the Brits are back!” After a brief panic, a detachment was assembled and the flag lowered with due ceremony.

During Watson’s time as GOC Eastern District, based in Colchester, the Army was drafted in to fight fires using the force’s “Green Goddesses.” In 1980, he became Chief of Staff at Allied Forces Northern Europe (AFNORTH) based at Kolsas, near Oslo.

He loved many aspects of life in Norway, particularly cross-country skiing – in which it was not unusual, on mountain paths, to pass women naked from the waist up – but he never felt comfortable being entertained by neighbours and having to join them in the sauna. Nor did he take to the cumbersome nuclear, biological-chemical clothing that he had to wear during simulated nuclear attacks.

Appointed CB in 1981, he was Lieutenant Governor, The Royal Hospital Chelsea, from 1984 to 1993 when he retired from the Army. In retirement, he lived in the grounds of Garrick’s Villa at Hampton in Middlesex, where he enjoyed golf, classical music and extensive travel.

He advised Jason Clarke for his role in the film The Aftermath (2019), set in the bitter winter of 1945 in the British occupation zone of post-war Germany.

Well-known for his smile, the twinkle in his eye and his habit of laughing uncontrollably at his own jokes, he was the best of company. From 1981 to 1992 he was a much loved Colonel of the Black Watch.

Major General Andy Watson married, in 1952, Mary Elizabeth (Ginty) Rigby. She survives him with their two sons, Alastair and Patrick, both of whom served in the Black Watch, and a daughter, Shane, who is an author and Daily Telegraph columnist.

Major General Andy Watson, born April 9 1927, died July 12 2022