General Sir Peter de la Billiere, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC (bar)
This article is a bare-bones biography. More information can be found in General Sir Peter de la Billiere's biogrpahy, "Looking for Trouble", ISBN 00002552450, published by Harpercolliuns in 1994.
Peter Edgar Delacour was born at 0925 on 29th April 1934, to Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Denis de Labillerie, and his wife Kitty Lawley. At the age of seven, Peter lost his father, who was reported missing after his ship, the cruiser HMS Fiji, was bombed and sunk, by German bombers off of Crete.
At the age of eight and a half, Peter started school at St Peter's, from 1942 until 1946, his school-life being interrupted, when a fire destroyed Shobrooke Park House in the early hours of 23rd January 1945, when he was ten, and which led to a quick evacuation. The school reassembled in the summer term, in another large house in the country near Bideford, and returned to Broadstairs in the autumn, the war being finally over. His mother had remarried in 1943 to Major Maurice Bennetts, and a half brother David was born, Peter already having a brother, Micheal.
After St Peters, Peter went onto Harrow, despite the hefty fees which, his mother had some difficulty paying. His favorite occupation was shooting, but he still resented the school rules, and devoted much time to bending or breaking them. Sadly, his mother's relationship turned sour while he was at Harrow, and the Maurices left. Back at Harrow, Peter had trouble with music and finally gave up, he also took classes in navigation. Peter left Harrow with two distinctions, and two credits, having scraped through in mathematics. The year after, his mother was taken ill by carbon-monoxide poisoning, from a newly installed boiler and was disabled, which led to family rows, as Aunt Joyce, tried to put her, in an asylum.
Peter now tried to join the Merchant Navy, but was rejected, as tests revealed he was colour blind, and his attention became focused on the army early, as his ambition became to join the SAS, and he enlisted with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, in Shrewsbury. Peter's mother was moved into Graylingwell Hospital, and the family home sold, much of the furniture being packed away into store. Peter Delacour walked through the imposing gates of Copthorne Barracks, on the morning of 2nd January, 1952.
Into the Army
Peter now began to spell his name de la Billiere, a change which was made permanent in 1992. He joined the King's Shropshire Light Infantry as 2277920 Private de la Billiere, and had little hope or expectation of promotion, but was determined to make his way in the army from the bottom. He saw his future was doing 3 years as a private soldier, perhaps making non-commissioned officer and then coming out.
The army filled a niche which needed filling, it provided a roof over his head, and he was an army volunteer, not part of the National Service draft, which would have called him up within six months anyway. He filled in, in the orderly room until the next draft arrived, and joined them, having already been in the army for all of two weeks. After six weeks of officer training, a selection board was held, and Peter was chosen for officer training, being sent to the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry depot at Strenshall near York.
Training was tougher there. He received regular pay of 7 shillings, as opposed to National Servicemens' pay of 3 shilling a day, but this was still whittled down by compulsory deductions, amounting to four shillings a week. Peter then went in front of a War Office Selection Board, and passed after two days of initiative and intelligence tests, and had to wait several weeks, doing boring fatigue duties before moving on, to officer cadet training at Eaton Hal, near Chester.
Peter was rejected by an officer from the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, but applied to the Durham Light Infantry, and was accepted as a Second Lieutenant, into the regiment. The relationship between Joyce and Peter, continued to be strained, as his mother was well-enough to be released from Graylingwell, but Joyce would not have her live at Old Place with her, and arranged for her to be admitted to another sanatorium, the Holloway at Virginia Water, which she was late arriving at, after absconding for a few days. Peter took the step of guarding his brother David's education, by engaging a solicitor to guard his education, against the attempts of Joyce and his grandmother to move David from St Peters school, and both cut Peter from their will, with the sock of the letter threatening legal proceedings, if they tried and arranged for the Court of Protection to manage his mother's future and finances.
His first tour began in Japan, in preparation to act as reinforcements to the regiments in Korea, but he was held back, due to his young age. While at the holding camp, he was given command of a platoon of reinforcements, and then managed to get onto a detachment to the realistic training range at Hura Mura. On 26th April 1953, after much waiting, Peter's name appeared on the list of officers bound for Korea, and he left three days later, on his 19th birthday. In korea, for ease of mouth, Peter became known as Eddie Smith, and he joined the fort line at Hill 355, with B company of the Dorset Light Infantry. During his time in Korea, Peter also occupied, with his men and B Company, Hill 287, and Yong Dong hill. The ceasefire came into effect on 27th July, and after that, Peter took ships to the war cemetary at Seoul, and paid his respects, after a gruelling three months in the lines of Korea.
The battalion then took ships to Egypt, with ex-POW's in a troopship. In Egypt, Peter finished his tour, and managed to convince the battalion commander, to allow him to attempt to join the SAS after he finished his tour, and put a year in, training cadets at the DLI depot in Branceperth. He was persuaded by friends, to take the Regular Commission Board at Westbury, and made the transition to Regular officer, but declined a two-year course at Sandhurst. He oversaw the closure of Maryam ammunition dump in Egypt on 26th May 1955, and left with the battalion.
Back at the DLI depot, Peter now began as Training Subaltern in charge of the new recruits. He modified the training schedule to include more night-fighting, and live-fire exercises. In October 1956, the DLI released Peter, to try his luck on the SAS selection course.
Into the SAS
The SAS Selection course was, and still is, incredibly tough, designed to weed out the candidates not suited to the service's special sort of operations. At that time, the SAS was only operational unit in Malaya, and the men were being weeded out for that environment, and it's specific conditions. Peter was accepted, and put his family affairs in order before leaving for Malaya. A further selection course took place in the jungle, over a three-week training period, including jungle navigation, and he became a full-member of the SAS, which was followed, by a course to remedy his non-existent parachuting skills.
Once Peter returned from the parachuting course at Changi airfield, he was assigned to B Squadron, in command of 6 Troop SAS, and immediately went on an operation lasting three and a half months, in the jungle. Following this, he was transferred to D Squadron, and despatched to Oman, in command of 18 Troop, and retrained for combat in desert conditions, with new weapons, for night-fighting in large units, instead of day-fighting at close quarters, in the Jungle. They departed for Oman on 18th November.
In Oman, the SAS were deployed to assist and augment the Sultan's forces, in restoring order, and participated in the Jebel Akhdar campaign. After this, he returned to Durham, and the knowledge that the SAS would continue, (it had been threatened with disbandment after Malaya, but had proven itself flexible and mobile in Oman). In February 1959, Peter returned to Durham, and October the same year, saw Peter awarded the Military cross, for his work in Oman, where he had led and participated in successful assaults on rebel outposts.
He returned to training recruits, this time at Brancepeth Castle, on the DLI, before being offered the administrative position of Adjutant of 21st SAS, the Territorial regiment, and the DLI let him return to the SAS. He served in this post from 1960 to 1962. He bought a yacht in August 1961, in company with Captain Julian Howard, Royal Artillery, from whom, he learned the basics of sailing the yacht.
In 1962, Peter was attached to the Federal Regular Army in Aden, on loan with a few other British officers, to help coordinate the operations against the rebelling tribesmen, but, in early 1963, ran a survival course on behalf of Headquarters, Middle East with officers from the Army, Navy and RAF, volunteering or drafted to the course from far and wide, with the assistance of two former SAS sergeants.
Later, he took the Staff College Exam and failed, thereby opening his way back to the SAS. In January 1964, Peter spent 10 days on reconnaissance, before flying back to England, and rejoined 22 SAS, at Hereford, after visiting his mother. He was appointed commander of A squadron, and persuaded the Commander-in-Chief in Aden, Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Harington, to bring forward A squadron's scheduled exercise in Aden, for the purpose of deep-penetration into the Radfan mountains. The squadron was ordered to move on 20th April, having to take time to acclimatize, and was at their forward base within 18 hours of arriving. A squadron left in May 1964, for a rapid-turnaround in England, as it was due to relieve D Squadron in Borneo, in the summer of 1964.
A short leave followed, during which, he met Bridget Goode, at a party he had been persuaded to go to. He asked her to marry him, shortly thereafter, but got a flea in the ear, his haste was because he was due to leave for Borneo.
A Squadron's first tour in Borneo, lasted between June 1964 and October 1966, at the end of which, Peter returned to England. After a constant flow of letters between himself and Bridget, the relationship developed. Peter being urged on by the knowledge he would return to Borneo in May. They were engaged, and the date of the wedding set for 13th february 1965. They bought a house, to provide a firm base for any future family, regardless of Peter's possible postings abroad, and they married on the set date, Aunt Joyce declining to attend.
The honeymoon was in Morocco, but spoilt by the fact that Peter had to report his whereabouts to the British Consulate in case of emergency. In May, Peter returned to Borneo, leaving his wife, lonely and pregnant, with other army wives nearby for freinds, but, it was helped, by Peter's frankness in his letters to his wife.
The second Borneo tour of A Squadron ended in October 1965, and Peter was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross, one of many awards to A squadron. They returned to England, Peter's and Bridget's child was due in the New year, and their daughter Nicola, was born on 2nd January 1966. Peter's tour with the SAS was almost up, and he was persuaded to go through Staff College, by Mike Wingate Gray, and Bridget. He was awarded a place and was exempted from the exams, due to being on operations, after Mike had argued for him, and been backed, by Major General Monkey Blacker. He took a three-month course at the Royal College of Military Science at Shrivenham, in Wiltshire. The course was badly executed, and far too academic for officers with no scientific bent or training, but the family continued to live in their cottage, with Peter commuting back and forth.
Staff College was a different matter, the family moving to Camberley, having let the cottage to a couple of doctors, and the course began in September 1966. The course was first class, but tough, and Peter now had to pay for earlier academic idleness, and learned a great deal about administration, and engaged in tactical exercises without troops. Bridget became pregnant again at the end of 1966, but threatened to miscarry, and had to have six-weeks of complete bed-rest. Peter's mother had by now improved enough to stay with the couple, and helped out, as Nicola went to stay with Bridget's mother. After her six-weeks bedrest, Bridget began moving around again, and in the early horus of 18th September 1967 gave birth to Phillida.
A medical exam now revealed, that Peter had suffered some loss-of-hearing, from firing the SLR, and it threatened to end his career, but, he appealed, on the grounds that an officer did not need to have as acute hearing, as a junior officer, and that the time and money invested in his training would be wasted, and he was accepted, on the grounds he take a special test every three years, but, somehow he managed to be abroad everytime the date came around. He completed Staff College, and got the posting he wanted, G2 Special Forces at Strategic Command, and moved to Salisbury, as his fellow students fanned out across the world.
The job was lacking in the pressure of a field command, and gave the family a chance to settle down, and they moved to Harnham, and Peter took up carpentry and bee-keeping. The post of second-in-command 22 SAS, became available as his G2 post ended, and the family returned to the cottage they had fought to keep, through financial worries. Bridget was pregnant again and they extended the cottage. The Third child being born on 15th June 1970, and named Edward.
Peter was sent to Oman in the middle of August, to keep an eye on the situation with the Yemeni rebels, and in the four years that followed, the SAS helped to roll back the tide of communism from the Middle East.
In January 1972, at the age of 37, Peter de la Billiere took over as Commanding Officer of 22nd SAS. Peter visited Mirbat after the battle, to see the scene of the SAS battle, and to put it in perspective, the casualties had been miraculously light, but it could have been a disaster.
In 1973, the family decided to move into a larger house, but Peter was in Dhofar during the move, and trusted Bridget's judgement and despite being firstly appalled at the new house, Peter was persuaded by his wife, and the house was refurbished and repainted.
Following the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Peter was asked what the SAS could do against such an event in the UK. He dragged out a paper he had asked Captain Andy Massey to write, the previous spring. The Director of Military Operations wanted to know how long it would take to implement. Peter asked the money question, and got a no problem reply, and declared five weeks, with adequate transport. The Government winkled out three early model Range Rovers for the SAS, and they turned out potentially good, after some SAS style modifications. Fitting them with Roll-bars, and beefing up the suspension for heavier loads.
The counter-terroist team took shape, under Operation Pagoda. In five weeks, a team was in being, but of course, the SAS were not satisfied, and continued to refine methods, skills, and equipment, which would be tested in the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege.
Peter left the SAS in the hands of Tony Jeapes, after an inquiry over misappropriation of firqat funds, had been resolved, with the money paid back, an officer transferred, and Peter dealt with several others. Peter went on to a tour as instructor, in the Overseas team, dealing with counter-insurgency, at the Staff College. Peter also took up pig-farming, and after some mistakes, started to make enough money, to help renovate the buildings on the few acres of land the family possessed.
Peter was then offered a posting to Khartoum to run the British Army Training team there, and the family move there in 1977. Peter spent two years in that city with his family, and included an overland drive from Dover to Kahrtoum, which included driving across the nubian desert, in a land rover they had bought, and arrived in Khartoum to find that the landlord of the house the army rented, had tried to throw the army out, and that the family would have to move. They found a house for rent which was not modern by Sudanese standards, but infested with rats and other vermin.
At the end of 1978, Peter returned to England with his family, to take up the post of Director, SAS group. During his tour as Director, Peter de la Billerie managed problems in Northern Ireland, the Iranian Embassy Siege, and the Falklands War. During this period, the immense amount of air travel the Director was required to do, aggravated an old back injury from parachute training in Wales, and Peter had to see a doctor. A laminectomy removed the accretions on Peter's backbone and freed the trapped spinal nerves, and during his convalescence in New Zealand, he was visited by several former SAS men.
During his convalesce, which lasted about three weeks, Bridget had acquired a puppy, called Kesty, against Peter's explicit instructions, but, the SAS man was soon won around. Peter followed his tour as Director SAS, with a year at the Royal College of Defence Studies, from Septemeber 1982 to December 1983. This was followed, by the appointment of, Military Commissioner and Commander of British Forces in the Falkland Islands, from the summer of 1984.
Here, Peter oversaw the rebuilding and improvement of the Islands' defences, and resided in Britannia House, a large prefabricated building, brought over by the Argentineans, and erected before the war, for an Argentine commander, but it was so bullet-ridden, that the tin roof was never waterproof. He visited the Royal navy ships, RAf airbase, and army depots, throughout the Islands frequently, to improve morale and strengthen inter-service relations and cooperation. The main task of his tour, was to build Mount Pleasant Airport, a true-international airport, to replace Port Stanley, and to house the permanent RAF detachment of Phantoms, and later Tornadoes, and a major road followed, to link Stanley with the new airport. All a prodigious feat, in what was essentially a peat-bog, and requiring an excavation of between 2 and 12 feet of peat, to obtain solid footings for the buildings and runways.
Prince Andrew opened the Airport on 12th May 1984. Peter's Falklands tour ended on 19th July, and they returned to England and was appointed GOC Wales, the same area where SAS trained for years, in the rugged mountains. He followed this with a promotion to GOC South-East District, and a knighthood in the New Years honours for 1988. The family moved to Brecon in January, and took up residence in the GCO's official home. During his time here, he organized the Soldier IN Need Fund, and raised 62,000 GBP in twelve months, from his command. In the summer of 1990, Peter had decided to begin preparing to retire. Then, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iraq.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, led Peter to apply for, and get, the job of Commander, British Forces Middle East, and he left for Riyadh, on 6th October 1990. In Saudi Arabia, Sir Peter led the deployment and organization of the British armoured forces, and their support network. He also persuaded General Schwarzkopf, to deploy special forces. The land-war, and advance, was tragically hit by a disaster, when a pair of USAF A-10 Warthogs shot up two Warrior IFVs of 4th Armoured Brigade, killing nine men and injuring 11.
After the Gulf, Peter was promoted General, and appointed KBE, and became Special Advisor to the minister of Defence, on Middle East Matters. He retired from active service in June 1992.