Obituary Major Bernard John Underhill (Rtd), MBE, RA

Major B J Underhill (Rtd), MBE, RAMajor Bernard John (Bunny) Underhill was born in Callington, Cornwall in 1919 to a doctor-turned-chemist. Both his elder brothers were also chemists, but he inadvertently cracked the mould as an Army officer for some 45 years (initially a 10th Gurkha and, following Indian Independence a Gunner for 38 years).

After Blundell’s (Petergate 1933-37), Bunny gave up his place at Guy’s Medical School in 1939 to enlist in the Devonshire Regiment. Quickly selected for commando training in Scotland, he was disappointed to be taken off the train by MPs and sent to the Officer Training Unit in Aldershot; here he first saw action: firing a Bren gun at enemy aircraft attacking Queen’s Parade. In 1940 he joined 2/10th Gurkha Rifles in Quetta. At their first meeting, the CO flatly refused to have another Bernard in the Battalion and immediately renamed him “Bunny” – his name for the next 70 years!

Recent events in Iraq stirred Bunny’s wartime memories of landing with 2/10GR in Basra and action against the Iraqis, the Vichy French in Syria and Iranians in Persia. Most vivid were memories of travelling by rail in the stifling heat, being strafed by Vichy French fighters in Syria and, when part of PAI Force acquiring Persian rugs and a saddle-bag, for which he insisted on paying (much to the ex-owner’s surprise). Middle East Staff College in Haifa metamorphosed a young Bunny into a staff officer at HQ 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade – at that stage just him and the Brigadier! They were joined by 2/6GR, 2/8GR and 2/10GR and trained for mountain then mechanised warfare in the now-notorious Beka’a Valley in Lebanon.

Bunny served in the HQ of 43 Gurkha Lorried Brigade from its formation in 1943 until after Indian Independence in 1947. Some memories come to mind. One evening in Lebanon he crossed two kukris and suggested to Brigadier 'Tochi' Barker that the Brigade formation sign become white crossed kukris on a rifle green patch. The Gurkhas’ skill at “lassoing” Italian geese from a moving jeep with a wire noose slipped up the centre of a whip aerial. How rapidly his scout car driver reversed as soon as he started taking machine-gun fire from a farmhouse that they were reconnoitring to re-locate Brigade HQ. How Brigadier Barker hopped on the pillion of a motorcycle and ordered him to drive him cross-country for the first time in his life (Bunny’s father had banned motorbikes and he had had to tell a white lie at OCTU!)! His alarm when he encountered his first Tiger tank. How he was blown up by an 88mm shell, initially left for dead but later evacuated in an American ambulance; he exhorted the stretcher bearers not to spill his almost overflowing “Don R boot” at the end of the long bumpy drive!

While recovering from his wounds, Bunny hitched a lift to Malta as “bomb-aimer” of a Halifax and was lucky to survive being deprived of oxygen! There he proposed to a Wren he knew of old, called Pat Walker, at Fort St Angelo – hence their son’s middle name “Angelo” but initials amended from TAP to PAT! He married Pat in Plymouth in July 1945, cutting their wedding cake with a kukri. Bunny then rejoined 43 Brigade and returned to India via Italy, Palestine and Syria. Pat went right flanking on the first families troopship to India, where their son Tim was born in April shortly after their reunification in Secunderabad in 1946.

Still in HQ 43 Gurkha Lorried Brigade, Bunny distinguished himself during Partition, Indian Independence and the associated human upheaval. He had been a 10th Gurkha for some seven years and was mentioned in despatches four times. At the end of 1947, Bunny decided not to return to medical school and [like the newly-arrived Stanley Roberts] opted to convert his EC in 10th Gurkha Rifles for a Regular Commission in the Royal Artillery; he and family consequently moved to a Nissen Hut in Cornwall!

In Bude Bunny first met Brigadier Roy Shaddock, then a 2nd Lieutenant, who swept into the camp with his convoy of guns from Wiltshire. This did not best please the CO, who told Bunny, his adjutant, to give Roy a rocket for bringing the guns in much too fast. This he did and then with a twinkle in his eye said “And now old boy, what about coming to my quarter for some lunch?” - typical of Bunny’s kindly nature and generosity and the start of a 61-year friendship.

After being Brigade Major of an Anti Aircraft Brigade in Tomfanau, Bunny was posted to 15th Medium Regiment in Lippstadt and Roy joined his Battery. As a MQ was not available, Bunny and Pat immediately invited Eileen and Roy to stay with them – this was amazingly generous seeing that they had met Roy once and Eileen not at all! Two years later they all moved to Gun Club Hill Barracks in Hong Kong with the Regiment.

Bunny was next G2 (Air) at the Joint Operations Centre at HQ Malaya Command from 1956 until after ‘Merdeka’ in 1958. There he renewed friendships with and supported several wartime Gurkha friends and was mentioned in despatches for the 5th time.

After Malaya, Bunny commanded 46 (Talavera) Battery in 32 Medium Regiment in Carlisle. With a certain degree of deja vu, the regiment also moved to Gun Club Hill Barracks, while Bunny greatly enjoyed an independent battery command at Erskine Camp near the then tortuous jeep track to Sai Kung. This time Stanley Roberts was his Battery Captain, providing a continuous 10GR/43 Gurkha Lorried Brigade reunion (often to the accompaniment of “Peter Sellers” repartee!) at the odd Indian restaurant.

Virtual normality ensued on return to the UK. Although Bunny had requested a posting to his native West Country, he instead became DAQMG Qtg at HQ Western Command in Chester! He and Pat bought their first house and his characteristic hard work and conscientiousness was rewarded with a long-deserved MBE.

Another staff job followed at the MOD: C8 (Inspector of Establishments), when he enjoyed living in West Byfleet while not “on the road” - with a retired Stanley Roberts and Joan nearby in Ripley! Two years as BMRA 48 Division (TA) in Shrewsbury and another two years as BM HQRA Woolwich saw Bunny retire and become Army Careers Information Officer in Wolverhampton - until he was finally “poached” by Directorate of Army Recruiting in London as an RO. With his long and distinguished record of service he was well suited to all these tasks.

For his final 25 years Bunny lived on the island of Alderney. There he displayed skill as an artist and sculptor, helped run the Alderney Railway as conductor then driver, assisted with the museum and library and took his turn as President of PROBUS. He remained a loyal Gunner and Gurkha, attended Gurkha reunions and supported both Gurkha and Gunner charities. Despite failing sight, he enjoyed receiving Gunner and Gurkha publications.

Bernard John Underhill died on 28th November 2009 six weeks short of his 91st birthday in his beloved Alderney, after drawing on his bottomless reserves of courage, fortitude and good humour to the very end. He was predeceased by Pat in 2002 and is survived by Tim (a retired Gurkha) and his wife Liz, two grandsons and one granddaughter.