Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Ray was deeply respected by all ranks for his consistency, fairness and steely determination to get the job done
Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Ray, who has died aged 94, had a life of tough soldiering in British Somaliland, Northern Ireland, and Oman.
He was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers in 1948 as a National Service officer but volunteered for the Somaliland Scouts. Based in Awareh – one of the few watering places and a confluence of camel trails – he assisted the District Commissioner for two years.
Tribal quarrels, often over water, were taking place in Ogaden, the strip of country between the Somaliland Protectorate and Ethiopia. The Scouts had the challenging task of keeping the warring clansmen apart.
There was always a danger of disputes turning into outright conflict, and Ray gathered the headmen and forbade any gathering of people in the town at night. Whenever he heard shouting, he ordered his men to fire 2 in mortar parachute-illuminating flares over the town, and this produced a satisfactory silence.
He learnt the Somali language and, aged 94, could still sing the Somali “Camel Milking Song”. On one occasion, he surprised a Somali taxi driver in London by engaging him in his own language.
James Bryan Ray was born in Crayford, south-east London, on March 6, 1929. During the Second World War, he was evacuated from London and lived with his mother’s family, who farmed near Llandrindod Wells in Radnorshire.
Always known as Bryan, he attended the local school, where he learnt Welsh. To the end of his life, he would sing Land of My Fathers in Welsh when watching the Wales rugby team. He learnt to ride, rounding up the sheep on a small Welsh pony, and this was the beginning of a lifelong love of horses.
He was granted a regular commission and joined the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, in Mogadishu. The battalion subsequently amalgamated with the Queen’s Royal Regiment to become the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, which later became the Queen’s Regiment.
Ray served in Libya, Egypt’s Canal Zone, Cyprus, where he was ADC to the Governor, and West Germany. He was one of the first soldiers to be posted to Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and in 1969 he commanded B Company of 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Regiment, in Belfast. He was appointed MBE at the end of an exacting tour.
He was part of Nato Forces Baltic Approaches in Denmark before being seconded to the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) in Oman. The SAF was engaged in a war with Communist-backed guerrillas (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Gulf, or PFLOAG). From 1972 to 1974 he commanded the Northern Frontier Regiment and saw action in the southern province of Dhofar.
Ray was directly responsible for blocking the enemy’s access to the vital Salalah Plain area and for conducting helicopter operations against the enemy camel-train routes further west. This resulted in the scale and frequency of stand-off attacks on Salalah declining to almost nothing.
His skill, patience and persistence were rewarded by the apprehension and partial destruction of two enemy camel trains in the Wadi Ashoq—the first time this had happened in two years. These intensive operations placed a heavy burden on his officers and men, and the regiment suffered 10 killed and 13 wounded in action.
Ray’s brigade commander, Jack Fletcher, who had previously been his CO in Belfast, said of him: “His courage, cheerfulness, and steadfastness never faltered, and he was both an example and an inspiration to his battalion. Whenever one of his companies was in contact with the enemy and casualties were incurred, he was quickly on the scene, and by his presence did much to banish fatigue and sustain and encourage his men.”
He was awarded the Sultan’s Commendation Medal. In the Northern Frontier Regiment, there were Omanis, Baluchis, British Contract, and seconded officers. He was deeply respected by all ranks for his consistency, fairness, and steely determination to get the job done.
After leaving the Army, Ray spent six years with the Oman internal security service. He undertook several expeditions to Afghanistan between 1990 to 1993 in the company of Brigadier Peter Stewart-Richardson in support of the charity Afghan Mother and Child Rescue.
With the help of Afghan engineers and medical staff, they surveyed the construction of dams and irrigation schemes to make improvements in sanitation and water supplies to Chak-e-Wardak Hospital and other clinics in eastern Afghanistan.
He subsequently branched out on his own and worked as a security adviser for various non-governmental organizations. This work took him to South Sudan, Pakistan, and Kenya, where he helped aid organizations working in areas of conflict.
Staff might face a variety of dangers: being caught in a crossfire between warring factions, being ambushed or taken hostage, or assaulted for robbery or political motives. They might have their vehicle hijacked or booby-trapped, or they might be caught in a minefield. His consultancy also taught first aid and helped to draw up evacuation and crisis management plans.
He published Dangerous Frontiers (2008), an account of his adventures campaigning in Somaliland and Oman.
Bryan Ray faced much tragedy in his life, losing two wives to cancer: Paula, née Sillars, died in 1981, and Mary, née Fletcher, in 1994. He married, thirdly, in 1995, Harriet Sandys, whom he met through their joint interest in Afghanistan. She survives him with a son and daughter from his first marriage.
Bryan Ray, born March 6 1929, died September 4, 2023
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