The Times of London

May 20, 1992, Wednesday


Sir Robert Thompson

Sir Robert Thompson, KBE, CMG, DSO, MC, permanent secretary for defence, Federation of Malaya, 1959-61; head of the British advisory mission to Vietnam, 1961-65; and one of the world's foremost experts on combating rural guerrilla warfare techniques, died on May 16 aged 76. He was born on April 12, 1916.

ROBERT Thompson led the kind of life which is given to few; a life of tremendous adventure and variety, crowned by the satisfaction, not only of battles won, but of seeing his views have a significant effect on world affairs.He was widely regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as the world's leading expert on countering the Mao Tse-tung technique of rural guerrilla insurgency.

He certainly devoted more of his life to this than almost any other man, being involved for 12 years throughout the emergency in Malaya, and then for four critical years in South Vietnam, after which he was in continuous demand as a consultant and adviser on the subject all over the world. He thoroughly absorbed the lessons he had learned in Malaya from the generals who fought and won that conflict and he realized profoundly that weight of fire power, preponderance of manpower and sophistication of equipment counted for nothing compared with the willingness to meet and defeat the enemy on his own terms, as the British did again so successfully in Brunei and Borneo in the mid-1960s. When Vietnam was over he remarked perceptively: ''The Americans never could see Vietnam in the time frame of Malaya they did not have patience for this sort of war.''

Robert Grainger Ker Thompson was the son of Canon W. G. Thompson. He went to Marlborough and took an MA at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. In 1938 he joined the Malayan Civil Service as a cadet, and was to serve in East and South East Asia almost without a break for the next 27 years.

While at Cambridge he had learned to fly with the University Air Squadron, so in the second world war he joind the RAF, and when the Japanese struck in 1941 he was serving in Macao, learning Cantonese. Thence came the first major adventure of his life. He escaped with a suitcase stuffed with notes, and gambled his way across mainland China to Burma. Here, he became RAF liaison officer on both of Wingate's Chindit expeditions, flying his own Hurricane and reaching the rank of wing commander. For his war services he was awarded the DSO and rare for an RAF officer the MC. The citation gave, as part explanation for the award to an RAF man of an Army medal, the fact that Wing Commander Thompson was ''always to the fore with his tommy-gun''.

After the war he returned in 1946 to the Malayan civil service and became assistant commissioner of labour in the state of Perak in 1946. After a course at the Joint Services Staff College at Latimer, he joined the staff of the newly appointed director of operations, Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs, in 1950 and continued in that appointment throughout the tour of Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Templer.

These were the crucial years of the Malayan emergency, and, when Thompson became a public figure ten years later, he was constantly embarrassed by being credited with a major share in winning it. He was always at pains to point out that he was at the time a very junior member of the staff of the men who did win it Briggs and Templer and under whom, he said, he learned the arts of counter-insurgency.

Later, when Malaya became independent, Thompson became permanent secretary for defence that is, the head civil servant in the defence ministry of Tun Abdul Razak, who subsequently became prime minister.

In 1960, as the Malaya emergency drew to a close, President Ngo Din Diem of South Vietnam asked Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malayan prime minister, to send a team of experts to review the situation and advise him. Thompson led this team, and his report so impressed Diem that he asked the British government if he could have him back on a more permanent basis. Thompson, whose post was being Malayanised, was sent back to Saigon at the head of a small British advisory mission to President Diem, and he remained there (also serving Diem's successors) from 1961 until 1965.

While in Vietnam he was asked to organise the strategic hamlet programme on the lines of the successful programme in Malaya. Conditions, however, were very different and, whereas Briggs in Malaya had established 410 new villages in 18 months, President Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, insisted on establishing more than 8,000 strategic hamlets in the first year. Moreover, whereas no Malayan new village had been occupied until there was a viable police post to defend it, the strategic hamlets were virtually undefended except by armed villagers, so of course many were over-run and the programme was discredited. Soon afterwards both Dimand Nhu were assassinated.

Thompson, however, tried to introduce many other principles into Vietnam. He contended that the underground cadres in the villages were more important than the Vietcong guerrillas in the jungle, and that these must have priority for attack; that an effective police force and intelligence organisation were decisive (and lacking); that soldiers, policemen and government officials must themselves act within the law; and that aid for development was effective only if it produced a growing rural economy with local people trained to run it, instead of being dissipated on eye-catching projects which would collapse as soon as the money to maintain them no longer came from outside.

Thompson left Vietnam somewhat disillusioned, and pulished the lessons he had learned both in Malaya and in Vietnam in his first book, Defeating Communist Insurgency, in 1966. This is probably still the best book on counter-insurgency ever written.

Thereafter, he went into semi-retirement in Somerset, where he was able to follow the life he had always longed to lead as a countryman, fishing, shooting and breeding his own birds; also playing golf to a single-figure handicap.

But he was not to be left in peace nor indeed would he have wished to be. He was engaged by the RAND Corporation as a consultant, and paid annual visits to Vietnam. After one of these, in 1968, he wrote a new book, No Exit from Vietnam, which was highly critical of American policy and techniques. The nub of his critical stance had already been expressed in his Alanbrooke memorial lecture in London in 1966: ''It is all very well having B-52 bombers, masses of helicopters and tremendous firepower, but none of these will eliminate a communist cell in a high school which is producing 50 recruits a year for the insurgent movement.'' The belief of the south Vietnamese generals that they held the military initiative was equally illusory, and found no similar conviction in the hearts of peasants in the countryside who daily withstood the assaults of the enemy.

No Exit from Vietnam greatly impressed President Nixon who, after he had put many of Thompson's ideas into practice, asked him to return and report to him direct. This he did, and his report, much more encouraging, was publicly quoted by the president. He continued such visits annually, each one followed by a personal interview with the president, and was also called upon to advise on similar problems in other countries.

Meanwhile he kept his other interests alive. He was particularly happy to be asked to write The Royal Flying Corps (1968) to mark the RAF's 50th anniversary, and in 1970 he published his Revolutionary War in World Strategy, 1945-1969. Peace is not at Hand (1975) further amplified his concern with Vietnam. In spite of his criticisms of American methods he remained convinced for some time, nevertheless, that an American victory in Vietnam was not only possible, but would be the best outcome for that country. He was later to take a more pessimistic view of events. Even after the fall of South Vietnam Thompson retained a degree of influence with the White House, and undertook one mission to Vietnam for President Ford. In 1981 he edited War in Peace: an analysis of warfare since 1945.

At home he found ample time for his country pursuits. He was a regular churchgoer all his life and played a full part in the life of the Somersetshire village which was his home. He married, in 1950, Merryn Newboult, daughter of Sir Alec Newboult, a former chief secretary in Malaya. They had a son and a daughter.