Major-General Philip Thomas Tower, CB, DSO, MBE, GOC, Middle East Land Forces, 1967
Philip Thomas Tower was born in Rhu, Argyll & Bute, on March 1st 1917, the only son of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Tower. He was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where he was captain of fencing. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1937 and served with 25 Field Regiment RA in India until the outbreak of war.
“It was a dream world. The shooting was excellent, there was polo and pig-sticking” Philip Tower stated later and, as adjutant, his office had the only telephone in the regiment.
He took part in the battle of Sidi Barrani and then in the campaign to recapture Eritrea and Abyssynia from the Italians. At Keru he was on the receiving end of one of the last cavalry charges of the Second World War. He was appointed MBE.
After a staff appointment with 4th Indian Division, he rejoined 25 Field Regiment in the Western Desert as a battery commander. In June 1942, at Tobruk, his battery was surrounded and overwhelmed after its ammunition was exhausted and he was forced to surrender. His gallantry in that action was recognised by the award of the DSO. Tower was captured and sent to a PoW camp in Italy. He made several attempts to escape but succeeded only after the Italian Armistice in September 1943. He trekked south through the mountains for two months and was wounded in the chest by a mine before reaching the Allied lines. Tower described the aid he received from Italian peasants during his 500-mile trek through the Apennines as “beyond praise”.
On recovery from his wound, he underwent parachute training in England and was appointed Brigade Major RA of the 1st Airborne Division in April 1944. He dropped at Arnhem and established HQRA with divisional headquarters in the Hotel Hartenstein in the Oosterbeek perimeter. His task was to co-ordinate the fire support of the division’s light-gun artillery and, once within range, that of 30 Corps’ artillery fighting northwards towards the bridgehead. It was a desperate battle and, as with other survivors, Arnhem remained one of his most poignant memories. Even after safe evacuation across the Neder Rijn, Tower’s war was not over. He accompanied 1st Air Landing Regiment RA in the relief of Norway in the spring of 1945.
After the war Tower attended Staff College and then went to RMA Sandhurst as an instructor. In 1954 he commanded J (Sidi Rezegh) Battery Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) in the Middle East and, following a spell at the Joint Services Staff College, he moved to the British Joint Services Mission, Washington, as GSO1 Plans, after command of 3 RHA, was one of three specially selected lieutenant-colonels to attend the Imperial Defence College — usually a brigadiers’ preserve — in 1961. Command of the BAOR-based 12 Infantry Brigade Group followed and he seemed set fair to reach the Army’s top echelon.
It was one of his last postings that Tower would be forever remembered. In May 1967 he was appointed GOC Middle East Land Forces tasked with the withdrawal of British troops from South Arabia. It was the town of Aden that was to provide the defining moments of Tower’s military career.
Aden town and port were virtually under siege, as the former Western Aden Protectorate had fallen to an uneasy alliance of a two terrorist groups. On June 19 a dispute within the locally recruited South Arabian Armed Forces set off a chain reaction culminating in the previously loyal Aden Armed Police firing on a group of British officers and soldiers entering Crater town- ship on reconnaissance. They were killed to the last man and Crater taken over by the terrorist National Liberation Front.
Half of the reconnaissance party were from the newly arrived 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Mitchell. It was at first believed that some of the party had survived and “Mad Mitch”, as he had become known, urged an immediate rescue attempt, but Tower refused on the ground that a bloodbath would almost certainly ensue. Crater was later retaken in a carefully staged operation conducted by 1st Argylls, but a feud had opened between Mitchell and Tower.
The press and television naturally focused on this dispute, with Mad Mitch proving himself a deft media manipulator, and it left Tower with little or no credit for the eventual withdrawal without a shot being fired. Five months later, the last British soldier had left Aden after 128 years of British rule and Tower was mentioned in dispatches. On his return in 1967 he was appointed CB and was to command Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which he did until his retirement from the Army in 1972.
Following his military career, Philip Tower took up a position as administrator of the National Trust property Blickling Hall, in Norfolk, from 1973 to 1982 and then County Commissioner for the Norfolk St John Ambulance Brigade 1975-78. In retirement he enjoyed riding, shooting and sailing. Major-General Philip Tower, CB, DSO, MBE, GOC, Middle East Land Forces, 1967, died on December 8, 2006, aged 89.
Image ©National Army Museum Archives and used with permission