Former army chief says God saved his life four times

Sir Richard Dannatt was so outspoken in support of the soldiers under his command while serving as head of the British Army that many believe it cost him the highest honour of being promoted to the Chief of Defense Staff.

Sir Richard DannattFormer head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, who said soldiers need to be spiritually prepared for death, believes God saved his own life four times.

Sir Richard made headlines whilst still in active service for saying that death is not the end of life, and soldiers need to be spiritually better prepared for war. His comments about being ready for death were not surprising, considering it was his own brushes with death that brought him to faith in God.

Sir Richard, former Chief of the General Staff, had said: "In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal."

Sir Richard has been outspoken in many ways, his most controversial statement related to his view that the presence of British troops in Iraq exacerbates the country's security problems. That 'tell it how it is' attitude extends to faith in God and his belief that it can help all soldiers.

And it all stems from the four occasions when he came close to death himself, twice while on active duty in Northern Ireland – where his efforts to save the life of one of his men earned him the Military Cross. When the penny dropped that God had been protecting him, this elite soldier became a Christian.

The first occasion was in 1973, amid rioting in Belfast, when he found himself stranded with two of his men in a Loyalist paramilitary area. A hail of gunfire cut down the other soldiers, fatally injuring one, while Sir Richard emerged completely unscathed.

The second incident took place during a mine-clearing operation in South Armagh in 1975, when an explosion killed his company commander, Major Peter Willis. Sir Richard had been walking alongside him moments before, but had stopped to study an aerial photograph.

The general's third brush with death came a few months later in Germany when he fell asleep at the wheel of a car but was fortunate to veer off into a field and stop safely, rather than into the steep bank and wood which bordered the route yards further on.

"On three occasions, God had shown me his love and protection and challenged me to make a complete commitment to him, but each time I failed to make the response that he wanted," says Sir Richard, who is vice-president of the Officers' Christian Union, and President of SASRA (The Soldiers and Airmen's Scripture Readers Association).

"Finally, I had to be stopped so that the lesson could be learned... God had no choice but to take a stick and beat me over the head."

That metaphorical beating came when he collapsed while serving in Germany, at only 26 years of age: "For the next three quarters of an hour no one saw me. I was lying on the floor of the cloakroom in Battalion HQ. My right side was paralysed and I couldn't talk sense. When a brother officer finally found me, I was rushed with blue lights flashing to the neurology department of a German hospital.

"Some while later my wife, Pippa, was found, and very gently told that she should not hope for too much. I had no doubt whatsoever that I would make a full recovery, but I did not know why I felt so sure.

"Medically, I had all the symptoms of a classic stroke, supposedly unheard of at 26, and equally strangely there appeared to be no physical cause. Every test that a modern teaching hospital can think of had been tried, and there was no explanation. However, the treatment remained the same – at least four weeks firmly in bed. My mind cleared first, and my speech returned to normal within hours. My right arm loosened up in a few days and my right leg slowly came back to life.

"The opportunity to step back for four weeks from the normal bustle and business of life is an opportunity that very rarely presents itself. For me, as alarming as the initial circumstances were, four weeks enforced rest as a spectator on life, rather than as a participant, had enabled me to clear my head and allow God to speak to me.

"Although I had been a follower of Christ for several years, I knew that I had only ever given part of my life to him. I'd kept a part for myself. As I lay in bed recovering, I began to reflect that God wanted all of my life, not just part, and that he had challenged me about this in the recent past.

"Obviously the physical discomfort of collapsing and being paralysed was not trivial; neither was the mental anguish an easy burden for Pippa. However, as the years have gone by and the significance of the lessons realised, we are both able to rejoice and praise God for his mysterious and loving ways.

"11th November is the date when we remember Armistice Day – marking the surrender of Germany to end the First World War. A surrender is two things: the end of the fighting and the beginning of peace. On 11 November 1977, I stopped fighting with God – I fully committed myself to him.

"I found on that date a far better way of life. To commit myself wholeheartedly to God was to enjoy that peace and purpose in life that only full commitment to Jesus Christ can bring. It was the beginning of a new life in Christ."

And it was his belief that this life is only the beginning that has led Sir Richard to be so outspoken on behalf of his troops. Speaking of the responsibility he felt to bring in the spiritual dimension when preparing soldiers for war, he says: "Qualities and core values are fine as a universally acceptable moral baseline for leadership, but the unique life, death, resurrection and promises of Christ provide that spiritual opportunity that I believe takes the privilege of leadership to another level."

Sir Richard has emphasised his concerns over falling moral standards in Britain ever since taking over as head of the Army. He says, "What I would hate is for the Army to be maintaining a set of values that were not reflected in our society at large – courage, loyalty, integrity, respect for others; these are critical things.”

Pictured above is Norwich-based Sir Richard Dannatt (picture Crown Copyright/MOD 2007).

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Sir Richard Dannat in uniformGeneral Sir Richard Dannatt was commissioned into The Green Howards in 1971. He served seven tours of duty with the 1st Battalion in Northern Ireland and also with the UN in Cyprus and for many years in Germany before he commanded the Battalion in the airmobile role from 1989 to 1991.

Amongst appointments on the Staff, as Colonel Higher Command and Staff Course/Doctrine at the Army Staff College, Camberley in 1992-93, he wrote the Army Doctrine Publication "Operations" - a revised operational doctrine appropriate to the post Cold War era. From 1994 to1996 he commanded 4th Armoured Brigade again in Germany and also in Bosnia during the early days of the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

After heading the Defence Programme Staff during the new Labour Government's Strategic Defence Review in 1997/98, he took command of 3rd (United Kingdom) Division in January 1999, and also served in Kosovo that year as Commander British Forces. In 2000 he returned to Bosnia as the Deputy Commander Operations of the NATO Stabilisation Force (SFOR).

From 2001 to 2002 he was the Assistant Chief of the General Staff in the Ministry of Defence before taking command of NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). In March 2005 he took over as Commander-in-Chief Land Command, and assumed the appointment of Chief of the General Staff in August 2006, handing over to General Sir David Richards three years later.

General Sir Richard Dannatt was born on 23rd December 1950 and was educated at Felsted School and St Lawrence College. He and his wife, Philippa, have their permanent home in Norfolk and are both graduates of Durham University. Married in 1977, they have three sons and a daughter. One of their sons has served with the Parachute Regiment in Iraq and with the Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to his main appointments, General Dannatt also served at various times as Colonel Commandant of the Army Air Corps, Colonel of the Green Howards, and Colonel Commandant of the Royal Military Police. He is President of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Scripture Readers Association and Vice President of the Armed Forces' Christian Union. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1973, was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1996, awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in 1999 and was appointed as a Knight Grand Cross of the most Honourable Order of the Bath in 2009.

Andrew Halloway, 10/12/2009