The Daily Telegraph
Para who had close shaves with the Red Cross in Angola and Kenya and served in Northern Ireland
DAVID ROBERTS, who has died aged 76, carved out successful and action-packed careers with the Army and the International Committee of the Red Cross; he served in Aden and Northern Ireland, including Bloody Sunday, and he later escaped from captivity in Angola as well as evading a sniper’s bullets in Palestine.
One fellow officer said of him: “He was tough, bright and full of fun but he called a spade a shovel and was not without his controversial side.”
David Lloyd Roberts, the only child of William and Adelaide Roberts, was born at the Royal Naval Hospital in Malta on July 7 1945, where his father was serving as a naval diver clearing sunken wartime wrecks.
Later the family was posted to Ceylon, where his childhood was largely spent outdoors, and he became an expert swimmer and a scuba diver at a young age. The family met the author Arthur C Clarke, who lived on the island. He was also a scuba diver, and young David appeared in photographs in Clarke’s acclaimed 1958 book Boy Beneath the Sea, including the cover photo.
When the family returned to Plymouth, Roberts attended Sutton Grammar School, and his love of the outdoors led to him becoming an accomplished athlete who would run for hours on the South West Coast Path. This stood him in good stead when, in 1964, he attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, where he broke a number of track records. One of his proudest achievements there was to leave the June Commissioning Ball with another cadet’s guest. They were to marry two years later.
In 1966 he was commissioned into The Parachute Regiment and the following year he saw his first action, when the 1st Battalion (1 Para) was posted to Aden as a part of the force covering the British withdrawal.
Two years later the Troubles in Northern Ireland erupted and 1 Para was sent to assist the RUC in Operation Banner, holding the line between the warring factions. For more than two years 1 Para was involved in almost daily public-order duties and action, and Roberts was appointed MBE (military). The London Gazette reported several episodes of arson and violence when Roberts, commanding a platoon in Belfast, took control of rioting mobs and made arrests.
On February 26 1971 he led a baton charge into “a mob of 300 … engaged in sporadic shooting and hurling gelignite and petrol bombs” and made 17 arrests. And on April 13, “against overwhelming odds”, Roberts “led his platoon into a crowd of 2,000 trying to burn a Catholic church and throwing bricks, petrol bombs and some gelignite bombs. The platoon made 15 arrests, and by his decisive action Captain Roberts assisted in dispersing the mob and preventing further trouble.”
His “courage and outstanding leadership on these and many other occasions were an inspiration to the whole battalion”.
On January 30 1972 in Londonderry, on what became known as “Bloody Sunday”, Roberts was the Regimental Signals Officer working the battalion radio net from the “Command Post” – which was in reality a canvas-sided Bedford three-ton lorry. It was relatively close to the action, and several high-velocity bullets ripped through the canvas – but although Roberts and a fellow officer gave evidence of this IRA gunfire to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry headed by Lord Saville, they were disappointed when it appeared to be ignored.
In 1981, after a further Operation Banner tour as a company commander with 2 Para, he was Mentioned in Despatches.
Roberts then attended the Australian Staff College and subsequently worked in staff appointments in the Ministry of Defence. To his intense frustration he missed being with a Para battalion in the Falklands campaign, Operation Corporate, but he was at least able to make a contribution as a member of the staff in the Directorate of Military Operations.
A capable though not necessarily a happy staff officer, in 1983 he engineered an early escape by volunteering to command the small British contingent to the four-nation multi-national force in Lebanon (Operation Hyperion).
BRITFORLEB, as they were known, were charged with helping the Lebanese government to reassert control in the aftermath of the conflict between the PLO and Israel. Roberts was concerned about the vulnerability of the British troops, and shortly after he left the American and French contingents were subject to suicide vehicle-bomb attacks, suffering 241 and 58 losses respectively.
Roberts then commanded Depot The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces in Aldershot before moving to Zimbabwe in 1987 as a senior member of the directing staff at their War College.
Subsequently posted to Fortress Gibraltar as Chief of Staff, he again arranged an early escape to become involved in the first Gulf War as a member of the staff of General Sir Peter de la Billière, the overall Commander in Chief of British Forces involved in that campaign.
Roberts retired from the Army in 1993 and joined the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), first as its operational security adviser and then in the department for the dissemination of international humanitarian law to armed forces.
This entailed teaching the law of armed conflict to senior officers of armed forces and police. Between 1995 and 2003 he was based in New Delhi, Geneva and Bangkok and conducted ICRC missions to trouble spots in more than 40 countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia, East Timor, the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Iraq, Libya, Rwanda, Somalia and Sri Lanka.
Some of these missions involved considerable risk. In Angola he and his small delegation were taken captive and were eventually only able to leave the country by means of a light aircraft, when they took out all the seats and crammed everyone on to the floor.
In Kenya, when the mob were burning and killing anyone not of their kind, Roberts believed that there might be no escape. He called his wife and said: “I think this is it,” but shortly afterwards a friendly vehicle arrived and rescued him.
In 2002 during the Second Intifada in the Occupied Territories he was in Jenin with a colleague talking to Palestinian doctors and officials in a government hospital when several shots obviously aimed at him missed him by inches. The shots could only have come from Israeli positions, and later, when talking to senior Israeli Defence Force officers, he told them: “Your snipers need better training!”
One ICRC colleague said of Roberts that he was “the person to be with in a tight spot”, while another joked: “Whenever you went out with David you could be sure to be shot at or blown up.”
In 1999 Roberts took a year out to complete a Master of Laws degree in International Human Rights Law at Essex University, specialising in the laws of armed conflict, and he eventually became one of their visiting fellows. He was a regular lecturer at several universities and the United States Naval War College.
His publications included Staying Alive – Safety and Security Guidelines for Humanitarian Volunteers in Conflict Areas and The Law of Armed Conflict, a training manual for armed forces now translated into several languages, including Arabic, Chinese and Amharic, as well as numerous papers and book contributions.
Roberts retired from the ICRC in 2003 but continued to work for them as a consultant and also for UN agencies and the British and foreign governments. He lectured, ran courses, advised on security issues and conducted investigations in numerous hotspots including Georgia and South Ossetia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq and South Sudan.
In Libya in 2011 he led the first humanitarian relief and assessment mission from Benghazi by sea across the Gulf of Sirte. During the recent lockdown he set up a Covid buddy system to make sure local residents stayed safe.
David Roberts was a man of many parts, a first-rate Airborne officer and an ardent humanitarian and advocate of the laws of armed conflict. A strong family man, he was also passionate about his hobbies, which included fly fishing, gardening, cooking, shooting, gun-dog training and the Wales rugby team. He was a Freeman of the City of London.
He is survived by his wife Charlie and a son and a daughter.
David Roberts, born July 7 1945, died July 6 2022