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Major General Matthew Holmes, Marine who led a daring assault in Afghanistan but stepped down as Commandant General Royal Marines after resisting a plan to double-hat his role – obituary​

Holmes clashed with the First Sea Lord, who, among other things, wanted much closer integration of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines

ByTelegraph Obituaries5 October 2021 • 3:32pm

Matt Holmes: no-nonsense tenacity and attention to detail


Matt Holmes: no-nonsense tenacity and strategic vision

Major General Matthew Holmes, who has died aged 54, was a Royal Marines officer whose career typified the post-Cold War era, but whose appointment as Commandant General was terminated prematurely.

In 2006-07, Matt Holmes commanded 42 Commando, Royal Marines, on Operation Herrick 5 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. There in April 2007 Holmes led a battle group into Sangin, which he characterised as the Taliban’s “heart of darkness”.

Intelligence warned of up to 350 Taliban armed with advanced Soviet munitions and of approaching enemy reinforcements, when Holmes launched an assault in a 33-vehicle armoured convoy travelling at 35 mph down the main highway. “It was a risk, on a route we had never travelled before,” Holmes admitted. “They wouldn’t expect us to jump straight in on the road from the north, [but] it was an opportunity to go for it, and fortune favours the brave.”

Holmes (in front) with his Marines in Helmand: his bond with his men gave his group cohesion and unity


Holmes (in front) with his Marines in Helmand: his bond with his men gave his group cohesion and unity CREDIT: Gaz Faulkner/MoD Crown Copyright

“This is one ballsy shout from the CO, to go up the highway and start smashing heads together,” said Sgt Richard St Louis, warning his men that suicide bombers might be in the town. But in the early hours of the morning a missile from an Apache helicopter destroyed a Taliban checkpoint as the convoy roared into the dense and confusing confines of Sangeen, enabling the Marines to move forward so quickly that some vehicles almost collided when they braked.

Twenty minutes after they arrived, and in the first light of dawn, the Marines began a sweep to secure the area. They were backed up by Apache helicopters and by naval Harriers, while artillery support was available from outside the town.

Assault engineers used “mouse-hole” charges to blast holes in thick mud walls, and mines to collapse tunnel systems, while the air was filled with the thump of explosives and sprays of machine-gun fire as the marines advanced through a warren of buildings.

By noon they had achieved their objectives, and began preparing to hand the territory over to Afghan forces, though one of Holmes’s officers warned: “The Taliban are not stupid. They know we have massive combat power here now. They just melt into the background; they know we can’t sustain this. Then they can move back in, and things will be as they were.”

Nevertheless, for leading his marines against more than 300 contacts with the enemy, some for up to 12 hours, for his inability to brook anything other than the highest standards, his assiduous attention to detail, his dedication to duty and his bond with his men – which gave his group cohesion and unity – Holmes was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

In addition, during a fiercely contested tour the Navy was awarded one Royal Red Cross medal, a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, 12 Military Crosses and several mentions in despatches.

Holmes: of his risky assault on the Taliban, after which he was awarded the DSO, he reflected that ‘it was an opportunity to go for it, and fortune favours the brave’


Holmes: of his risky assault on the Taliban, after which he was awarded the DSO, he reflected that ‘it was an opportunity to go for it, and fortune favours the brave’

Matthew John Holmes was born on June 29 1967 at Chalfont St Giles, and was educated at Desborough comprehensive school in Maidenhead before reading Economics at Exeter, and, in 1988, joining the Royal Marines.

His service was typical of the post-Cold War period: Norway; Northern Ireland during the Troubles, 1993-94; the Far East; Zimbabwe with 45 Commando; and Northern Ireland again in command of K company, 42 Commando, at the height of dissident activity in South Armagh.
Promoted to major, he attended staff college, completing a Master’s in Defence Studies in 2000, before returning to 3 Commando Brigade as brigade operations officer, participating in Operation Agricola in Kosovo, followed in 2002 by Operation Jacana, codename for a series of operations carried out by coalition forces in Afghanistan which included 45 Commando Royal Marines, US, Australian and Norwegian special forces.

Promoted to lieutenant-colonel, he briefly held desk jobs in the Ministry of Defence before moving to the Permanent Joint Headquarters as an operations team leader, when he oversaw the first autonomous EU operation, Operation Coral, a French-led multinational peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Second Congo War in 2003, and the emergency deployment of the Spearhead battalion to Kosovo in 2004. Next, he deployed to Iraq on Operation Telic in the headquarters of the multinational division in Basra.

Major General Matthew Holmes


Major General Matt Holmes: served only 20 months as CGRM, instead of the usual three-year term

In 2008 Holmes invested his operational experience in officer and senior NCO training at the Commando Training Centre, Royal Marines. After brief appointments in the MoD and at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ, the tri-service centre of operations), he served as military assistant to the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff during the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and in 2012 he completed the higher command and staff course, a postgraduate, combined, joint and interagency defence and security course at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham – regarded as the pinnacle of staff training in the UK.

In 2013 Holmes was promoted to brigadier and while at the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (the MoD’s think tank) he delivered two far-sighted studies: the widely acclaimed “Global Strategic Trends 2045”, which looked at the strategic context of long-term plans, future strategies, policies and capabilities; and “Future Operating Environment 2035” which examined the slightly nearer term.
In 2015 he was loaned to the “floods minister”, Rory Stewart, to write a review of national flood preparedness, before being selected as the first chief of staff of the Standing Joint Force, a high-readiness, expeditionary command and control headquarters which he supervised from its formation to full operating capability in just two years.

Promoted to major general in early 2018, Holmes became an adviser to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and later senior British military representative, in Afghanistan. Returning from Kabul in 2019, he was appointed CBE for his outstanding contribution to the Royal Marines and to the United Kingdom’s defence and security interests.

Major General Matt Holmes, right, greets Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex at the Mountbatten Festival of Music, Royal Albert Hall, March 2020


Major General Matt Holmes, right, greets Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex at the Mountbatten Festival of Music, Royal Albert Hall, March 2020 CREDIT: Karwai Tang

Appointed Commandant General Royal Marines that year, Holmes began developing a new concept of littoral strike for the Future Commando Force, working closely with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin. In March 2020, he welcomed Prince Harry, in his capacity then as Captain General of the Royal Marines, and Meghan Markle, to the Royal Albert Hall for the Mountbatten Festival of Music, hosting the prince for what would be one of his last public engagements in Britain.

Meanwhile, Radakin and Holmes, who had known each other for 20 years, clashed: Holmes’s approach was characterised by his usual no-nonsense tenacity and attention to detail, while Radakin wanted much closer integration of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, as indicated by the wearing of the White Ensign on updated uniforms and even the adoption, by Royal Marine officers, of naval ranks.

The last straw came when Radakin proposed to “kick the CGRM upstairs”, as one observer commented, making him dual-hatted with another role in the MoD, divorcing him from close daily involvement with the Marines, and risking the maintenance of important links to the US Marine Corps.
Holmes became concerned that the profile of his corps would be reduced just when he needed to see through his vision of the future, and the day-to-day management of the Royal Marines would be relegated to a less senior officer.

As The Daily Telegraph reported in March this year, Holmes “resisted vigorously”, and this led to a “significant falling out” between him and Radakin. In April Holmes was superseded after only 20 months as CGRM, instead of serving the usual three-year term.
Matt Holmes was mentally and physically energetic, could be fiery, was much tougher than his small (5 ft 2 in) stature would suggest, and was rather more serious than his contemporaries; he was much liked and admired by his Marines, and not averse to a good run ashore or party in the mess.

He married, in 2002, Lea Brocklebank, a solicitor, who survives him with their two children.

Major General Matthew Holmes, born June 29 1967, died October 2 2021
 
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