By Dr Peter Londey
Lieutenant General Robert “Putt” Nimmo was an Australian military hero. Not because he was awarded the Sword of Honour as top student in the second intake of cadets at Duntroon. Not because he fought on Gallipoli as a troop commander with the 5th Light Horse Regiment. Not even because he was a sportsman who represented Australia in hockey and Victoria in rugby, cricket, tennis and polo.
Nimmo was a hero for what he did at the very end of his military career, when he was already an old man. The soldier, who had fought at Gallipoli and spent the Second World War as a brigadier, in the end turned his military skills to the service of peace and became the longest-serving commander of a United Nations peacekeeping operation in history.
Then Brigadier Robert Harold Nimmo and his son Pilot Officer James Nimmo in 1942. James was killed in April 1944 when his Lancaster was shot down over Denmark by a German night fighter. AWM P04463.001
Nimmo’s command was in mountainous Kashmir, which, nestled under the Himalayas, was one of the largest princely states of British India. In August 1947, Britain gave India its independence, but also partitioned it into two states, secular India and largely Muslim Pakistan. The rulers of the princely states were given an option to join either India or Pakistan. Kashmir’s population was mainly Muslim, but after some hesitation its Hindu ruler opted to join India. War broke out, with the result that Kashmir itself was divided into areas controlled by India and Pakistan respectively.
The United Nations (UN) was drawn into the conflict, and set up a body of military observers, the UN Military Observer Group India–Pakistan, or UNMOGIP. The observers’ task was to monitor a ceasefire along the 800 kilometre–long front line, which snaked through the lowland Vale of Kashmir and high up into the mountain ranges of the north, where Kashmir meets the Himalayas.
Australia’s activist Labor Minister for External Affairs, Dr H.V. Evatt, was keen that Australia play a role as a mediator; the Liberal Party, which won government in 1949, shared this view, and especially disliked the family disharmony implied by a conflict between two new members of the British Commonwealth. In 1950 an Australian judge, Sir Owen Dixon, was appointed mediator by the UN, and criss-crossed Kashmir’s dangerous roads by jeep, trying to find common ground between the parties. His efforts proved fruitless, but it was not the end of Australian involvement.
In mid-1950, the commander of the military observers was killed in a plane crash and, no doubt largely because of the role Dixon was playing, Australia was invited to nominate a replacement. The choice fell on Robert Nimmo, who took up the appointment in late 1950, just short of his 57th birthday. He was a man who had known tragedy. During the Second World War, his wife had died in a fall at The Gap in Sydney, and his eldest son, James, had been killed in 1944 while serving with the RAAF.
Nimmo was now sent to a remote part of the world to become involved in a conflict which had very little direct effect on any Australians. It would have been easy for him to see this as a comfortable berth while he awaited retirement. Instead, he threw himself into the task so much that 14 years later Australian diplomats in New York could report that members of the UN Secretariat considered Nimmo “by far the most successful United Nations observer ever”.
Nimmo’s command was small, and he was never an empire builder. Over the course of his 15 years in command, the number of military observers varied between 30 and 99, with Nimmo ever vigilant against unnecessary numbers which, as well as being a drain on contributing countries, could also sap morale as observers found themselves with too little to do. What Nimmo did do was to make sure that UNMOGIP, with its limited resources, did as good a job as possible in preserving the uneasy peace in Kashmir. From 1952, at Nimmo’s urging, the observer force included Australians.
An airstrip in, Kashmir. This image taken from a 38 Squadron RAAF Caribou shows the kind of climate and terrain that peacekeepers have had to deal with for decades. P01799.002
Three years after arriving in Kashmir, Nimmo reached the statutory retirement age of 60. After that, extensions were at the discretion of the UN Secretary-General. But Nimmo was so highly regarded by the UN that the extensions kept coming. He had arrived in Kashmir as a major general; at the UN’s suggestion, Australia promoted him to lieutenant general. What Nimmo brought to the mission was a supreme understanding of what it was possible to achieve through maintaining an open, firm but tactful relationship with both the belligerent parties, and to show favour to neither. As he himself wrote in instructions for arriving military observers, “tact is more than a virtue here”. Nimmo himself was described as a “model of firmness, tact, and silence”. Moreover, in India and Pakistan he had the added advantage of commanding respect as a skilful polo player.
By the end of his life, Nimmo could be described by one of his officers as “tubby” rather than fit, but retained his men’ s respect and loyalty. He no longer travelled up the line himself, but knew it intimately from his early days with the mission, when he had been a young man in his late 50s; he especially relied on the Australian observers for their accurate, straightforward reports. He had remarried, but does not seem to have been keen to resume domestic life in Australia. In Kashmir, while he could do nothing to prevent India and Pakistan’s slide into another war in 1965, he probably felt that he was helping the United Nations do the best job that was possible.
For whatever reason, Nimmo never sought to leave Kashmir, and the UN never sought to replace him. He died on 4 January 1966, probably of a heart attack, perhaps hastened by the pressures of the 1965 war. Robert Nimmo was the first Australian to command a multinational peacekeeping operation, and it is very unlikely that the 15 years and 2 months of his command will ever be surpassed.
Dr Peter Londey is a Memorial historian working on the official history of Australian peacekeeping and post–Cold War operations, and author of Other people’s wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping (2004). Some of this article is based on research by Neil James. The best account of UNMOGIP is by P. Dawson, The peacekeepers of Kashmir (1994).