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 News and Features

 Issue 113 - November 1998

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Last of the Desert Rats

Christopher Dodd with the Obituary of a Legend

The Olympic oarsman Ran Laurie who won the gold medal for coxless pairs with his partner Jack Wilson at the 1948 Games died in September. Known as the "Desert Rats" , Laurie and Wilson formed their partnership at Cambridge where they rowed in three winning Boat Race crews together, breaking the record in 1934. In that year Laurie also stroked Leander Club to a record in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. In 1936 he stroked the Olympic eight which finished fourth in Berlin. Wilson had joined the Political Service in Sudan after the Boat Race in 1936, and Laurie maintained that his absense from the Olympic crew cost them the title.

Laurie and Wilson, who died in 1997, tried rowing as a pair at Henley and earned their nickname after Laurie also joined the Sudan Political Service, a place once labelled as 'a country of Blacks ruled by Blues'. They took leave to compete at Henley in 1938 where they won the Silver Goblets. This gave them the idea of trying for the Olympics in 1940, but they spent the next ten years in the Sudan and returned to Henley in 1948.

During their time in the rowing wilderness Laurie and Wilson maintained chance contacts with their sport. On one occasion Laurie was on his rounds when he came upon a broken down car in the desert. In it was Maurice von Opel, member of the German car making family, Frau von Opel and Eric Phelps, the chauffer. Phelps, a waterman who won the European professional sculling title, was also von Opel's sculling coach, and had been responsible for coaching Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood to a famous victory in the Olympic double sculls in Berlin, breaking the German team's run of gold medals to the chagrin of spectator Chancellor Hitler. Laurie managed running repairs and gave the party the address of a refuge in Khartoum where, of course, Wilson was to be found.

Their post-war debut in the pair in 1948 was a disaster when at Marlow Regatta they managed to hit both banks in the same race. They went on to win the Goblets with ease and were immediately selected for the Olympics a month later. They trained at Cambridge - Laurie was born in Grantchester, within sight of his rowing nursery - and were allowed to draw extra rations termed 'heavy industrial' while their wives supported their young families frugally. On the night before the first Olympic race Laurie was up four or five times with an upset stomach, but they managed a tight victory over the Italians to secure a semifinal. The final Laurie described as

'a thoroughly satisfactory race. It was the best row we ever had and we finished about a length ahead of the Swiss with the Italians two or more behind them, and we had a bit in hand.'
A week later he was back at work in the Sudan, his wife Pat having given birth to their second daughter in Cambridge four days after the race. In 1954 Laurie switched careers when he qualified as a medical practitioner and became a GP in Oxford, practising there for 30 years. He became a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta in 1951 and was on the management committee from 1975-86.

As an umpire he was at the centre of a controversy when Thames Tradesmen and Trident locked oars near the finish line of the Wyfold final in 1970. In a close race both crews had been warned for their steering, and it was far from clear who was at fault when they were forced to stop. Laurie clearly didn't know either. He ordered them to 'paddle on', and when they drifted apart Trident took a few gentle strokes and crossed the line. Laurie then awarded them the race, to the incredulity of spectators, press and both crews. The young East Ender stroking Tradesmen broke the silence, as I reported at the time, by

'attributing a part of the anatomy to the umpire which it is doubtful that he possessed'.
The Stewards backed their umpire's decision as they had to. Happily the same two crews met in a final in the following year and Tradesmen secured their victory. The Tradesmen stroke is now himself a Steward of the regatta. The story goes that Laurie was canvassed before his nomination in case a grudge should bring forth the black ball. Quite the reverse: the retired umpire welcomed another spirited stroke into the fold.

Laurie was educated at Monkton Combe and Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was chairman of the Oxford Duke of Edinburgh's Award committee between 1959-69 and of the Save the Children branch between 1986-89. He was a genial and modest man, a gentleman amateur, and a member of the finest pair of his generation. It was not until a young Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes won the Olympics in 1988 that Britons once more excelled in this most difficult of boats to race. He was married twice, with two sons and two daughters, including the comedian Hugh, himself a Blue for Cambridge in 1980.

The Desert Rats' boat is now on show at the River and Rowing Museum at Henley, hanging above the boat which won the 1996 Olympics with Redgrave and Pinsent.

William George Ranald Mundell Laurie, born June 4th 1915, died September 19th 1998.

© Copyright Christoher Dodd, 1998.

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