| 7.3°C Belfast

Rachel Dean's Big Ask: Colonel Tim Collins on pride of commanding battalion in war and bringing troops home alive


Close

Man of action: Tim Collins in Belfast

Man of action: Tim Collins in Belfast

Military man: Tim Collins

Military man: Tim Collins

Man of action: Tim Collins at Fort Blair Mayne on the Iraq border in 2003

Man of action: Tim Collins at Fort Blair Mayne on the Iraq border in 2003

Tim with his family

Tim with his family

Tim with his wife Caroline as he received an OBE at Buckingham Palace

Tim with his wife Caroline as he received an OBE at Buckingham Palace

Motoring passions: Tim’s Volkswagen Schwimmwagen

Motoring passions: Tim’s Volkswagen Schwimmwagen

Tim’s Ford Jeep

Tim’s Ford Jeep

Man of action: Tim Collins in Belfast

In this week's interview, Rachel Dean talks to retired British Army Colonel Tim Collins OBE (59), who's from east Belfast but splits his time between Canterbury and London. He's married to Caroline (57) and they have five children, Charles (29), Patrick (27), Timothy (25), Olivia (21) and Henry (18).

Q. Tell us about your childhood.

A. I was very lucky. I grew up in east Belfast and to begin with it was a tranquil time.

My father, Cyril, worked for the railways and started his own printing business. My mother, Mary, was a housekeeper.

My mother's sister - my auntie Margaret - lived with us. She worked as a personal assistant for one of the professors at the Ashby Institute at Queen's University Belfast in the engineering department. Being a single lady, she and her friend used to travel all over the world, so she used to bring a bit of glamour into it.

I remember they went twice - in 1971 and 1972 - to Russia and on the second occasion they got pulled in. The Russians basically said to them, "Why are you here? We notice you work in the Ashby Engineering Institute. Are you a spy?" My auntie said, "No, we just like it here", and the Russians were like, "You like it? You like the food here?" and my auntie was like "Yep! We're from Belfast", and they basically replied, "Oh, fair enough".

I have three sisters. My eldest sister, Alicean, is retired now. She was a food chemist and worked for Baileys Irish Cream, amongst other jobs.

My second eldest sister, Honor, is a teacher. My younger sister, Tracey, is a doctor.

Up until the age of nine, Northern Ireland was quite a pleasant place to live in. I can only have pleasant memories of the usual things like Easter, Christmas and summer holidays to Ballywalter. Then obviously after 1969 things got grimmer and I went to school in the centre of town - to Inst. You couldn't miss the Troubles going on around you, but luckily, between school activities, the church's youth club and Scouts on a Friday night, I was always busy doing something.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. Commanding my battalion in war and bringing them all home again alive is the thing I can't not be proud of.

Close

Man of action: Tim Collins at Fort Blair Mayne on the Iraq border in 2003

Man of action: Tim Collins at Fort Blair Mayne on the Iraq border in 2003

Man of action: Tim Collins at Fort Blair Mayne on the Iraq border in 2003

Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?

A. There are many people who I've either been a leader of or I've known who have taken their own lives. I always wish I'd had a chance to have a conversation with them because I always know they'll have regretted doing it. And of course, you'll always wish that before they did that, they'd have given you a call or you'd had a chance to meet up with them.

Q. Any phobias?

A. None. Darkness, tight spaces, heights - none of them bother me.

Q. The temptation you cannot resist?

A. A good pint of Guinness. I'm very discerning. I'd rather not have it than have a bad pint of Guinness.

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. I've got all sorts of interesting things that I've picked up along the way and I don't think anything is more prized than anything else. I'm a great believer in that we don't really own possessions. Many of the things I have are things I've acquired and I'll eventually pass on to someone else. So, you only really borrow things for a while.

I do have a 1944 Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, which is a German amphibious car, and I've got a 1945 Ford Jeep, both of which I spend a lot of time tinkering with. I suppose they take up most of my time.

Close

Motoring passions: Tim’s Volkswagen Schwimmwagen

Motoring passions: Tim’s Volkswagen Schwimmwagen

Motoring passions: Tim’s Volkswagen Schwimmwagen

My plan is to drive them more than I fix them.

Q. The book that's most impacted your life?

A. There are lots of books that bring different realities to different stages of your life, but one that I've dipped into most over years is Machiavelli's The Prince. It's a book about the use and abuse of power.

Q. If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A. In many respects, what we need is to regulate society. When I think of growing up, I think of how fortunate we were with a lot less. I think we need to reset society, so that those who genuinely need help get help and those who think they need help realise they just want more stuff. The problem is we can't discern between the two.

I was reading recently that with coronavirus and the planet disaster happening and threat of imminent war, there's a group protesting to have gender taken off birth certificates. My view is that there is a lot more in the world that needs attention.

In Canterbury at the local cathedral when they bring the various ministers and bishops together, the Church of England wants to discuss gender issues and homosexuality. And when I speak to the African bishops they're just like, "Do we share the same planet? You should see where we live. We haven't got enough to eat. People are dying from HIV."

So, if I had the power or authority, what I would do is smack heads together and make people sit in the naughty corner if they come up with stupid things that are going to distract us from saving the planet and saving humanity.

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. Stupidity and people who have a sense of entitlement.

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. I think when you're growing up, your parents influence you until you go to school, then it's your teachers, guides and mentors. And then throughout my time I suppose the leaders and commanding officers I've worked with and admired are the people who inspired me. Since I've left the Army I'm actually inspired by the people around me because what I've discovered in life is that the secret to success is to know what you want to achieve, surround yourself with good people, let them get on with it and when they succeed, you take all the credit!

Close

Military man: Tim Collins

Military man: Tim Collins

Military man: Tim Collins

Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A. I'd love to talk to Napoleon because he was such a polymath. He was a politician, a military commander and he had vast vision and albeit came from humble beginnings. I'd love to understand - and you could only get a spark of it - what his whole vision for mankind was.

I'd also love to sit down and talk to Shakespeare and understand how, as someone who lived in 17th century England, he could create plays that went to ancient Rome, to Venice and to family disputes in northern Italy. How did he know this stuff? It's just astonishing. His understanding was huge. And one thing he was able to do in his plays was cast up a story and bring an audience in with words and without the props and visual effects that we rely on in today. How did he do that? I'd love to know that.

And if I could possibly have Jesus present, I'd ask, "What are we meant to be doing here?" Of all the religions in the world, somebody has got this badly wrong ... where did it go wrong?

Q. The best piece of advice you ever received?

A. "No matter what happens, be thoroughly honest about it." We can fix mistakes. When ruts get very deep is when you try to disguise a mistake and then that gets discovered. "Be honest" is the best piece of advice I've ever had, and I've stuck by it.

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. I suppose fixing Schwimmwagens. The thing about a 1944 Schwimmwagen, which was made on February 26 and delivered to the German Army on February 28, is that it was made in two days and there's no manual that comes with it. It spent most of its life in the Second World War in east Germany. When you're working on one, you are guessing your way forward because there's no manual telling you how it works or how to dismantle it. You have to figure it out yourself. That can be hugely rewarding, but it can also be hugely frustrating.

Q The poem that touches your heart?

A. I love Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening because it's evocative. At the end he says, "And miles to go before I sleep" and life can be like that. Sometimes you get ready to stop and retire and sit down, then you remember the people who you're responsible for and the things you still have to do. That's when you have to give yourself a shake and get on with it.

Q. The happiest moment of your life?

A. The births of my children have been my happiest moments and every time has been different. Children are the real joy in life.

Close

Tim with his family

Tim with his family

Tim with his family

Q. And the saddest moment of your life?

A. Losing a parent is always a sad moment. When my auntie Margaret died it was like losing a mother. My mother is still alive, but losing my father in 2001 was difficult. When you lose your parents, it's a big shake-up for anybody because suddenly you're more alone and more in charge. It's turning moment.

Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?

A. Being given command of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. I was interviewed for command for other regiments, but I was ultimately given command of my own. For good or for ill, that changed my whole future in ways I could have never imagined.

I just happened to take command of the battalion when it was at an all-time low after the Sierra Leone debacle.

At the end of my time in command we went to war in the liberation of Iraq and the events of that saw me both becoming known and also leaving the Army. After my 2003 eve-of-battle speech in Iraq, I fell out with the Army, which was something I couldn't have ever conceived. When that happened, it was like a divorce - the Army and I couldn't get rid of each other quick enough.

Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A. To provide for my family.

Close

Tim with his wife Caroline as he received an OBE at Buckingham Palace

Tim with his wife Caroline as he received an OBE at Buckingham Palace

Tim with his wife Caroline as he received an OBE at Buckingham Palace

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. To add value to every day.

Q How do you want to be remembered?

A. Now I've left public life, I would like to be remembered as good father and hopefully - though I have no grandchildren right now - a good grandfather.

Colonel Tim Collins is chairman of specialist security company Pinpoint Corporate Services, which offers training, mentoring and capacity building, and he is also a motivational speaker. For details of public speaking services, email Alice Saunders at alice@lawagency.co.uk

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph