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Michael Darling (1930-2024): a ‘soldiers’ soldier’

Michael Darling in his garden in Warwick (File photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

A former Commanding Officer of the Bermuda Regiment through turbulent times was also deeply committed to Bermuda’s environment and social welfare.

Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Darling was twice president of the Bermuda National Trust; a former chairman of the Defence Board; one of three founders of the Bermuda National Gallery; and a proud chairman of the board at the Elbow Beach Hotel.

His family recalled him as a man of deep-seated community passion who loved gardening and agriculture — and regretted that his bid for a political career never took off, after running unsuccessfully for the United Bermuda Party in 1976 in Southampton East.

“Bermuda was home for Michael’s entire life — the place he loved, the community he cared about.

“His parents had moved here in 1927; his father had been invalided out of the British Royal Artillery in Egypt and came to work for Burland’s Construction Company.”

Colonel Darling grew up in a Bermuda before cars, getting around on bicycle and by horse and carriage as well as roller skating in a “happy and contented” childhood.

However, it was shaped profoundly by the Second World War, with Colonel Darling travelling to school on a warship, getting daily cadet training and scant food.

Another defining event was the devastation of the iconic Bermuda cedars in the scale insect blight.

Colonel Darling said the island was never the same.

His family added: “The 19-year-old Michael took a year between school and Cambridge University to join the project to save the cedars.

“While his British school friends were signing up to go to war, he worked as a field officer at Bermuda’s Agricultural Station.”

More than 100 of the trees thrive today at his property, Fleetwood Manor, on Harbour Road in Warwick.

His love of the land and science was reflected in his agricultural studies at Cambridge, graduating in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree and later gaining a master’s. His skills led him to join the Bermuda Orchid Society.

Colonel Darling contemplated farming, but joined Bluck’s, the family business, later with his brother Peter, after their father fell ill. He retired in 2006 after building a classic business known for fine china and crystal.

In 1956, he married an American ballet student, Holly Webb. They had four children between 1958 and 1967: Holly-Anne, twins Peter and Michael, and Sean.

In 1970, he married Elaine Cooper and their son, Forster, was born in 1972.

Colonel Darling was keen on running and rowing, regularly took on the May 24 Half Marathon, and kept running well into his seventies.

Colonel Darling viewed the regiment as “the finest thing that ever happened in Bermuda”, seeing it as vital in racially integrating the island.

He joined the Bermuda Rifles, formerly the Bermuda Volunteer Rifles Corps, in 1953 during segregation when the BVRC was reserved for Whites.

The regiment formed in 1965 when it merged with the Black unit, the Bermuda Militia Artillery. Colonel Darling was part of the command team for the move.

He was appointed second in command, and in 1970 rose to CO, stepping down in 1974 when he became chairman of the Defence Board.

His family said: “His term as CO was a stormy one for Bermuda, both within the regiment and in the community.

“Its role was stepped up during an era when the Police Commissioner was murdered and the Governor Sir Richard Sharples and his ADC were shot and killed in the grounds of Government House.

“Security for him and his family was under threat, and it was a troubling time for them all. He never regretted his decision to sign up, however.”

Leslie Darling, his father, was a founder of the Bermuda Historical Monuments Trust, forerunner to the Bermuda National Trust, which Colonel Darling led from 1977-79 and 1982-84.

His “immense” contribution was honoured with the Michael Darling Shield, an award launched in 1980 for school programmes benefiting the environment and Bermuda heritage.

Colonel Darling was instrumental in finding the Bermuda College’s home in Paget and he remained an honorary fellow.

He founded the BNG with Hereward Watlington and Desmond Fountain, and their names appeared on the Private Members’ Bill that went before Parliament to create the Bermuda Fine Arts Trust.

Business roles included sitting on the boards of the Bank of Bermuda, Bermuda Fire & Marine and Bermuda Aviation Services.

“Michael Darling cared deeply about his community and did his best to remain connected to the needs of all his fellow Bermudians — and always took time to listen and act where he could.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Ben Beasley, the RBR’s Commanding Officer, said: “It would be impossible to properly capture Colonel Darling’s distinguished service or describe such an impressive officer in limited confines.

“His operational capability was only matched by his humility and dislike of personal attention or fussiness.”

Colonel Beasley noted his appointment to CO amid “serious social tensions”, with the assassinations during his tenure testing him beyond a normal officer’s limits.

“The Government House murders were particularly stinging as Colonel Darling was quite close to the Governor and both the Colonel and his wife, Elaine, had Captain Sayers over to the house for dinner just two nights before his murder.“

Colonel Beasley said his “exceptional composure and resolve” earned him “the absolute respect of his subordinates and the country”, reflected in his appointment as Honorary Colonel of the regiment.

He maintained a keen interest in the regiment and as an experienced mariner watched the development and operations of the RBR Coastguard.

David Gibbons, a former CO and Honorary Colonel, called him “a soldiers’ soldier, committed to the welfare and wellbeing of all under his command”.

“He was a son of the soil who worked tirelessly to better Bermuda and the environment we live in.

“Over the years I have heard from many soldiers who served with him and spoke of his strong but firm leadership and what a role model he was for so many young Bermudians who rose through the ranks of the regiment.”

The BNT called him “a passionate advocate for saving Bermuda’s open space and historic buildings”.

Vice-president Mark Orchard added: “He was a man of many parts, but at heart a very down-to-earth person who loved his island and enjoyed nothing more than working in his garden and planting cedar trees.”

The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club gave Colonel Darling honorary life membership in 2022.

He spent more than 70 years as a members of the Coral Beach and Tennis Club, where the chairman, Roderick O’Connor, hailed him as “truly an extraordinary individual who embodied sharp intelligence and gentility”.

• Michael Leslie Darling, a former Commanding Officer of the Bermuda Regiment, was born on June 25, 1930. He died on April 17, 2024, aged 93.

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Published April 22, 2024 at 7:56 am (Updated April 22, 2024 at 7:52 am)

Michael Darling (1930-2024): a ‘soldiers’ soldier’

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