ON top of a pole in a village in Yemen was a human head. It belonged to the former commander of the Special Air Service (SAS) squadron Major John Foley took over from in the war between Oman and Yemen in the 1970s. Major Foley fared better than his predecessor, winning the Military Cross for bravery, while leading his squadron against Yemeni leftist infiltrators during the British support of the Omani sultan. More than 20 years on, Major-General Sir John Foley, Commander British Forces Hong Kong (CBF), sits next to his wife Ann and chuckles as she recalls the days when she did not know whether her future husband was fighting in Oman, Borneo, Northern Ireland or Timbuktu. Not knowing where he was in the early days of their relationship was awful, said Lady Foley. ''He did say he was in the SAS,'' she continued. But that, it seems, was all he could say. ''That was in 1971-72 when we were involved in the Oman campaign,'' explained Sir John, who was knighted in the Queen's birthday honours list. ''We weren't allowed to say where we were going.'' He described how, during the campaign, his future wife's flatmates steamed the stamps off his letters, which had been re-posted in Britain for security reasons, to try to discover his whereabouts from the postmark beneath. About 23 years later, 22 after he married and 35 after he was first commissioned into the Royal Green Jackets, Sir John is taking over the military's most secretive post, Chief of Defence Intelligence, which even British Prime Minister John Major's policy of openness is unlikely to expose too widely. Despite his civilian counterpart Stella Rimington's more public approach - she has been interviewed on television - Sir John, just like all those years ago, is prepared to say what his job is, but not how or where he will be doing it. ''For someone like myself who served in Northern Ireland, has an SAS background and has done various jobs of that sort, it doesn't make much sense to put your head too far above the parapet,'' he said. Sir John, 55, and Lady Foley sit close together on the sofa in an office high up in the Prince of Wales Barracks, their body language, as much as their matching watches, telling all about the obvious closeness of their relationship despite half a lifetime of different postings, the sort of thing that has driven many military marriages to ruin. Lady Foley appears to be an old-school officer's wife, allowing her husband to rise unhindered by such constraints as her own career, a life her two teenage daughters would be unlikely to emulate. ''I'm not a feminist, my daughters are feminists, but I think very much that a wife should look after her husband - end of story,'' she said. ''You do all you want to do before you're married then you look after him and you fit yourself in all you can, a little bit here and a little bit there.'' Sir John looked as if he knew his wife's comments were out of their time, but seemed to acknowledge her sacrifice had allowed him to rise to the the rank of lieutenant-general, once his promotion becomes effective on his return to Britain. Although Lady Foley gave up her job as an expert in ''old masters'' at Christie's in London to become an army wife, she has no regrets. ''We've had a very interesting life,'' she said. ''Hong Kong, back to Britain, Ireland, other parts of Britain, Berlin, East Germany, places every time I thought, 'gosh I would have never have come here otherwise'.'' SIR John's career began when he fell in love with the army during National Service. He underwent selection for the SAS during the 1960s, and served in Borneo before Oman. His credentials include a stint in Hong Kong from 1974-76 as chief of staff of 51 Infantry Brigade, instructor at the Army Staff College for the following two years and later the commandant of the Junior Division of the Staff College. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1976 and an OBE in 1979. From 1987 to 1989 he headed the British Mission to Soviet Forces in Germany, monitoring Soviet armoured strength in former East Germany. Before taking up the role of CBF, he was assistant chief of Defence Staff in London. Sir John revealed that he came to Hong Kong 21/2 years ago with two main briefs, the first to examine the role of CBF on the Executive Council and the second to advise on the necessary strength of the British Garrison in the run-up to 1997. The CBF had historically been a member of Exco, formerly serving as deputy to the Governor. ''I came quite early on to the conclusion that it was not entirely appropriate, and of course when Mr Patten came we discussed it together and decided it was the right way to go for Hong Kong,'' he said. When Sir John resigned from the council in October 1992, it was the end of 148 years of tradition. ''I came with no fixed ideas whether it would have been right or wrong for me to stay [on Exco],'' he said. ''You had to look at it objectively.'' Sir John said his other main task was to balance the size of the garrison against the need to maintain sovereignty and support the Hong Kong Government on the one hand and the need to withdraw by June 30, 1997, on the other. ''After Tiananmen there had been a feeling that perhaps it would be sensible to keep more of a garrison here longer,'' he said, ''But the penalties in that are that you increase your logistic problems at the end by having to pull everyone out at once.'' He said it was a joint decision taken by himself, the Governor and the British Government to accelerate the withdrawal of the garrison, which this year will be reduced from 9,000 to about 3,000. ''The decision was bagged by a very close look at the risks in Hong Kong of upheaval, disturbance or whatever, and it was our joint assessment that the chances of any form of serious disturbance was considered quite small,'' Sir John said. This was, he said, despite Deng Xiaoping's much quoted threat of the early 1980s that despite the Joint Declaration, the Chinese could take back Hong Kong at any time. ''That was the early 80s and this is the early 90s,'' Sir John said. ''That remark has been used in a threatening sense, but if you look at the context at which it was made I think it has been used totally out of context. ''In whose interest is it to have problems in HK? Certainly not in the Hong Kong Government's interests, certainly not in the British interest, and very definitely not in the Chinese interests. It was all these considerations which led us to say 'let's reduce the garrison'.'' Today is Sir John's last day as CBF, his return to Britain preceding that of the Black Watch Regiment which takes its new station in Surrey later this month before eventually moving on to Northern Island. He disagrees that the Black Watch will be remembered in a bad light. ''In my view they will be remembered as one of the battalions which made the largest contribution in the widest possible sense to the community, what with the pipes and drums and their help at the Hong Kong Sevens,'' he said. Unfortunately, despite Sir John's optimism, they are unlikely to be, something which Sir John and the regiment's commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Andrew Ogilvy-Wedderburn claim is the fault of the press, for raking up coverage of their less than happy tour of Hong Kong in the 1970s and a story about two squaddies sent home after being found with an ecstacy pill in a night club. ''I felt very strongly that [the Black Watch] was most unfairly criticised, even before they arrived out here,'' he said. ''I arrived in the middle of 1992 and there were articles then saying 'here come the marauding Jocks' and dragging up what happened back in 1972-74 in Gun Club Hill Barracks in Kowloon.'' Sir John will be replaced by new CBF Major-General Bryan Dutton, currently Director of Infantry based in Warminster, Wiltshire. His style is said to be different to Sir John's, a little more direct, perhaps, in contrast to his predecessor's softly, softly nature. However, if General Dutton's tenure is half as effective, the transition will be a successful one. ''This year is a tremendously turbulent year for the garrison,'' Sir John said. ''[General Dutton] will have a tremendously important role to play, not just on the garrison side, but in the community of Hong Kong.''