Obituary: Archie (Chile) Prentice, SOE officer and engineer
Born: 30 June, 1917, in Concepcion, Chile. Died: 5 September, 2012, in Saffron Walden, aged 95
James Archibald Prentice, who was known as “Chile” to his army friends, “Archie” to everyone else, died in Saffron Walden on 5 September.
He was born in 1917 in Concepcion in Chile, where his father was a manager for Duncan Fox and Partners, an international trading company. The young Archie felt he had an idyllic childhood, growing up with his five sisters in a well-staffed home in Concpecion, but at the age of 11 he was sent back to Scotland to be educated, first at Dalhousie School near Edinburgh, then at Glenalmond in Perthshire.
He proved to be a storming front row forward, playing in the Glenalmond first XI and then for Glasgow University and London Scottish. It was said that only the advent of war prevented him from getting his Scottish cap.
On 31 August, 1939 Archie was an engineering apprentice working for Bill Linn of Cowan and Linn when news broke of the invasion of Poland. As a Territorial Army lieutenant he took command of a platoon in B Company 1st Battalion the Glasgow Highlanders and proceeded to defend the Clyde Boom from their vantage point on Ardhallow Fort, Dunoon.
He then saw service in France as commander of the 157 Brigade Anti-Tank Company which was sent to France following the Dunkirk evacuation as an attempt to reinforce the French army. He narrowly escaped capture by the advancing German army, taking his company out through Cherbourg.
In early 1943 he was in Stromness, taking part in the Orkney and Shetland Defence Force boxing tournament when orders arrived to report to the War Office in London. Finding himself with a group of some 30 officers all undergoing interview and selection at the same London hotel, he soon ascertained that they all had connections with Spain or South America and could speak Spanish (or in a few cases Portuguese).
The purpose, though both secret and sensitive at the time, was to form a unit of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which could provide support to anti-fascist partisans in Spain in the event of that country joining the Axis. On passing the selection Archie was recruited into the SOE, where he worked initially with Major Donald Hamilton-Hill in North Africa, where they investigated using Spanish refugees from Franco to form a fighting unit which could serve alongside the Allies.
Thwarted as much by the reluctance of the republicans to abandon their neutrality as by high politics, Archie went on to run an SOE station in Brindisi, providing logistic support for operations in the Balkans. This brought him into contact with Fitzroy McLean, as well as Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill and with whom he crossed swords regarding Churchill’s desire to transport his personal jeep on a plane planned for lighter goods.
In spite of Archie’s protests, the jeep was loaded onto the transport, which subsequently crashed in Yugoslavia. The crash found its echo in Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen, and it may be no coincidence that one of the least sympathetic characters in the book is given the surname Prentice! Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Billy Moss also passed through the station, and won Archie’s grudging admiration for getting all the pretty girls at the unit dance. At the end of the war he found himself in what must have been one of the most comfortable jobs in the British army, running an R&R unit in a requisitioned villa on the bank of Lake Como.
Following the war, Archie went back to civil engineering, as a partner with Glasgow consultancy Leitch and Sharpe and with Marples Ridgeway, with which he worked on the Allt-na-Lairige dam, the Kingston Bridge and numerous motorways. He is fondly remembered by his old colleagues for his straightforwardness and attention to detail.
He never returned to Chile, aware that it could not match the paradise of his childhood memories, but enjoyed living in various places where work took him, from Hampshire to the Highlands, with his wife Anne, and their two children.
After retirement, he settled first in Marchmont in Edinburgh and then in Orchard Brae. He continued to entertain family and friends with stories from his eventful history, throughout his own life.
His memory was as great as his modesty, as he quietly bore witness to the energy of the British in South America in the last century, and the extraordinary experience of his generation through the Second World War.
He leaves behind two children, James and Catherine, and five grandchildren.
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