Obituary: Leslie Puckering, cyclist and former PoW
Born: Hurstbourne Priors, Hampshire, 22 November 1918. Died: 11 June, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 93
HADDINGTON man Leslie Puckering, better known as Les, a talented cyclist who lost out on a chance to compete in the 1940 Olympic due to the outbreak of the Second World War, has died at the age of 93. Although he was later to consider himself a committed Scot, Les was born in the Hampshire village of Hurstbourne Priors in the weeks following the end of the Great War, which resulted in his middle name – V for Victory.
At nine-years-old he moved to London with his family where he became a member of the famed Belle Vue Cycling Club. Such was his talent that, on leaving school, he began work with the Raleigh Cycle Company, who sponsored his commitment to compete in the Great Britain cycling pursuit team at the proposed Helsinki Games by supplying racing cycles and equipment.
However, Adolf Hitler put paid to that dream and, in 1940, Les was called up and found himself in the heart of rural Scotland as a member of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry.
The former Territorial Cavalry Regiment had recently been reformed into the 155th [Lanarkshire Yeomanry] Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery and Les was attached to the less than romantic Quartermaster’s Stores Section in Lanark.
In September 1940, the regiment moved to Haddington on defensive duties at the airfields of RAF Drem and RAF McMurray and to man the gun batteries along the East Lothian coast. Les and the QM Stores were billeted in a former shop on Haddington’s Market Street and, on their first day, the gunners discovered that a dance was to be held that night in the local town hall.
Dancing was then all the rage and Les and his mates set out to discover the location of the town hall only to find that it was right next door to their billet. There he met the love of his life, Jean Cumming, the girl whose memory would later keep him alive as he struggled to survive in some of the very worst of the Japanese hell camps.
But this was all in the future and Les and Jean had hardly got to know each other before he and his regiment were off to the Far East. In December 1941, they were deep in the steaming jungles of Malaya when the Japanese invaded through neutral Siam. For the next 70 days the British and Australian forces defending Malaya were constantly on the back foot. With little air support to meet the might of the Japanese attack force of modern bombers and fighters such as the famed Zero, the Allied troops were in no position to put up a proper defence. In addition, British military strategists had concluded Malaya was unsuitable for tank warfare and as a result there was not one single tank to meet the hundreds of Japanese tanks which pushed their way right down through Malaya and onto the so-called impregnable fortress of Singapore.
In February 1942, Les and his fellow gunners found themselves prisoners of a cruel enemy. Held first at Changi and later, in October, transported aboard the hell ship, England Maru, to Taiwan, then known as Formosa, Les spent the next year in the depths of the evil Kinkaseki copper mine slaving for his new masters.
Now recognised as one of the very worst of the Japanese camps, Kinkaseki killed and maimed many young men. In August 1943 the labour force was so depleted by cruelty, starvation and sheer overwork, that the survivors were lined up on what were to become known as “thin man parades” to select the very worst of the sick who would be replaced and moved to another camp. Although none of the PoW camps on Formosa were easy or pleasant, at least the men there were not subjected to the excesses of barbarity common at Kinkaseki.
Les was in a desperate state and took his place in the queue while the brutal guards and overseers went down the line selecting those who would be given a chance to live.
To his horror the guards walked past him. Les knew he would not survive many more days down the mine and in desperation managed to struggle undiscovered to the end of the line where, to his relief, he was picked out. Despite the fact that the selection was arbitrary and at the whim of the guards, Les would always be troubled by the fact that he was given a “second chance” while many of his friends were left behind. But to a man they applauded him for his initiative, bravery and determination, for if he had been discovered he would almost certainly have been beaten to death.
Moved to the camp at Shirakawa, Les worked in nearby factories where he once again evaded death. Ironically, this time it was during a raid on the factory by American bombers when a piece of shrapnel embedded itself in his forehead and he lost his sight.
He overheard someone say that he was going to die and again his survival instinct kicked in. Spurred on by the memory of the girl he had left behind at Haddington, and despite his serious injuries and a subsequent bout of beri beri where he temporarily lost the power in his legs, his determination and will to survive served him well and he recovered his sight.
At the end of the war, despite weighing just over five stone, Les was one of the fortunate men of the regiment to make his way back home. More men of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry died as PoWs in the Japanese camps than fell in action.
Reunited with Jean, they married in St Mary’s Church in Haddington in 1946 and settled in the town. He joined the civil service and this was followed by a lifetime career with the Ministry of Defence.
In the years to follow, Les became proud to be a Scotsman although he never lost his allegiance to Chelsea FC, the other love of his life. He was closely involved in the community at Haddington where he was an elder at St Mary’s Church and treasurer of the local Probus Club.
In an item in the church newsletter, Les later remarked: “People ask if I can forgive those who treated me as a slave labourer. I have no hatred for them, nor do I love them. They did what they were ordered to do.”
This sentiment is not common among former PoWs of the Japanese and epitomises Les Puckering – a gentle gentleman with a love and determination for life.
There is a certain poignancy in the fact that two days after Les’ passing, Andy Coogan, an old friend during their PoW days and great uncle of Sir Chris Hoy, the Olympic cyclist, carried the Olympic torch through the streets of Dundee. Les would have got much pleasure from that.
He is survived by wife Jean, son Ian and his family.
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