Obituary: Major Alexander John Munro, soldier and castle administrator

Major Alexander John Munro, who has died aged 99. Picture: contributed

Major Alexander John Munro, who has died aged 99. Picture: contributed

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Major Alexander John Munro MBE TD, soldier and castle administrator. Born 10 September, 1916 in New Zealand. Died 1 September, 2016 in Pitlochry, aged 99

By his own admission Alexander Munro was a knock-kneed weakling until the age of seven.

A sickly toddler hospitalised in his native New Zealand with scarlet fever and diphtheria, he didn’t flourish until he was a schoolboy in the Scottish Highlands. But from there he never looked back, becoming one of the legendary Lovat Scouts and tackling everything life threw at him with straightforward common sense and a matter-of-fact attitude.

Being wounded twice during the Second World War, not expected to live and permanently invalided out of the military after losing his right arm, could not deter him returning to the services as a Territorial Army soldier, rejoining the Lovat Scouts, becoming a crack rifleman and honoured with an MBE. He went on to help manage one of Scotland’s foremost country estates and that once fragile little boy, who came here on holiday and never returned home, survived until the eve of his 100th birthday, inspiring and mentoring many during a rich and varied life.

It began in the middle of the Great War, in a nursing home in Masterton, New Zealand, and the new baby returned home on horseback, carried by his father who had ridden in the 60 miles from their remote shepherd’s hut, leading his mother’s horse. A couple of years later the youngster fell ill with the fever and potentially fatal diphtheria infection but was saved by medical treatment and, by 1920, the family was on the move back to Scotland.

They intended only to visit but stayed due to his paternal grandmother’s ill health. His father became a tenant farmer on Cawdor Estate and the boy, who then became known as Alastair – the Gaelic form of Alexander – attended school in nearby Clunas and then Nairn Academy, cycling the nine miles each way most days. In 1932 he began work with the Forestry Commission at Fort Augustus.

The next year he joined the Lovat Scouts and two years later, as a means to travel, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery, then a horse regiment, lying about his age to make himself a year older. He was posted to India in 1936 and when the regiment was mechanised there were around 400 horses had to be put down. The worst aspect, he said, was seeing them gorged on by vultures.

Back in Britain in 1937 he represented his regiment, lining the route for the coronation parade of King George VI. Later that year he returned to India, serving there and in Burma until 1945. During active service in the Waziristan campaign, on the North-West Frontier he discovered “the other war” – the Second World War – had begun.

Promoted to sergeant-major, instructor in gunnery in 1941, the following year he was posted to the 4th Indian Field Regiment and joined the Punjabi Mussulman battery in Trimulgherry, which was to meet an expected Japanese landing at Madras. “At this stage the drivers had not learned to drive, we had guns but no ammunition and our accompanying infantry at ‘pretend’ wooden anti-tank rifles,” he later recalled.

He went on to train in jungle warfare and was promoted to captain before going into Burma in 1944. Detailed to take vehicles by road, he travelled roughly 2,000 miles across India, to Calcutta, Assam and on to Nagaland, “a wonderful trip”, he said.

“During the Irrawaddy crossing I was recalled from the far side to be told I had been promoted to major and given command of the battery,” he wrote in his informal memoirs, adding the succinct note: “Wounded in leg, not seriously.”

Then on 21 March, 1945, the day after British troops liberated Mandalay and whilst clearing Japanese soldiers from nearby villages, he was shot in the arm, suffered a massive injury and was not expected to live more than 20 minutes. A Quaker, piloting a Piper Cub, picked him up from a paddy field and took him to near Meiktila, where the wounded were patched up in a pagoda. From there he was flown to hospital at Comilla, now part of Bangladesh.

Every few days he underwent a minor operation but the wounded helped each other with daily tasks, despite suffering sweat rash foot-rot, leech bites and bamboo ulcers: “Excellent therapy. One was always seeing people worst than oneself.”

During his next transfer to Calcutta, in a fierce thunderstorm and a Dakota with no seats, the aircraft dropped so violently that a patient burst through one of the stretchers attached to the fuselage. En route they stopped at Dum Dum airport where they all received injections after being informed that Calcutta had bubonic plague.

Soon moved to Secunderabad, he had major surgery there, performed by an Edinburgh surgeon, before transferring to another hospital in Poona and then on to Bombay for a hospital ship home, but not before he had suffered his third bout of dengue fever. Back in Scotland, amputation was advised – “good news” he said, as his useless limb had been delaying recovery. But before the operation he agreed to donate to a skin bank. Large swathes taken from his thighs went to help a badly-burned child.

In the summer of 1946 his arm was amputated at Gogarburn Hospital and on March 21, 1947, exactly two years after the shooting, he was discharged from the army and declared permanently unfit for any form of military service. That same year he married Molly, a widow whose husband had been killed in action soon after D-Day, and one of the nurses who had cared for him at Larbert Base Hospital.

They moved to Aberdeen and then Cullen, where he was an estate management pupil at Seafield Estates, before taking a job as assistant architect at Atholl Estates in 1952 where he spent 30 years and became castle administrator and an assistant factor. Munro, also known as AJ, combined the administrative and sporting sides of the business, and was chairman of the Grand Tour of Scotland, encompassing six castles, for its first five years.

Meanwhile, he had also re-entered military service, courtesy of an old wartime friend who pulled some strings – even more remarkable since eye disease had by now robbed him of sight in his right eye. But in 1952, after three medicals, he was back with the Territorial Army (TA) posted to the Lovat Scouts and was second-in-command of the regiment from 1962-64, being awarded the MBE for services to the organisation in 1961.

A keen shot all his life – he’d had to learn how to shoot left-handed – he was also a national full-bore rifle coach, the only one-armed member of the Combined Inter Service Championship team and captain of the TA and Scottish Rifle Associations, having captained teams to Canada, South Africa and Namibia.

Major Munro, who celebrated his 96th birthday with his first flight in a small aircraft since 1945, was predeceased by his wife Molly and is 
survived by their son John, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Alison Shaw

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