Obituary: Thomas J Renouf, Black Watch veteran and physicist

Dr Thomas J Renouf MBE MM. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Dr Thomas J Renouf MBE MM. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Born: 28 March, 1925 in Musselburgh. Died: 27 June, 2016, in Musselburgh, aged 91.

At the time, going to war seemed like a normal part of life. I was far from scared: in fact I relished the prospect of adventure, not knowing it was going to be purgatory.”

The words of Tom Renouf who, as a young boy out playing on his bike, had been exhilarated by the daring of a squadron of Spitfires who sent the Luftwaffe’s Junkers 88s packing in a historic dogfight over the River Forth. It was the Second World War’s first German air raid over Britain. Even then, the war was not real, he admitted.

But fast forward just a few years and the schoolboy, by now a teenage army volunteer, was caught in the maelstrom of some of the most vicious campaigns of the conflict – fighting hand-to-hand against Himmler’s fanatic SS troops, struggling for survival in the snow and sub-zero nights in the Ardennes and forging his way across the Rhine with the Black Watch as they led the British army into the German heartlands.

He had learned all too quickly the realities of war, a truth no more vividly illustrated than in the ferocious battle for the German town of Goch when death and destruction rained down relentlessly. Many years later, chronicling his war and the achievements of the 51st Highland Division in his book Black Watch, he recalled: “During the night, as the flames danced to the sky and deafening explosions were followed by screams and cries, I thought to myself that hell could not be any worse than this. It was like Dante’s Inferno.”

The youth from Musselburgh survived while so many of his comrades perished. He went on to graduate in physics, become a lecturer at the Royal Military College and a research fellow at Edinburgh University. And, for much of the latter part of his life, was the face of the 51st Highland Division Veterans Association, working as its secretary.

Tom Renouf was born in his grandfather’s house in Fisherrow, Musselburgh, to Meg, a cinema cashier, and George Renouf, the cinema manager. Young Tom was educated at Musselburgh Grammar School where he briefly joined the Air Training Corps before deciding the RAF was not for him and became a messenger with the Civil Defence.

By 16 he was an enthusiastic jazz fan and as a youth he played the clarinet and piano, performing with several dance bands.

Then just before his final school exams he volunteered for the Argylls. His call up papers arrived on April 1, 1943, four days after his 18th birthday. That September he was posted to the London Scottish regiment and then to the Tyneside Scottish, a battalion that was part of the Black Watch.

He sailed for France in the immediate aftermath of D-Day, in June 1944.

From then on it was a relentless assault across Normandy, from Sword beach and the bloody Battle of Rauray, in which the 1st Tyneside Scottish were victorious against two SS Panzer divisions, to the village of Mauny where he was wounded and six friends died. By this time he was part of the 5th Black Watch. After an 18-hour journey to hospital he was pronounced incredibly lucky – a bullet had gone straight through him and exited his body, missing his spine. Just a fraction of an inch lower and he would have been paralysed.

After returning to duties he served in Holland before taking part of the Battle of the Bulge at La Roche in the Ardennes, during a horrendously cold January 1945. From there it was on to the Reichswald, launching an assault in the narrow gap between the Rhine and the Maas. Many were still teenagers but “killing was our daily bread,” he noted “and it felt as if we had been doing it all our lives.” After that came the nightmare of Goch. Crossing the square was dicing with death. “Snipers were very active and difficult to locate so I was not amused when a newsreel photographer asked me to make a dash to a doorway running into sniper fire while he filmed me.”

Soon afterwards, aged 19, he was promoted to corporal, immediately completing his first mission clearing a farmhouse with his section, taking almost 60 German prisoners. In March, 5th Black Watch left for the Rhine crossing, Operation

Plunder. Successfully across the river, with his platoon leading and making for Esserden, Renouf and his section were ordered to eliminate a Spandau nest. Creeping to within 12 yards of the target and armed with a Bren gun, Renouf charged, shooting from the hip, taking the five Germans by surprise. Another successful mission. By now the war was coming to its close and the whole Highland Division was rested, allowing Renouf some leave. He failed to notice the significance of the date he left for home – March 28, his 20th birthday.

Soon he was heading back to rejoin his battalion in Germany on May 1, but not before witnessing one of war’s the most inhumane sights, Belsen concentration camp. Passing the compound, recently liberated but still inhabited by hordes of desolate former captives who had “clearly been through hell”, the sight and smell were shocking, he said.

A week later came Victory in Europe, leading to one of Renouf’s most extraordinary experiences. The Black Watch was manning a checkpoint and on the lookout for fleeing SS members. Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, was one of those on the run. Among the prisoners in the guardroom Renouf noted an odd little man, detained because his papers seemed too good. Dressed like a postman but sporting an eye patch, amulet round his neck and fancy watch, he meekly handed over his valuables to a guard. Identified as a sergeant with the secret field police he was taken for questioning the following day. There he demanded to speak to the camp commandant, a former Edinburgh policeman, and declared “Ich bin Herr Heinrich Himmler.” He died soon afterwards, crunching a cyanide phial.

Renouf, who did not smoke but collected cigarettes as currency, swapped the guard 300 cigarettes for the watch which remained with him ever since, a unique souvenir of his encounter with “this vile man”.

The following month the battle-scarred young Scotsman was honoured with the Military Medal for his role in the Rhine Crossing and promoted to lieutenant. Demobbed in 1946, he planned to study music but, devastated not to get a place, opted for physics instead, spending the greater part of his career as a research scientist at Edinburgh University.

He had long learned to cope with the wartime legacy of night terrors but could never forget his band of brothers. In retirement he worked endlessly for the veterans, bringing survivors together, upholding the memory of fallen friends and organising pilgrimages. He received the French Legion d’Honneur in Mauny in 2014 and was awarded the MBE in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, presented with the honour at home shortly before he died.

He is survived by his wife Kathleen, son George and family.

Alison Shaw