Obituary: Tom Carling MBE, telephone engineer and soldier

Tom Carling MBE: Former soldier who survived seven decades with a bullet in his chest cavity
Tom Carling MBE: Former soldier who survived seven decades with a bullet in his chest cavity
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Born: 3 August, 1914, in Perth. Died: 6 December, 2014, in Buckie, aged 100

By the time Tom Carling took part in the final mass parachute and glider assault of the Second World War he was a veteran of D-Day and had survived the Battle of the Bulge, an epic offensive fought out in the brutally cold winter of 1944.

But by approximately 10am on the day of the airborne attack, codenamed Operation Varsity, the 30-year-old father-of-two, who been “volunteered” for the 6th Airborne Division, known as the Red Devils, was left for dead.

Shot in the chest as the thousands of Allied troops came under heavy fire during the glider landings, it seemed the end was inevitable.

His division lost almost 600 men that day. A further 700 or so were wounded or missing. Though the cost was high, the operation to cross the Rhine was a success and paved the way for the advance into Germany’s industrial heartland that hastened the end of the conflict.

That he survived at all was extraordinary. That he lived another 70 years, carrying the bullet in his chest until his dying day, was nothing short of miraculous.

That experience on the battlefield in March 1945 changed the way he would live his life and led to numerous voluntary contributions in the health field while also working as a telephone engineer.

“He got on his white charger and forgot to get off again,” said one who knew him well.

Carling, who was awarded an MBE for his work with Tayside Health Board, was born in Perth the day before Britain declared hostilities against Germany in The Great War of 1914-18. His father, from whom he took his full name of Thomas Benjamin Carling, was a telephone company worker and his mother, Gertrude, became one of the first female members of Perth Town Council and later served on Glasgow Corporation.

He was just a small boy when tragedy touched the family when his two younger sisters died in the flu epidemic that swept the world as the war drew to a close in 1918.

His parents went on to have two more daughters, Gladys and Marion, who both lived into their 90s.

Educated at Perth’s Southern District School and Balhousie Boys’ School, he started work locally repairing wirelesses and small electrical goods before joining PO Telephones and working as a linesman, a job that saw him install many small, early telephone exchanges in rural Perthshire.

After being called up during the Second World War he served initially with the Royal Signals before joining the 6th Airborne Division where his telecommunications skills were put to good use.

He saw action on D-Day in June 1944, taking part in the operation to hold the bridge over the Orne Canal and, subsequently, in extensive fighting in and around Normandy, including the Battle for Caen.

By the end of that year one of the worst European winters had set in and in Ardennes, in the inhospitable and heavily forested Belgian countryside, the Battle of the Bulge was fought in atrocious conditions of snow and ice.

Carling was one of the vast numbers of Allied troops, including 600,000 Americans, who battled in close combat with the enemy in Hitler’s last great offensive of the war. It began 70 years ago this week (16 Decber, 1944) and lasted well into January when the Allies triumphed, albeit it at terrible cost.

Then on 24 March, 1945 came Operation Varsity, a massive airborne assault that heralded the beginning of the end of the long and bloody conflict. It aimed to secure a bridgehead east of the Rhine but brought Carling’s war to an abrupt halt when the Germans opened fire as the gliders came into land.

Hearing the bullets whizzing through the fuselage as they prepared to crash land, he hit his buckle and made to stand up, only to be shot right in the centre of his chest – “a kick like a mule”, he said.

It punctured his left lung and missed his heart by a fraction. His companions dragged him out and left him under the wing, severely wounded and lapsing in and out of consciousness.

He was not expected to survive but, as the battle raged on, he was vividly aware of German troops scouring the area, pistol-shooting the wounded.

At one stage he was grabbed by the scruff by an enemy soldier who threw him back down, deeming him “kaput” or finished already.

However, within hours the 6th Airborne had achieved its objectives and in the aftermath of its success, he was picked up by a stretcher-bearer and taken to a shed, still not expected to survive.

When he did, he was transferred to a field hospital in France and later treated in Wales and at Edinburgh Castle Hospital.

The bullet, however, could not be removed at that time and remained his chest cavity. Over several of the following decades he suffered greatly from its movement but it did not deter his determination to seize life with both hands.

After his long and painful recuperation he began studying, with the Workers’ Educational Association to give himself better opportunities at work.

He later chaired its Perth branch and became a telecom engineer.

He and his wife Jane had a third son, Bruce, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and, after discovering there was a serious lack of services for children with learning disabilities, they became founder members of the Perth branch of the Scottish Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, now known as Enable.

He subsequently chaired the branch for many years and remained active on both a political and practical level.

He also became a member of Tayside Health Board, during the period when Ninewells Hospital in Dundee was being developed, and was a member and vice-chair of Murray Royal Hospital board in Perth, receiving his OBE in the New Year Honours in December 1977.

A keep fit enthusiast all his life, a keen cyclist and member of the Junior Mountaineering Club, in retirement he ran Sunday morning swimming sessions at the old Perth baths and accompanied teenage and adult groups on excursions to Blackpool.

He travelled throughout the world until his mid-90s and had, in the late-1950s, returned to the battlefields where he had fought in France and Belgium, where many of the locations and war damage were just as he had recalled.

Living independently until just short of his 99th birthday, he celebrated his century in August – a feat achieved against all the odds seven decades earlier.

Predeceased by his wife and youngest son, he is survived by sons Tommy and Gil, four grandchildren and an extended family of great and great, great grandchildren.