My brave uncle's tale of endurance is with me always

THE name is still visible, despite the layers of graffiti from over the years. But nobody, not even the charity which funded it, knows exactly when John Easton House in Craigmillar was built.

But then the story of the man after whom it was named, a Lance Corporal in the Royal Guards, had also been somewhat forgotten and neglected – until the end of last year, when his nephew, Adam, began to uncover the details of his remarkable tale.

Now, he says, thoughts of his 21-year-old uncle's final days haunt his day-to-day life. "You go about getting the shopping and cleaning the house, and then something kicks in and you just remember," the 69-year-old says. "You just imagine a desert stretching for mile after mile after mile."

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John Easton was a chirpy teenager working as a farm labourer in Midlothian before he joined the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards in 1937 as the storm clouds of war began to gather across Europe. By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was in the Libyan desert, a bleak and hostile expanse which nonetheless became one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the conflict.

It must have been a very different world to what he was used to on Parduvine Farm near Rosewell but LCpl Easton appeared to thrive there. Certainly by 1941 he'd volunteered to become a member of the Long Range Desert Group, a forerunner of the SAS and Special Boat Squadron. This reconnaissance unit was designed to penetrate deep behind enemy lines to gather intelligence on the Germans and Italians.

It was 69 years ago this month that LCpl Easton's unit were charged with their first major operation – to raid Muzurk Fort, the chief garrison of Fezzan, a region of south-west Libya.

They crossed 700 miles of enemy-held territory to reach the fort – but after the attack, on their way back to the desert oasis of Kufra, the unit was attacked by a mobile strike squad, backed up by Italian aircraft.

They put up a good fight but the British commander and his truck were captured, a corporal was killed and three vehicles were blown apart.

The men in those destroyed trucks were also thought to have perished but in fact LCpl Easton, with a bullet wound to his throat, along with New Zealander Ronald Moore, Glaswegian Alexander Winchester and Alfred Tighe, from Manchester, had taken to the hills, where they hid overnight.

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The next morning, February 1, the enemy had gone but all the four men could find among the burnt-out wreckage was one two-gallon tin of water. Their weapons were useless, they had no food and they had two choices: walk the 80 miles to Kufra and give themselves up to the Italians or attempt the 290 miles, following their disappearing tyre tracks in the sand, back to allied-held Tekro, in temperatures that could reach nearly 50C during the day but fell to below freezing at night. They decided against surrender.

And they were in luck – on their third day in the desert, they found a 2lb pot of plum jam which had fallen off one of their trucks on the journey there. They ate it all.

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But their luck didn't hold for long – on the fifth day, Private Tighe, already suffering from internal injuries, persuaded his colleagues to go on without him. They carefully poured out his share of the water into a spare bottle they found and left him alone in the desert. Only after they had gone, he found the bottle must have contained a substance which made his meagre ration of water undrinkable.

The next day, a violent sandstorm whipped up, but the three exhausted men, who had already marched 130 miles, found a ruined hut for shelter. There was no food but there was some abandoned motor oil, with which they bathed their feet and made a fire.

The next morning they discovered the sandstorm had completely obliterated the end of the truck tracks – and there was still 160 miles to go. They struggled on.

Behind them, Pte Tighe had reached the hut. He found a match in the sand and with it lit a fire with the end of the oil.

Meanwhile, French reconnaissance aircraft spotted Moore and Winchester – by now the three were separated out into a straggling line – and dropped food and a bottle of lemonade. The pair didn't see the food; the cork came out of the bottle as it hit the ground and all but a half-inch of the fizzy disappeared into the sand before they could reach it.

Nine days after the four had set out, a French patrol found Pte Tighe. After four days alone without water, he was in a dreadful state – but managed to tell the French about his three colleagues. A search party set out at once but failed to track the men in the dark.

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It would be the tenth day before another search party came across the three, first LCpl Easton then, 12 miles on, Winchester, both lying exhausted in the sand, Winchester semi-delirious. Moore, 15 miles further than Easton, was still walking, 210 miles after setting out, despite an injury to his foot.

When he was found, Easton could barely swallow because of the bullet wound in his throat. He manage a few drops of sweet tea. "I don't usually take sugar with my tea," he said with a smile. He died shortly afterwards, despite the best efforts of the French doctor tending him.

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The other three men recovered well – and Moore, who led the march, was given the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

LCpl Easton, meanwhile, was mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief's Despatches in 1941 for his services in the Middle East, and Craigmillar-based charity the Thistle Foundation, set up to help disabled ex-servicemen and their families, named a house after him.

But since then his story has lain largely forgotten – until last year.

Adam Easton was just one when the news of his uncle's death arrived at the home of his aunt and uncle, who lived at that time in Musselburgh.

"The Second World War was never talked about in the house," he explains. "But I can remember paperwork coming to the house after uncle John died. I was at primary school at the time and I can remember reading it, but the photocopying was so bad I could hardly make it out."

It was only after Adam's own father, Andrew, died, in October last year that he remembered that paperwork.

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"After my father passed away I searched the house for the paperwork but I couldn't find it. I made phone calls all round the planet to try and find out what had happened to my uncle. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster. I wish I had found out more about my uncle when my father was alive."

Adam, a former police officer from Musselburgh, has even contacted the French Embassy in London in an attempt to get in touch with the doctor who tried to save his uncle's life – so far with no success – and plans to visit LCpl Easton's grave at Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Acroma, Libya

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But the details of the remarkable story came from Sergeant Kevin Gorman, 39, a Scots Guard archivist who Adam asked for help and who was similarly stunned to uncover such a tale: "For somebody to be wounded and walk almost 210 miles, and then tragically die after being rescued, is just very sad. The fact that he marched through the desert was a feat of endurance on its own – and he did it whilst wounded. It's remarkable," Sgt Gorman says.

"He came from good farming stock and he never gave up until the very, very end."


THE Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was a unit of the British Army during World War Two.

The unit, which was founded in Egypt following the Italian declaration of war in June 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold, played a huge part in the Allies' victory in North Africa during the conflict.

It was originally formed as a reconnaissance unit, to watch and report on German supply lines and troop movements.

The group, which specialised in mechanised reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and desert navigation, was disbanded at the end of the war.

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During the Desert Campaign of 1940 to 1943, the LRDG often operated hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. Although its chief function was reconnaissance, units of the LRDG – called Patrols – carried out several hard-hitting strike operations including Operation Caravan, an attack on the town of Barce in North Africa and its associated airfield, which took place on the night of 13 September 1942.