James Ford

Soldier, civil servant and author

Born: 10 June, 1920, in Auchtermuchty.

Died: 30 March, 2009, in Edinburgh, aged 88.

IN A varied and distinguished life in the army then in the civil service and as an author, James Ford CB, MC, remained modest, retiring and much respected. He was devoted to the Royal Scots and attended many of their functions in Edinburgh and at Fort George. Those still serving admired the fact that he seldom spoke of his bravery at the surrender of Hong Kong in 1941. Indeed, Ford was one of the few to be awarded a medal during that episode – although it was not presented to him until his release as a prisoner of war in 1945.

Ford's career with the civil service was highly regarded and former colleagues speak of him with warmth, kindness and admiration. As one recalled: "Jim ironed out problems."

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James Allan Ford attended the Royal High School then, from 1938, worked with the Ministry of Labour and the Inland Revenue. In 1940 he joined the Royal Scots and after training at Penicuik he was dispatched to the Far East as a second lieutenant. As the turmoil in Hong Kong mounted he was promoted to captain and on 8 December, 1941 the Japanese attacked the colony. It was a devastating offensive timed to coincide with Pearl Harbour, and by the end of the month Hong Kong had been captured and Ford was a PoW.

In the bitter fighting at Hong Kong Ford displayed exceptional courage, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation read: "This young officer was awarded the MC 'for his untiring energy, courage and good leadership' and for having remained in action against the enemy after being wounded at Golden Hill on the mainland and for the second time at Mount Nicholson on the island."

Ford remained devoted to the traditions and history of the Royal Scots and was chairman of the veterans' association of the 2nd Battalion (Hong Kong) Branch.

The four years in the camp were horrific. Ford recalled them in Focal Point on BBC Scotland in 1992, "Every time there was an escape, we had to stand out on the parade ground – and pull out the sick, too, on their stretchers. We would stand there all day. At sunset there were always a few corpses to carry away. I had both arms broken, and in splints, when they chained me to a bench and gave me the water torture."

At the end of the war Ford returned to Edinburgh to re-establish his life. His health was severely impaired but his spirit remained undaunted. He resumed work in the civil service (in the Department of Agriculture, Scotland 1947-66), married and spent many happy years in Edinburgh and holidaying in Caithness. He served on the advisory panel for the Highlands and Islands and was private secretary to the minister William McNair-Snadden. They had an excellent working relationship and Ford was known as a man who "gave it to the minister straight".

In 1966 Ford became registrar general for Scotland, operating from New Register House in Edinburgh. He was responsible for implementing the Registration of the Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act of 1965, which introduced changes in the registration system and allowed use of photographic material for the first time.

Archibald Rennie, who succeeded Ford in the post, recalled: "Jim handed over an excellent and smooth running department, typical of his efficient manner and eye for detail. He was always fun to be with and I had the highest regard for him."

For a decade from 1969 Ford acted as the principal establishment officer at the Scottish Office. It was a time of much rearrangement in the Scottish Office and Ford used all his diplomatic skills to alter some entrenched practices. Ford, by dint of his courteous manner, forged an excellent relationship with staff throughout the offices, indeed, he is credited with a huge input into its modernisation. Sir William Fraser, who was later to become permanent under-secretary of state, considered Ford "a first-class civil servant". He said: "Jim inspired confidence in all his colleagues and commanded respect throughout the service, even when some unpleasant duties had to be carried out. He merged four large departments, demonstrating much patience and consideration. Jim was a man of utmost diligence and never allowed his own somewhat frail health to interfere with the discharge of his duties."

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In the 1960s and early 1970s Ford wrote five novels. His first two were deeply personal. The Brave White Flag (1961) recounted the despairing days leading up to the fall of Hong Kong and two years later came Season of Escape, about the life and death (as a Japanese PoW) of his brother Douglas. The latter won the Frederick Niven Award.

In the next decade Ford wrote A Statue for a Public Place, A Judge of Men and The Mouth of Truth.

He was Scottish President of PEN (the writers' association) and served on a committee of the Scottish Arts Council and as a trustee of the National Library of Scotland. Ford was made a CB in 1978. In 1948 he married Isobel Dunnett: she and their son and daughter survive him.