Obituary: George Fraser MBE TD, soldier and licensed grocer

George Fraser, Burma veteran and licensed grocer. Picture: Contributed
George Fraser, Burma veteran and licensed grocer. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 3 November, 1919 in Aberdeen. Died: 12 August, 2016, in Aberdeen, aged 96

As a nursing orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps George Fraser was often in the thick of the fighting as he tended the sick, wounded and dying during the six-and-a-half long years of the Second World War.

He had narrowly missed being taken prisoner at St Valery, when most of his 51st Highland Division comrades were outflanked by German troops and forced to surrender. But later, confined to the hell of the disease-ridden Burmese jungle, he was sometimes as ill as his patients – ravaged by dysentery, typhus and three bouts of malaria.

By the time he returned home he had lost all his hair, weighed just 8 stones and was a gaunt shadow of the strapping teenager who had volunteered for the Territorial Army. So striking was his decline that he was barely recognisable to the wartime sweetheart waiting for him on the platform in Aberdeen.

Alma Chainey had been his penpal and knew him only through his letters and the photograph of a fine, strong young soldier she carried with her. Within a year they were engaged and she would support him through more than 65 years of marriage, many of them played out against the backdrop her husband’s determination to ensure those who served in the Burma campaign were never forgotten. He chaired the Burma Star Association’s Aberdeen branch and was honoured by the Queen for his service to the organisation.

A grocer’s son, George Edwards Fraser was born in a tenement in Aberdeen’s Great Western Road, and educated at the city’s Broomhill and Ruthrieston schools. He played cricket for Aberdeen Schools Select and at 14 went to work as a messenger boy for his father who had taken over George Angus and Co grocers, something of an institution in Aberdeen.

They sourced stock from all over the country – bacon from Wiltshire, sausages from Staffordshire, coffee beans from London and cheese from Stilton – which all arrived by train. Whisky, port and sherry was bottled in the shop and their customers included hotels, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and some of the grand households along the city’s Queens Road.

After a year delivering produce by bicycle, he moved up to work in the shop, sporting a smart grey jacket, tie and pristine white apron. Then in the spring of 1939, with the prospect of war on the horizon, he enlisted in the Territorial Army Medical Corps, joining the only unit still recruiting, 154 Field Ambulance.

He was called up two days before Britain declared war on Germany, in September 1939, and the following January headed for France as part of the 51st Highland Division.

That summer the vast majority of the division was captured and taken prisoner after being outmanoeuvred.. Fortunately for Fraser his unit was one of the few to elude the enemy, escaping via Cherbourg on the French coast. Back on home soil he completed further training in Sussex and Scapa Flow before sailing for Burma via South Africa, Madagascar and India.

By this time he was part of the 36th British Division. They flew into Makele and then moved down through the villages and jungle to Irrawaddy, crossing the great river on rafts in December 1943. He spent two years in the jungle where the only supplies were dropped in by air and the conditions were appalling.

Though he was nursing the sick, his own health suffered terribly and the threat of capture by brutal Japanese soldiers was ever present. There was nowhere to turn and they had to dig in every night: “We were very lucky to survive the campaign because there was tremendous loss of life,” he recalled a few years ago. “If you were captured by the Japanese, that was curtains, you were finished.”

There were, he admitted, many days when he assumed he would never see Aberdeen again but there was also a tremendous comradeship among the men.

He was in Rangoon when the war finally came to an end with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Following the surrender of Japan he sailed for home, picking up some Gordon Highlanders who had been Prisoners of War in Singapore. Tending to them threw his own suffering into perspective, he said: “You’ve never seen anything like it. To think these lads had once been great big farm servants in Aberdeenshire and there they were, nothing but a rickle of bones covered in jungle sores and open flesh...I was one of the lucky ones.”

He was demobbed the following Valentine’s Day and met Alma for the first time. She had been a friend of his sister and had initially volunteered to write to him during his training. Their correspondence continued throughout the war and they married in 1948, raising twin daughters and a son.

Meanwhile Fraser returned to the family’s grocer shop and ran it with his younger brother Atholl until they both retired in 1991. By then Fraser was 71 but he continued to work, part-time as a messenger with Aberdeen legal firm Bryan Keenan, for another 20 years.

Down the decades he never forgot the bond between the band of brothers who fought alongside each other in the jungle and in 1964 he helped to found a local branch of the Burma Star Association.

Over the following 50 years he served as its chairman and treasurer and played a key role in bringing 300 veterans and dignitaries to Aberdeen in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of victory over Japan. Among them was Association’s patron The Duke of Edinburgh.

In 2010 he was made an MBE for services to the Burma Star Association, proudly receiving the honour at Buckingham Palce, but four years later the remaining half a dozen members of the Aberdeen branch, the last surviving district arm, reluctantly took the decision to close. By then there were more widows than veterans.

The legacy of those experiences was a lust for life, perfectly illustrated a few years ago when he observed: “I know I’m living on borrowed time. Every day when I wake up I say ‘Well this is a real bonus! Now how am I going to spend this new day?”

Survived by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, he was laid to rest alongside his wife Alma, who died in June, with the wartime letters they wrote to each other slipped into the inside pocket of his jacket.