Obituary: George Fulton, Chindit and painter and decorator

George Fulton. Picture: Contributed
George Fulton. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 10 September, 1919, in Aberdeen. Died: 14 August, 2013 in Canada, aged 93

Burma veteran George Fulton was a young apprentice painter and decorator from Aberdeen who found himself at the heart of one of the most intriguing episodes in the life of a legendary Second World War fighter.

Already a Territorial Army soldier, he was called up two days before hostilities were declared in September 1939 and later attached, as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps, to the 51st Highland Division.

Fortunately, his detachment missed the division’s debacle at St Valery in 1940, when most troops were captured, and he ended up serving in Egypt. In 1941, while stationed in Cairo, he was detailed to care for an army major recovering from a suicide attempt. His charge was Orde Wingate, the flawed but charismatic soldier who would go on the create Chindits, the fearless fighting force that took on, and weakened, the ruthless Japanese in the Burmese jungles.

Fulton would become one of Wingate’s special forces who carried out daring operations that caused havoc deep behind enemy lines. Their guerilla war during two major initiatives against the foe in 1943 and 1944 helped to destroy the myth of Japanese invincibility.

Unlike Wingate, who was killed in an air crash and never saw the end of the war, the tough young Aberdonian survived and, though he forged a new life in Canada, never forgot his home, returning to Scotland each year to take part in the Armed Forces Day parade.

Fulton, the son of a First World War navy veteran, was born at home in Hadden Street in Aberdeen city centre. The family – father Andrew, a shore porter, mother Agnes and four children – all lived in one room in a tenement attic. George began working at 14, spending some time in a foundry before starting a painting and decorating apprenticeship with Aberdeen Town Council.

He enlisted in the TA on April 1939 and was called up five months later. That same day he got engaged to his sweetheart, Jean, after spending his £5 call-up money on a ring.

He initially tried to join the Royal Signals but was assigned to the Medical Corps and for the first few months of the war was stationed at the Cruden Bay Hotel, north of Aberdeen, which had been requisitioned and become No 1 Scottish General Hospital. After training in Southampton, he set sail for Norway in 1940 but when Bergen fell the ship turned back.

Knowing he was then about to be sent to North Africa, he requested 24 hours’ leave and headed for Aberdeen. Outside the factory where his fiancée worked he announced: “Hey, Jean, we’re getting married tonight.” They wed on 18 June, 1940 and a week later he was among the troops, alongside a squad of Aberdeen doctors and nurses, as part of 15th Scottish General Hospital, sailing for Egypt on the Aquitaine.

After a spell in Tobruk he then moved to Syria and later Burma and India. But it was in the summer of 1941 that he met the Wingate. The controversial officer had just helped to drive the Italians out of Ethiopia and led Emperor Haile Selassie’s return to Addis Ababa. However, he was suffering from depression and severe malaria and on 4 July, in a hotel room in Cairo, he tried to commit suicide by knifing himself in the neck.

He was found bleeding and rushed to 15th Scottish General Hospital where he underwent surgery. Fulton was detailed to provide “special nursing”, one-to-one. Interviewed by Tony Redding for his book War in the Wilderness: The Chindits in Burma 1943-1944, he told how he spent almost three weeks of night duty with Wingate.

“When he came to he found everyone was from Aberdeen where his wife came from. We got on very well.”

Wingate’s mood was quiet and sombre but on hearing Fulton had seen Movietone News footage of Selassie restored as emperor, he told the medical orderly: “That was lots of fun.” He then produced, from his kit bag, four gold interlocking rings, presented to him by Selassie, and a jewel-encrusted gold watch.

Though Wingate later became Fulton’s Chindit chief, the pair never met again and throughout his service in India and Burma Fulton kept secret the fact he had nursed his superior.

Wingate, who became a major-general, was killed in a plane crash in March 1944, soon after launching Operation Thursday, the second Chindit expedition into Burma – and just before the birth of his son who had Haile Selassie as a godfather.

Meanwhile, Fulton who, as part of the 14th Infantry Brigade, had been dropped into Burma to man a casualty clearing station at a remote jungle airstrip named Aberdeen, endured another six months in the punishing campaign.

He contracted malaria and was sent to the Himalaya region in the north of India to recover. It was while on leave in Calcutta in September 1944 that he got word he was to return to the UK. He was demobbed in June 1946 and remained with the army reserves until 1952.

Post-war he returned to work for the Aberdeen Town Council before he and his family emigrated, in 1954, to Canada where he worked as a painter for the Toronto Board of Education until retiring at 60.

A proud Scot, be was well-known for his gregarious nature, generosity, sense of humour and desire to promote his heritage. In the 1960s he set up the Scarborough Social Club and persuaded the celebrated Scots-born Canadian politician Tommy Douglas to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns’ Supper. He also founded the local Caledonian Society of Scarborough arranging shows by the White Heather Club featuring Andy Stewart and Jimmy Logan.

He built a house just east of Sunderland, Ontario, and named it Bon Accord Acres in honour of his hometown’s motto Bon Accord, designed the Fulton tartan and returned to Scotland 45 times over the years. The furthest-flung member of the Aberdeen and District Burma Star Association, he was also a member of the Royal British Legion’s Banchory branch.

In 2004 he was a guest of honour at a memorial service for Major-General Wingate in Washington but rarely discussed his exploits as one of his Chindits. He had made a determined effort, he said, to forget what he had witnessed and had mixed feelings about Burma.

“On the positive side, I remember the friendship, the warm comradeship. I met so many wonderful people.”

Widowed in 2010 and predeceased by children George and Joan, he is survived by his son Jerry, seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.