Obituary: Henry McCreath MBE, businessman and soldier

BORN: 20 June, 1915, in Berwick upon Tweed. Died: 22 January, 2015, in Berwick upon Tweed, aged 99

Henry McCreath MBE. Picture: Contributed
Henry McCreath MBE. Picture: Contributed
Henry McCreath MBE. Picture: Contributed

When Henry McCreath’s father decided to sell the family business it was a bitter blow to his eldest son who had had a leading role in the Borders grain merchants and fertiliser plant.

By then Henry was a distinguished captain in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers who had fought in France and survived the evacuation of Dunkirk before sailing to serve in the Far East. His two younger brothers Bill and Geoff were with the Observer Corps and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers respectively and with all three boys serving their country, Willie McCreath reluctantly, but understandably, made the difficult decision to dispose of the enterprise to fertiliser company Fisons Ltd.

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However, within a decade of his return from war, Henry had not only bought back the grain retail business but become managing director, a turnaround made all the more remarkable given his own battle for survival during one of the bleakest, most harrowing chapters of the conflict – his incarceration at the hands of the Japanese on what became known as Death Railway.

McCreath’s 9th Battalion was the last to arrive in Singapore just a week or so before the islands fell to the Japanese. He would remain in captivity under their brutal iron fist for the next three and a half years, witnessing some of the worst barbarism meted out to the humiliated troops while doing his utmost to bolster his men’s morale. It was leadership that earned him a mention in dispatches for his gallant service as a prisoner of war.

Though he always felt that the men he was held prisoner with never received full recognition for their ordeal and achievements, he lived without rancour, regarding himself as a lucky survivor, and went on to get more out of life than most, almost reaching his century, becoming a magistrate, sheriff to the mayor and honorary freeman of his home town where his contribution to the community also earned him an MBE.

Born in Berwick, a year into the Great War, he was educated at Edinburgh’s Loretto School whose ethos – embodied by the literal translation of its motto You Were Born A Spartan, Live Up To It – helped to sustain him throughout life, especially as a PoW.

After leaving school in 1933 he joined his father in H G McCreath & Son, a grain merchants and organic fertiliser manufacturing plant. He was a key part of the firm when he was called up for war service, having become a Territorial Army officer in 1938.

On the day Britain declared war against Germany, 3 September, 1939, he married Pat, a PE teacher whom he had met playing hockey, and subsequently went on to command a company made up of men from Berwick and other local villages.

The battalion served with distinction in France and was evacuated at Dunkirk in 1940 with McCreath returning to Dover on the destroyer HMS Malcolm before being deployed on coastal defence duties.

In October 1941 they were ordered overseas. His eldest daughter Jennifer was just weeks old when Pat took her to see him before he sailed for Singapore. The troopship arrived shortly before the British surrender in February 1942.

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“We were told to lay down our weapons and wait by the side of the road. Many of us just sat down and cried,” he told the Independent on the 50th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day.

Captain McCreath was among the tens of thousands of Allied troops taken prisoner by the Japanese and was held initially in work camps in Changi and River Valley Road, Singapore. “Everywhere you went there were headless corpses of the local Chinese lying in the streets of Singapore,” he recalled. “At every corner there were heads impaled on poles.”

Among the gruesome duties he had to undertake there were the clean-up of the island’s Alexandra Hospital after the massacre of more than 100 doctors, nurses and patients and the construction of a wall around the Japanese secret police’s headquarters, the screams of the torture victims inside seared in his mind as he toiled.

Then he began the unbearable journey by train to Thailand, dozens of PoWs crammed for days into agonisingly hot steel carriages, in suffocating heat, no ventilation or sanitation. Many had dysentery and the stench was appalling.

Eventually they reached Ban Pong at the southern end of the notorious Thai-Burma railway, being built by forced labour as a supply route for Japanese forces on the Burma front.

Beatings and brutality were a fact of life, cholera was rife, malnourished prisoners suffered beri-beri and survived on maggot-ridden rations of rice sweepings. Any cuts often became ulcers, wounds McCreath treated by wading into the river and letting the fish eat away the dead flesh – a danger in itself since the water was contaminated by corpses.

Moved on to camps at Tarsao, Wampo and Tamuang, all the while he was determined to maintain the morale of his men. He saved the life of one sick fusilier by feeding him a couple of eggs he had somehow managed to acquire from Thai locals.

And when they weren’t working he and his fellow officers tried to keep the men occupied by sweeping leaves, gardening and chatting about their favourite pastimes back home.

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McCreath mentioned his love of salmon fishing on the Tweed and years later, one fellow prisoner, an English businessman, was inspired to take up the sport, regularly taking a week’s fishing on the river’s Birgham Dub beat and always inviting McCreath to join him.

It was during that unimaginable period of captivity that McCreath’s father sold the family business to Fisons, though he insisted that, should his sons survive the war, the company give them a job. Throughout his incarceration McCreath’s wife was a tower of strength to the wives of fellow PoWs and a huge support to him on his return and over the following 55 years of their marriage.

After the Japanese defeat and her husband’s recuperation, he duly joined the firm. His two brothers also survived the war, with Geoff joining Fisons and Bill becoming a solicitor.

By 1955 McCreath, along with his brother Geoff, had bought the retail arm back and subsequently took the helm, going on to expand the company and gain drying contracts with Highland Distillers to supply Highland Park, Tamdu, Distillers Company Ltd and Fawcetts. He attended corn exchanges all over the country and became president of the UK Agricultural Supply Trade Association. Geoff was one of the firm’s sales directors with Bill as company secretary.

McCreath sold the company in 1980 – the year he was named Border Man of the Year – but stayed on as managing director until retiring aged 70.

Meanwhile he had become a justice of the peace, sheriff of Berwick, harbour commissioner and a director of several companies. A member of the world’s oldest fishing club, Ellem, for more than 70 years he was also its past chairman and president. He had co-founded a local Far East Prisoner of War Club in 1950 and half a century later was invited to attend a local primary school each Armistice Day at 11am.

In 2011, at the age of 96, he was made an honorary freeman of Berwick and, though he doubted he was worth it, he accepted it with a quiet pride and the same sense of dignity that he had shown on Death Railway and displayed down the years since.

Predeceased by his wife Pat, he is survived by their three daughters Jennifer, Susan and Judy, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.