Obituary: J Kerr Elliot MC, soldier and farmer

J Kerr Elliot MC
J Kerr Elliot MC
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Born: 21 October, 1923, at Newcastleton, Scottish Borders. Died: 4 February, 2014 in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, aged 90

When Kerr Elliot was reported missing in action in the spring of 1945 it was deemed too dangerous to send out a search party.

The Second World War was drawing to a close in Europe as the allies fought their way up through northern Italy, clearing retreating German forces in a fierce and final offensive of the Italian campaign.

One of the last operations was to break through the Argenta Gap and into the Po valley but the terrain was difficult for armoured vehicles and the battle was often fought at close quarters.

Elliot, who had been sent to Italy the previous year in command of a troop of tanks, had already proved himself a gallant leader, earning the Military Cross for his dash and daring. But as the conflict moved into its last month, he faced what was doubtless his most demanding hour: his tank was knocked out by a gun and he was horrifically injured.

Unable to get back to his men and with the situation too hazardous for them to mount a search and rescue, the young troop leader’s fate was unknown. However, later that evening, in a remarkable scene, he was returned to his colleagues by enemy soldiers. Elliot, who had had a leg blown off, was carried in on a stretcher by two very young, unarmed Germans whom he had persuaded to transport him back to the British lines and surrender.

Rushed to the nearest dressing station for treatment, he survived the ghastly wound and, with typical tenacity, went on to energetically pursue an active and fulfilling life virtually unhindered, for much of it, by his replacement tin leg. He took on the family farm, herded his sheep on horseback, learned to fly, hunted and raced point to point. He also established a bulb growing business in the Hebrides, commuting between ventures on his plane, earning the nickname the Flying Farmer.

Born and brought up on a hill farm in the Borders, he learned to ride as a youngster and would go on to serve with the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse Regiment. Educated in Edinburgh, he left school early and lied about his age, claiming he was a year older than he actually was, to join the Royal Armoured Corps. A handsome and charming young man, he signed up at Dumfries in November 1941 and was selected for officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst within 18 months.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he was sent to North Africa in May 1944 with the 2nd Lothians and was given command of his troop of tanks in B Squadron a couple of months later. The bitter winter of 1944-45 saw the regiment deployed in an infantry role around the Monte Penzola area, overlooking the Santerno valley, in the freezing Apennine mountains of Italy. It was here that his leadership led to the award of the Military Cross.

The area of no-man’s land was an obvious target for a German counter-attack and it was crucial that it be aggressively patrolled. But, as his citation noted, this was an operation entirely new to the regiment which had come straight from its tanks with no opportunity to train in infantry tactics.

However Lt Elliot immediately displayed “great skill, eagerness and enterprise in patrolling and on very many nights carried out patrols which yielded very valuable information about enemy dispositions and intentions”.

On 18 December, 1944 he led a small fighting patrol into two areas, both strongly held German positions. By lying up very close, he was able to see and pinpoint German positions and machine gun pits as well as gather information on the enemy’s habits there.

“This complete picture was gained in spite of many illuminating flares which would have deterred anyone less determined than Lt Elliot,” read the citation. “This is only one example of the vigorous manner in which Lt Elliot has carried out his duties and his great confidence has been an inspiration and example to all ranks.”

He remained in Italy for the rest of the conflict, losing his leg on 19 April, 1945 less than three weeks before the war in Europe ended. That day the Argenta Gap had finally been breached but the Germans continued to fight back and, just north of Argenta, an anti-tank gun knocked out his tank. He was still only 22.

Shipped back to the UK to recuperate in June, he was discharged from the Army the following April and headed for 
the Dumfriesshire farm his family owned at Waterhead of 
Dryfe. Unable to walk the hill, he would herd the sheep on horseback and make hay and grain stacks with the help of two heavy horses.

In 1949 he married his wife, always known as B, and continued to farm in the Borders and hunt regularly with the Dumfriesshire hunt. He also rode in point to points, locally and at Ayr, where he came in second in 1953.

The following year, the couple bought Gallanach, a 4,000-acre sheep and beef farm, on the island of Coll, where they later diversified into the more profitable business of producing daffodil bulbs. Every summer a squad of girls would arrive to pick the bulbs, an activity that spawned a song they would sing about the harvest at the Elliots’ farm. By this time, the family had left the Borders and moved south to Oxfordshire but travelling back to Waterhead, Coll and several other farms Elliot was also managing became problematic – a difficulty he solved by learning to fly.

He bought a light plane and dotted between properties, at one point even offering to stand in for the flying doctor service and take patients to the mainland albeit “at their own risk”.

In addition to his extensive personal farming interests, he was in demand as a gifted businessman, not only as an exceptionally capable farm manager but as a director of a number of large companies including United Oil Seed and the Cotswold Cereal Centre.

Other interests included supporting the Conservatives. He canvassed for the party at election times and, on one occasion, survived being savaged on the leg by a dog – only because it chose the wrong limb.

Latterly he and his wife, with whom he enjoyed almost 60 years of marriage, lived in Woodstock, close to Blenheim Palace, where he spent many happy hours in its beautiful the grounds.

Predeceased by B, he is survived by their children John, Mikey and Mary, and six grandchildren.