Obituary: John Younie, modest war hero who later gained fame as shoemaker

John Younie: A modest war hero who later gained fame as a shoemaker
John Younie: A modest war hero who later gained fame as a shoemaker
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Born: 20 February, 1921, in Kippen, Stirlingshire. Died: 8 April, 2012, in Florence, Italy, aged 91

Despite his distinguished flying career and the decorations, John Younie was a decidedly reluctant war hero.

John Younie: A modest war hero who later gained fame as a shoemaker

John Younie: A modest war hero who later gained fame as a shoemaker

Charming and modest, his civilian working life was spent creatively, fashioning beautiful, high-quality shoes and mentoring others to do likewise.

He was a man who preferred making things and the destruction that inevitably resulted from his successful bombing missions over Europe was alien to his gentle character.

Though his medals were something he wasn’t keen to discuss, there was no denying his devotion to duty during the Second World War was exemplary and, as a Hurricane, Spitfire and Mustang pilot, he served with great courage, twice winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, he went to Cambridge, becoming one of the first graduate trainees to join K Shoes, where he rose to chairman, later moving to Florence where he endeared himself to the demanding Italian shoemakers and mentored renowned shoe designers including Emma Hope and Jane Brown.

The son of Huntly-born minister John Younie and his wife Mary, from Peterhead, he grew up in Kippen Manse, a large family house without electricity or telephone, where cows in the glebe provided milk and hens, turkeys and ducks produced eggs.

The eldest of three brothers, he began his education in Kippen, later taking the train to Stirling High School and finally attending Fettes in Edinburgh. There he was a wing three-quarter in the 1st XV rugby team and a member of the fives and shooting teams, won four Governors’ prizes and an open classical scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

By the time he was 18, the Second World War had broken out and, in 1941, he enlisted in the RAF, training as a pilot in the US and returning to the UK where he joined 241 Squadron in 1942. The squadron was flying Hurricanes out of North Africa, conducting tactical reconnaissance and ground attack missions.

He was a 22-year-old Flying Officer when, in July 1943, he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross, having brought back, under fierce enemy fire, crucial details of the foe’s preparations and dive-bombed numerous targets in bad weather, again in the face of intense fighting. Even in these challenging conditions he never failed to pinpoint his targets and, said his citation, showed courage and quiet determination.

By the time he won the Bar to the DFC he was with 249 Squadron as a flight commander operating over Yugoslavia. In April 1945 the young Flight Lieutenant Younie led a section of aircraft in an attack on an island observation post, accurately dropping his bombs, despite poor visibility, and remaining over the target to help other pilots.

His citation also revealed he had taken part in a large number of varied sorties, many of them in adverse weather and over difficult terrain, but had consistently pressed home his attacks with accuracy and determination.

“On numerous occasions he has led his squadron in attacks against enemy mechanical transport and locomotives, inflicting much damage despite intense opposition. Flight Lieutenant Younie has consistently displayed a high standard of keenness and courage and has set a fine example of devotion to duty”, the citation read.

After the war he graduated 1st Tripos Part 1 in 1947 and BA the following year from Cambridge, before joining Kendal-based K Shoes’ graduate scheme. “I told the University Appointments Board that I did not want to live in London,” he recalled “and that I was only interested in making things, and how things are made.

“They found me a job with a gentlemanly firm in the Lake District, making shoes, which became my hobby. That was real luck - hobby and work were the same thing.”

He was instrumental in creating some of the company’s most successful brands, such as the light, comfortable and waterproof K Skip. But he was a man without ego and would never take personal credit.

He was made a director of the company, known as Somervell Brothers Limited, in March 1956 and became a director of K Shoes Ltd, the holding company, in April 1959, serving as chairman of K Shoes for ten years from March 1965.

The first eight years of his tenure marked a period of intense growth in employment, manufacturing, retailing and profits. But in June 1975 he resigned as chairman of the group in order to concentrate on his duties as managing director of Somervell Brothers as the company faced acute difficulties keeping all the factories busy as inflation soared.

In March 1979 he decided to move to Italy, to work for the United States Shoe Corporation, in particular for importers Marx & Newman, based in Florence. From being responsible for thousands of shoe operatives, there he had a staff of a dozen. In each of five rooms, on the mezzanine floor of a palazzo overlooking the River Arno, there was a shoe designer and a shoe technician, each one responsible for a different brand. The shoes were made by the specialist factories in Tuscany and sold to shops such as Nieman Marcus. Although they were not great in numbers, the exquisite shoes accounted for 15 per cent of the value of Italy’s shoe exports.

He remained a non-executive director of K Shoes until 1981 and retired from Marx & Newman in January 1986 but continued, for many years, to work as a mentor and consultant to top British shoe designers, helping them to find factories to produce their designs.

Shoe designer Jane Brown said his knowledge of the Italian work ethos was invaluable and played a huge part in her success producing very high-end ladies shoes, mainly out of Tuscany.

Described as a genius by those in the trade, who delighted in having such a bright, warm gentle man in their industry, he was held in almost saintly esteem by the Italians.

He spoke the language fluently, as he did French, and until recently was teaching himself Turkish. He also enjoyed skiing and golf, regularly practising at Ugolino Golf Club until the end.

A man with a dry Scottish yet whimsical, silly sense of humour, he was hampered throughout his adult life by deafness, believed to be a legacy of flying wartime sorties with his cockpit open, but was much loved and respected by the people around the square where he lived in the Florentine parish of San Niccolo.

He is survived by his first wife and their two children Peter and Amanda, two grandsons and his second wife.

ALISON SHAW