Allan Waterson was one of an unassuming breed of soldiers whose glorious sense of understatement camouflaged a courageous heart with a sense of duty at its core.
Essentially a shy and modest man who did not relish the limelight, he found himself leading both on the battlefield and in business, commanding a troop whose daring exploits helped to shorten the war in North Africa and heading a historic Edinburgh printing firm founded in 1752.
His most celebrated piece of action, for which he was awarded the Military Cross, involved driving his Sherman tank through the sea, under heavy fire, to outflank the enemy on the beach at Hammam-Lif in Tunisia. The following year, in Italy, his troop captured and saved a bridge over the Arno from being blown up by the Germans. It was only decades later he discovered that he had preserved a piece of history – the crossing was the bridge in the background of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
In peacetime, he would return several times to Italy, including for the 45th anniversary of the saving of the bridge in Tuscany where a memorial to his regiment lies at the end pier, just where he stopped his tank in 1944.
Allan Kinnear Waterston was born in London where his father, also Allan, managed the office of the Edinburgh-based family printing and stationery firm George Waterston & Sons Ltd. Educated at Highgate School, where he joined the Officer Training Corps at 15 and became an excellent shot, he spent the summers at his maternal grandparents’ home in Perth.
On leaving school in 1939, he moved to Edinburgh to join Waterstons as a 10 shillings (50p) a week apprentice before embarking on a Master Printers course at the London School of Printing that autumn, just after Britain declared war on Germany. His studies were short-lived: on the night of his 19th birthday, not long after the start of the London Blitz, three bombs fell in the garden of the family’s home, taking out the rear of the house and prompting his father’s decision to move the family to Edinburgh. There young Waterston continued his course, studying at Heriot-Watt College, and did his bit for the war effort in the Royal Scots Home Guard.
He later volunteered for the London Scottish Regiment but, while waiting to be recruited, was called up for the Armoured Corps, leaving Edinburgh in July 1941. The following year, he was selected for officer training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, where he was an escort to the King and Queen during a visit to the establishment.
Commissioned into the 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry, he later moved to the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse Regiment and saw his first action in Tunisia at the start of 1943. He and his troop were involved in a number of battles and skirmishes and he acknowledged in a letter home a few months later that he had had “several narrow squeaks…a good tale to tell the grandchildren!”
Worse was to come, including a very lucky escape when a shell exploded in a tree above his head, leaving shrapnel splinters embedded in his face and hand – a further source of entertainment for his grandchildren.
The battle for Hammam-Lif, a coastal town south of Tunis, took place on 8 and 9 May, 1943. The top brass had decided that a way had to be cleared through Hammam-Lif at all costs and Waterston was ordered to move over the railway track towards the beach. “The enemy began to react strongly and we found ourselves in some unpleasantness,” he noted with typical understatement, in his autobiography.
“I had no time to worry about this as in crossing the railway line I got several strands of telegraph cable round my neck, which were steadily throttling me. This prevented me from speaking to my driver on the intercom and telling him to reverse. Fortunately, I was wearing leather gloves and with the strength of desperation managed to push the wires over my head before being catapulted out of the turret or, worse still, decapitated.”
It soon became clear that the rest of the squadron had got stuck and he was asked to find a way along a waddi in the direction of the sea. Then “things really got exciting” as they were fired on by a number of 88mm guns. “All we could do was speed up and move into the sea to try and get some ‘hull down’ cover. As the enemy projectiles hit the sea all round us, it was like a naval battle with plumes of spray rising 20ft into the air.”
He then realised that he was the front tank of the front troop of the front squadron of the whole 1st Army, with no sign of any other tank behind him.
Waterston then turned sharp right off the beach and into the town where the Germans retreated. His astonishing tank manoeuvre had taken them by surprise and the battle shortened the Tunisian campaign by months. A ceasefire was declared days later and Waterston’s bravery won him an immediate award of the Military Cross for gallantry.
The following May he saw action again, in Italy south of Cassino, and was wounded a couple of weeks later by the exploding shell. After a convalescence in Sorrento, which included being rowed to Capri courtesy of two Italian fishermen, he rejoined 3 Troop B Squadron and in July was at Ponte Buriano where, crossing the River Arno by tank, he arrived unexpectedly on the German side of the bridge, surprising enemy troops who had been detailed to blow it up and who promptly fled.
He saw further service around Florence, interrupted by an attack of jaundice, before fighting up the east coast of Italy and on to Austria where he was part of 26th Armoured Brigade HQ. After VE Day, having been instructed to open up Hotel Carinthia in Velden as a leave centre for brigade members, he became the hotel manager – “a fascinating job”. When he returned in 1990, he was clearly remembered by the owner’s granddaughter who had been six at the time.
Before being demobbed, with the rank of major in summer 1946, he had also served in Milan and Egypt. After completing his studies at the London School of Printing, he returned to Edinburgh in 1957 to become the sixth generation to join the family firm, known as a supplier to Scottish banks, most notably printing Bank of Scotland bank-notes. Appointed works director in 1950, he became marketing director in 1960, managing director in 1976 and chairman in 1984.
An active member of the Scottish Master Printers Society, he was also president of the Scottish Young Master Printers and chairman of the both the Edinburgh Master and Young Master Printers. In addition to being a member of the Edinburgh Booksellers Society for 47 years and its Preses from 2000-3, he was a director of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Lothians Post Office Advisory Committee.
In keeping with Waterston’s family tradition of serving the volunteer forces, he had joined the Territorial Army in 1947, retiring as colonel of the Queen’s Own Lowland Yeomanry in 1962. He was also an elder of Wardie Parish Church for many years.
On retiring, he and his wife Heather, to whom he proposed after only ten meetings, moved to Sway, Hampshire, where he helped to found the local Neighbourhood Watch, organised the Sway Poppy Collection for the British Legion and chaired the local Italy Star Association branch. But he maintained links with Edinburgh, returning for Waterstons AGMs and as chair of the Lothians & Borders Horse Regimental Association.
He is survived by his wife, children Georgena,Geoffrey, Geraldine and Richard, five grandchildren and his brother Charles.