Obituary: Stanley Rothney, Chindit and policeman

Stanley Rothney wil the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield
Stanley Rothney wil the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield
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Born: 3 September, 1923 in Aberdeenshire. Died: 3 September, 2013, in Peterculter, aged 90.

FOR Stanley Rothney, 3 September was to define his life. It signified not only the day he was born, but it was also the date in 1939 that Britain declared war on Germany – an event that resulted in him losing his job on his 16th birthday and ultimately led to him serving in one of the toughest fighting units of the Second World War, the Chindits. Finally, 3 September would mark his death – on his 90th birthday.

As one of Major General Orde Wingate’s special forces, he survived the fierce guerilla war against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma and returned to Aberdeenshire to serve once more, this time as a police officer across the North-east.

In retirement, the Burma Star veteran featured as one of the Victory in Japan heroes in a poignant BBC programme charting Scotland’s jungle war and later shared his experiences in talks to schoolchildren.

He was born at West Lodge, Pitfour, Old Deer, in rural Aberdeenshire, one of six children to Alexander Rothney, a station porter and his wife Elsie, station mistress at Maud station.

Educated at the local school, by 1939, he was working for the Anglo American Oil Company. He was an attendant for a horse-drawn tanker delivering fuel to villages in his native Buchan corner of Aberdeenshire, a role known in Doric as “the loon and the larry” – the boy and the lorry. On his 16th birthday, he and his fellow workers were instructed to report for duty at the petrol depot in Maud. There they heard the announcement on the wireless that the country was at war. Sealed orders, detailing who was to remain with the firm and what they were to do in wartime, were then taken from the depot’s safe. According to Rothney, there was a misinterpretation of the instructions and he was paid off.

He found work with the Forestry Commission until he was 18, when he signed up for the army, joining the Royal Scots. After being trained to drive armoured and tracked vehicles, he was posted to England to support the Home Guard, but was then sent to India with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, arriving at Deolali reinforcement camp.

Soon he was “volunteered” for the 1st Battalion Cameronians and would go on to become a Chindit, the fighting force set up by Orde Wingate to penetrate Japanese lines. As part of a Chindit group, serving under caustic US general Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, he found himself training to repair leather harnesses and boxes carried by the mules used to move equipment and supplies through the dense terrain. He spent seven months in the jungle, surviving in the monsoon rain on emergency rations.

They battled not only the enemy but also disease – malaria, black water and dengue fever. Weakened, sick and malnourished, they walked out of the jungle looking like shadows of men.

While the war in Europe ended in May 1945, he would not return to Scotland until after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to VJ Day on 15 August. Decades later, after taking part in the programme marking the 60th anniversary of VJ Day, he could still vividly recall being addressed by Wingate, who told his troops: “One day you will be proud.”

Rothney remained a proud Chindit and said: “Personally, I don’t feel that I gave something needlessly; I feel my contribution was well worth the effort.”

Demobbed from Bridge of Don Barracks in Aberdeen in February 1947, he joined the police, serving initially with Aberdeenshire Constabulary before it became part of Scottish North Eastern Counties Constabulary in 1949. He was a probationary constable in Cults, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, then served in the villages of Echt and Methlick before moving to Banff, where he helped to establish the first traffic department. He was involved in giving aid following two major incidents – the loss, off the North-east coast, of the Belgian trawler Beatrix Fernande and one of the most violent storms ever recorded that struck the same coast in 1953.

Promoted to sergeant in 1960 and following postings to Peterhead and Elgin, he ended up in Peterculter, outside Aberdeen, where the biggest crime committed during his watch was a bank robbery. He happened to be out shopping during his lunch hour at the time but, thanks to his local contacts, the culprits were caught. He retired from the force, then known as Grampian Police, in 1976 and went on to work for Shell, ending up back where he started – at an oil company.

After retiring at 65, he remained active in the Burma Star Association and in his local community, where he was an elder at St Peter’s Church and, for many years, read the words of remembrance on Remembrance Sunday. He played Father Christmas for Sunday School and Brownie parties, helped out friends and neighbours with odd jobs and enjoyed working in his garden.

Never afraid to speak his mind, he was an enthusiastic correspondent, often firing off letters to the local paper on subjects that exercised him.

He also enjoyed researching his family tree and discovered that one of his ancestors, GA James Rothney, had helped to create the Calcutta Cup trophy while captain, honorary secretary and treasurer of India’s Calcutta Football Club in 1877. The club was being wound up due to a lack of players and the committee, under Rothney’s stewardship, decided to use its remaining funds to donate a trophy to the Rugby Football Union. The cash, reportedly 270 silver rupees, about £60, was melted down and crafted into the world’s most famous rugby cup.

“It’s great to see how prestigious the cup has become,” said Rothney, “because it shows the foresight of James and the club who debated whether to spent the remaining money on a booze-up or do something more worthwhile. I think we’re all glad they chose the latter because it is now priceless.”

Predeceased by his wife Isobel, whom he married in 1952, and their son Graeme, he is survived by daughter Lesley, two grandchildren and his brother Douglas.