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Centenarian and Group Captain John Herold MBE of Cathay Care Home, Forres looks back on his eventful life

By Garry McCartney

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John Harold celebrating his 100th birthday at Cathay Nursing Home.
John Harold celebrating his 100th birthday at Cathay Nursing Home.

A local care home resident and Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire became a centenarian this month.

Group Captain John Herold MBE, turned 100 on November 5 in Cathay Care Home and reflected on an exciting life as someone who, having survived World War II, continued to serve the country and people he loved.

John’s family originated in Devon and he was born in Exeter in 1920, three years after his late sister Pauline, whose son, Anthony Babington, travelled up from Buckinghamshire to be with his uncle on his 100th birthday.

John attended Steyning Grammar School in Sussex and joined the RAF in 1937 as a boy entrant. On the declaration of war in September 1939, he was posted to Bertangles in France as part of the air component of the British Expeditionary Force. The German Blitzkrieg of 1940 saw him, as he put it, “among the retreating hordes heading west.” Somehow, he made it back to Britain.

Retrained as air crew and selected as a sergeant for pilot training in 1942, John was commissioned as an officer the following year, piloting Halifax bombers. The disaster at Arnhem in 1944 saw the British 1st Airborne Division decimated, losing almost all of its specialist glider pilots. New pilots were needed urgently, so John saw himself “volunteered” for glider training. As he later put it, “It was said that we had volunteered... but I certainly don’t remember doing a stupid thing like that.”

By this stage of the war, glider pilots flew large wooden unpowered aircraft, transporting airborne troops and their equipment directly on to the battlefield. The pilots were trained to fight alongside the troops. Casualty rates were high. Despite his joke about being “volunteered”, John took to the combat training on the Scottish hills. He and his fellow glider pilots played a vital role in Operation Varsity (March 24, 1945), part of the allied crossing of the River Rhine and the largest single-day airborne assault in history. John landed his glider on target under heavy enemy fire and then supported the troops to secure victory. His later account of the battle, which paved the way for invasion of Germany, was characteristically modest.

“We all flew across the Rhine and landed in the German artillery lines, some eight miles from the river. I was carrying a 6lb anti-tank gun plus jeep and crew,” he said.

“I landed safely, more by luck than good judgment, the whole area was covered by fog and battle smoke.

“All hell broke loose, the opposition soon collapsed and we won the day.”

After the war, John continued his successful career in the RAF, being appointed as an exchange officer to the USA in 1955 and later to the Air Ministry in London.

He was awarded the MBE in 1960 for his contribution to the development of air reconnaissance photography with a capability from outer space, and in 1962 was promoted Wing Commander. After further postings in Germany and London, he was promoted Group Captain in 1970 and retired in 1974.

John’s energy, dedication and commitment to service continued in a retirement which saw him move from England to Edinburgh, then Fochabers and finally to Forres. He was (despite his war-time claims) a perennial “volunteer” continuing to work in this capacity at Dr Gray’s Hospital.

In the community and well into his eighties, he delivered Meals on Wheels, often to people much younger than himself.

His capacity for caring also took the form of sponsoring a young lady from SOS Children’s Village in India until her marriage and continuing support for another much younger child there.

A man of many parts, especially after he settled in Forres,

John took up oil painting at a

relatively advanced age, was an

excellent chef and a superb host. He was also a keen salmon fisher for many years and enjoyed keep fit at Elgin gym into his nineties before health needs took him to Cathay Care Home in 2019. The member of St John’s Church

did not miss a service until it became too difficult to attend in person.

John’s civil partnership ceremony to his long-time partner, Ronald Gordon Ross, took place in Edinburgh in 2006. Ronald was born in 1944 in Forres and raised in Tormhor, on High Street. After years in London, he returned with John to live in the Shearling behind Tormhor, until his death on March 12 this year.

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