Cyclist and former PoW;
Born: November 22, 1918; Died: June 11, 2012.
Les Puckering, who has died aged 93, was a talented cyclist who lost out on a chance to compete in the Olympic Games planned for Helsinki in 1940 owing to the outbreak of the Second World War.
Although he was later to consider himself a committed Scot, he was born in Hampshire in the weeks following the end of the First World War. At the age of nine he moved to London with his family, where he became a member of the Belle Vue Cycling Club. Such was his talent that on leaving school he began work with the Raleigh Cycle Company, who sponsored his commitment to compete in the Great Britain cycling pursuit team at the proposed Helsinki Games by supplying cycles and equipment.
But in 1940 he was called up and found himself in rural Scotland as a member of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry. The former Territorial Cavalry Regiment had recently been reformed into the 155th (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery and he was attached to the Quartermaster's Stores Section in Lanark.
He initially found the transition from the big city difficult and this was compounded by the unfamiliar language which surrounded him.
In September 1940 the regiment moved to Haddington on defensive duties at the airfields of RAF Drem and RAF McMurray and to man the gun batteries along the coastline of East Lothian.
Mr Puckering and the QM Stores were billeted in a former shop on Haddington's Market Street and on their first day the Gunners discovered a dance was to be held that night in the town hall. There he met the love of his life, Jean Cumming, the girl whose memory would keep him alive as he struggled to survive in some of the worst of the Japanese prison camps.
The couple had hardly got to know each other before he and his regiment were off to the Far East. In December 1941 they were deep in the jungles of Malaya but by February 1942 he and his fellow Gunners were prisoners. Held first at Singapore's Changi jail and later transported aboard the England Maru to Formosa (Taiwan) he spent the next year in the Kinkaseki copper mine, in which many young men were killed and maimed.
In August 1943 the labour force was so depleted by cruelty, starvation and over-work that the survivors were lined up on what were to become known as "thin man parades" to select the worst of the sick, who would be replaced and moved to another camp. Although none of the PoW camps on Formosa were easy or pleasant, at least the men there were not subjected to the excesses of barbarity common at Kinkaseki.
Mr Puckering was in a desperate state and took his place in the queue while the guards went down the line selecting those who would be given a chance to live. To his horror the guards walked past him. He knew he would not survive many more days down the mine and in desperation managed to struggle undiscovered to the end of the line where, to his relief, he was picked out.
Although the selection was arbitrary, he would always be troubled by the fact he was given a second chance while many of his friends were left behind. But to a man they applauded him for his initiative, bravery and determination, for if he had been discovered he would almost certainly have been beaten to death.
Moved to the camp at Shirakawa, he worked in nearby factories. Ironically, it was during a raid on the factory by American bombers that a piece of shrapnel embedded itself in his forehead and he lost his sight. He overhead someone say he was going to die and again his survival instinct kicked in. Spurred on by the memory of the girl he had left behind at Haddington, and despite his injuries and a subsequent bout of beri beri, he recovered his sight.
At the end of the war, despite weighing just over five stones, he was one of the fortunate men of the regiment to make their way back home. More men of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry died as PoWs in the Japanese camps than fell in action.
Reunited with Jean, they married in St Mary's Church in Haddington in 1946 and settled in the town. He joined the civil service and this was followed by a lifetime of service with the Ministry of Defence.
He became a proud Scotsman, although he never lost his allegiance to Chelsea FC, the other love of his life. He was closely involved in the community at Haddington where he was an Elder at St Mary's Church and treasurer of the local Probus Club.
There is a certain poignancy in the fact that two days after his passing, Andy Coogan, a friend during their PoW days and great uncle of Sir Chris Hoy, carried the Olympic torch through the streets of Dundee. Mr Puckering would have achieved much pleasure and satisfaction from that. He is survived by his wife, Jean, and son Ian and his family.
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