Black Watch veteran and physicist

Born: March 28, 1925;

Died: June 27, 2016

TOM Renouf, who has died aged 91, sailed for France in the aftermath of D Day, bolstering spirits by playing the ship’s piano for most of the crossing. As the vessel made for the Normandy shores the teenager reeled off a string of popular tunes – Over the Rainbow, As Time Goes By and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

That genteel scene, which helped soothe minds and ease seasickness, was very soon replaced by a shallow sea littered with dozens of bodies.

From then on, it was a relentless assault across Europe, from Sword beach and the bloody Battle of Rauray to the village of Mauny, where he was wounded and six friends died. Later, in the ferociously cold winter of 1944-45 he would take part in the Battle of the Bulge and finally the Rhine Crossing, earning the Military Medal for valour.

He experienced not only some of the most brutal campaigns of the conflict, fighting hand-to-hand against fanatical SS troops, but an extraordinary episode involving one of the defeated Fuhrer’s fleeing henchmen.

Many years later, looking back on his decision to volunteer for the army, he admitted: “At the time, going to war seemed like a normal part of life. I was far from scared: in fact I relished the prospect of adventure, not knowing it was going to be purgatory.”

And, after seeing so many of his comrades killed, he devoted much of the latter part of his life to working, as secretary of the 51st Highland Division Veterans Association, to ensure that the thousands of fellow Highlanders who did not return home, were never forgotten.

Tom Renouf was born in his grandfather’s house in Fisherrow, Musselburgh, to Meg, a cinema cashier, and George Renouf, a cinema manager who had fought in the Great War, at Ypres and The Somme, with the 51st Highland Division, dubbed “devils in skirts”.

Educated at Musselburgh Grammar School, the youngster became a messenger with the Civil Defence, and volunteered for the Argylls just before his final school exams. In September 1943 he was posted to the London Scottish regiment and then to the Tyneside Scottish, a battalion that was part of the Black Watch.

He arrived in France four days after D-Day, in June 1944, and was soon fighting on the frontline at Rauray Ridge where 1st Tyneside Scottish were victorious against two SS Panzer divisions.

By the time he was wounded – caught in a burst of machinegun fire during an attack on Chateau Mauny, near the Seine – he was with the 5th Black Watch. At the end of an 18-hour journey to hospital he was pronounced incredibly lucky: a bullet had gone straight through him, exiting his body and just missing his spine. A fraction of an inch lower and he would have been paralysed.

During his recovery, Renouf, a jazz fan who had played clarinet and piano and performed with several dance bands before the war, formed a jazz group, playing at nearby hospitals. It was brief respite.

Returning to active duty he served in Holland and at the Battle of the Bulge at La Roche, in the Ardennes, where it was so cold the bolts on their rifles froze. After that it was on to the Reichswald, launching an assault in the narrow gap between the Rhine and the Maas. Many soldiers were still teenagers but “killing was our daily bread and it felt as if we had been doing it all our lives,” he said.

Then came the battle for Goch, a central stronghold in the Siegfried Line and gateway to the German heartlands, fiercely defended by crack enemy troops. Crossing the square meant running the gauntlet of snipers and he was not amused when a newsreel photographer asked him to make a dash to a doorway, running into sniper fire, while he filmed him. “I politely refused, saying I did not want to be an extinct star.”

Quickly promoted to corporal and still only 19, in his first mission with his section he took almost 60 German prisoners. Then in March 1945, 5th Black Watch left for Operation Plunder, the Rhine Crossing. Successfully across the river, with his platoon leading and making for Esserden, Renouf and his section were ordered to eliminate a Spandau nest. Creeping to within 12 yards of the target and armed with a Bren gun, Renouf charged, shooting from the hip, taking the five Germans completely by surprise and chalking up another successful mission.

With the war was drawing to a close he was granted leave and headed home. It was his 20th birthday. A month later, on the way to back to Germany, he passed the recently liberated Belsen concentration camp. The sight and smell of the place, still inhabited by wretched crowds of abandoned prisoners who had “clearly been through hell”, was shocking, he said.

Victory in Europe was declared a week later and the Black Watch’s focus moved to identifying ex SS men and war criminals on the run. Whilst manning a checkpoint near Bremerhaven they took various prisoners and, on checking the guardroom, Renouf noticed one in particular seemed odd. A small man, dressed as a postman but sporting an eye patch, amulet round his neck and fancy watch, he was identified as a sergeant with the secret field police. After meekly handing over his valuables to a guard he was taken for questioning. It was then he demanded to speak to the camp commandant, a former Edinburgh policeman, and declared “Ich bin Herr Heinrich Himmler.” The SS and Gestapo leader, the world’s most wanted man, died soon afterwards, biting on a cyanide phial.

Renouf later swapped the guard 300 cigarettes for Himmler’s watch which he kept as a souvenir of his encounter with “this vile man”.

Demobbed in 1946, Renouf went on to graduate in physics, became a lecturer at the Royal Military College and a research fellow at Edinburgh University.

In retirement he worked endlessly for the veterans, bringing survivors together, maintaining the memory of fallen friends and organising pilgrimages. He received the French Legion d’Honneur in Mauny in 2014 and his portrait, painted as part of a 71st anniversary of D Day tribute, commissioned by the Prince of Wales, was displayed at Buckingham Palace in 2015. He was awarded the MBE, in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, which he received at home shortly before he died.

He is survived by his wife Kathleen, son George and family.