Real Lives: Jim made sure the ‘secret war’ was never forgotten

Jim Robertson, RAF veteran and stalwart of Gorebridge Bowling Club, has died, aged 66.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 25th October 2011, 12:57 pm

To his friends at the bowling club he was known as the man who called the numbers at their weekly bingo night.

But what many did not know about was the RAF veteran’s part in a 40-year campaign to recognise those who fought in Britain’s “secret war” in Malaysia in the 1950s and 60s.

Jim passed away at the Marie Curie hospice in Fairmilehead, with his wife Janice, son John and daughter Morag by his side.

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Diagnosed with cancer last year, he had fought a brave battle against the disease. Even in its final stages, he still carried out his bingo calling duties at the bowling club and even found the strength to take one final holiday with Janice to Scarborough in the weeks before his death.

That strength of character was forged in his twenties when he fought alongside the Gurkhas in the British military action in Borneo, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although he rarely spoke of it, his experiences in the jungle war were to stay with him for the rest of his life. Described as Britain’s “secret war” due to the fact it has rarely been acknowledged by the government, it is a conflict that few people are aware of. Indeed, it is often referred to simply as the “Malaysia emergency”, despite thousands of UK troops fighting there between 1957 and 1966, with hundreds killed in the fierce fighting.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that those British service men and women who served in the war were denied the right to be presented with a special medal minted by the Malaysian government. That angered Jim, and along with thousands of other veterans, he pressed the UK government to allow the medal to be awarded. The long-running campaign was eventually successful, and Jim finally received his medal in a presentation ceremony last year – shortly after his diagnosis with prostate cancer.

In many ways, it was not surprising that Jim chose a military career in the RAF – as it was the death of his father in the final months of the Second World War that dominated his early life. His father John Daly Robertson had died while serving with the RAF. He had been on a dangerous Lancaster bomber mission which never returned during the dying days of the conflict.

On leaving school Jim worked in a grocer’s shop for six months then enlisted in the RAF. Jim had always been interested in flying and had just been approved for air crew duties when he was woken in the middle of the night, told to pack his bags and found himself on active service in Malaysia.

On leaving the RAF Jim became an air traffic control assistant, based at Prestwick in Ayrshire, and then at Edinburgh Airport – where he remained for 30 happy years before retiring seven years ago.

It was his family that always came first, although true love with wife Janice almost hit the skids on their first date at a dance at Turnhouse.

Jim insisted on accompanying Janice home on the bus to Gowkshill after that first date, but as Janice had’t mentioned Jim to her mother she said “cheerio” at the family home - leaving Jim to walk 15 miles back to Turnhouse on a freezing February night.

Despite the hiccup, love blossomed, they married on February 7, 1970 and enjoyed 41 years together.

They raised their children Morag and John, who both graduated from St Andrews University and both live and work in the Edinburgh area. He became Granpa Jim nine years ago and doted on his three grandchildren Rosa, Robbie and – born just three months ago to son John and daughter-in-law Gill – baby Isla. Jim enjoyed many hobbies including golf, bowling and watching Hearts and was captain of the Dominoes Team at Wilmos pub in Gorebridge. Although a serious dominoes player, it gave him great pleasure when his grandaughter Rosa beat him at the game during their regular matches.

He is also survived by four siblings, Jean, Neil, Margaret and Moira.