Survivor of Second World War's Battle of Imphal Major Ron Etherington dies at 102
A Second World War soldier who survived the infamous Japanese siege of Imphal in India has died at the age of 102.
A private family funeral has already taken place for Major Ron Etherington, but a memorial service is being planned for the former semi-professional footballer and Masonic lodge stalwart who devoted his life to the service of his country and the community in Bishop's Stortford.
Born in Hampshire in 1917, he never knew his father, who died during the First World War. The major was raised by his grandparents on their strawberry farm until his mother remarried.
He gave up the chance of a professional footballing career to join the armed forces after a stint in the Territorial Army. He relished telling his family he was regarded as a better prospect than Wally Barnes, his fellow Portsmouth apprentice, who went on to play for Southampton and Arsenal and to captain Wales.
In 1935 Ron joined the Royal Corps of Signals and in 1937 he took up a communications role in Quetta in India, now part of Pakistan, on the turbulent North-West Frontier, where he used a mule to carry his transmitter and battery across the mountainous terrain.
He was still in India at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. That year, he met Mabel, a young nurse of French descent. They were married in 1941 as conflict raged across the globe.
A master of Morse code, Ron was serving as an instructor when their daughter Valerie was born in 1942 and she was just three months old when he was sent to join the Burma campaign against the Japanese offensive into India.
In an interview with Saffron Walden historian Sofia Everett, recorded when Major Ron was 98, he recalled the appalling conditions endured by the troops over the next two years as the Japanese surrounded them on all sides in what he described as the "Imphal box".
He said: "It was a shambles, it was terrible."
Food was scarce as attempts to parachute provisions to the British forces often failed. The soldiers shared what little they had, regardless of rank.
As well as malnutrition, the soldiers suffered from running sores because they were unable to wash in the heat. Brown toilet paper – not white, which would be seen by the enemy – was a rare luxury as the men dug their own latrines.
He said: "If it rained, we stripped off and tried to get wet, but we had to be careful as we were surrounded."
Medical treatment was almost non-existent and Major Ron recalled having an abscessed tooth removed by a colleague and suffering from "a touch of malaria".
In 1944, the Battle of Kohima, often referred to as the Stalingrad of the East and Britain's greatest battle, was fought in three stages from April 4 to June 22. It ended when the British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 109, ending the siege.
The relief did not end the fighting for Major Ron: "We could not stay put, we had to follow the Japs and keep going."
After the war, he rarely spoke about the horrors he endured during this time but did say in the interview: "They were vicious. I had no sympathy with the Japanese at all."
Valerie was three by the time "that man" returned to his family and Major Ron spoke lovingly of how he rebuilt the bond with his daughter.
He and Mabel, always known as Mabs, returned to England in the winter of 1947, which was particularly harsh, but as Major Ron continued his military career, there were postings to Singapore, Cyprus, Malta and Germany before he took up an administrative role in London.
His son-in-law, Dr John Flack, Valerie's husband, said: "He never talked about it. I think it was MI5 or MI6 – 'the firm'."
The Etheringtons moved to Crescent Road in Bishop's Stortford in 1963. When Major Ron retired at the start of the 1980s, he became involved in police liaison, earning an honour from the Police Federation, and continued his military work promoting the cadet force and Territorial Army.
His other great interest was Freemasonry. His association began while he was posted in India and continued when he joined the United Bethlehem Lodge in Valletta, Malta, while he was stationed on the island. He was a member of nine lodges across the world and served the craft for almost 70 years, latterly as a member of St Michael's, Stortford 409, Waytemore Castle and Old Stortfordian lodges.
When his beloved wife developed dementia and needed to move to a care home in Saffron Walden, Major Ron stayed with her. Dr Flack said: "Although he was still really fit, he could not bear the thought of being without her."
When her condition deteriorated so that was no longer possible, he moved to a flat nearby so he could visit her every day until she died a decade ago.
He remained in his Custerson Court flat until March 2019, when he moved to Broome End care home in Stansted. He suffered a series of infections and died on December 17. His death certificate records the cause as "frailty of old age".
A private funeral took place at St Mary the Virgin Church in Farnham on December 30 and he and Mabs were reunited.
Valerie and Dr Flack had five children between them and Major Ron took great pride in his nine great-grandchildren.
His family will join with his military and Masonry colleagues for a memorial service at St Mary's in Farnham on Tuesday, April 21 at 11.30am.