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Fond tributes for POW Bert Major who helped his fellow servicemen

PUBLISHED: 10:57 14 May 2013

Bert Major who was a Far East POW.

Picture: James Bass

Bert Major who was a Far East POW. Picture: James Bass

(C) James Bass 2012

An “extraordinary gentleman” who dedicated his life to supporting fellow servicemen – and was instrumental in returning a Great Yarmouth war memorial to its rightful glory – has died at the age of 92.

Bert Major, who spent four years as a Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) while serving with the Cambridgeshire Regiment during the second world war, died peacefully in hospital on May 3.

An injury he picked up during his service prevented him from staying in the army, but he devoted himself to helping fellow servicemen and their families with his work through the FEPOW Association – becoming chairman of the Great Yarmouth branch – and the Royal British Legion.

His daughter Jenny said: “It’s a lifetime of service if one’s quite honest because he thought his colleagues needed support and he thought that the widows needed support as well.

“He would get involved with anything that raised the profile of these people because when he came back from the far east it was five months after the war had finished, and everybody was wondering where they were.”

Mr Major, a great grandfather of 11, grew up in Ely. He left his quiet life in the cathedral city when war broke out and was posted to the far east, via Canada and Africa, in October 1941.

He arrived in Singapore on January 13, 1942 and was captured by Japanese troops just a few days later.

Suffering from a wound to his arm, which he picked up under enemy fire, he was first sent to the “putrid” conditions of Pudu jail in Kuala Lumpur, before being herded by cattle truck to Changi POW camp in Singapore.

When he was liberated by British commandos in August 1945, his weight had dropped from 11st to 6st and he was suffering from malaria and beriberi – a debilitating condition caused by thiamine deficiency.

Jenny, 66, said her father would talk about his wartime experiences, but not necessarily to family.

“He was still a bit reticent about it because the memories weren’t nice. He was sleeping on a bamboo mat in a hut in the jungle with men who have a different code, and think prisoners aren’t really worth looking after,” she added.

“He used to go to various reunions, which were quite therapeutic, they could talk to each other.

“He went to his last reunion last year and he had a good time because he was with his mates.”

Returning to Ely after the war, Mr Major met his wife of 66 years, Peggy, at a homecoming dance for war veterans.

They started their family in Cambridgeshire before moving to Gorleston in 1960 where Mr Major worked as a civil servant, and became well known in the borough.

As well as ensuring veterans received the support they were entitled to, Mr Major was a key figure in the restoration of Yarmouth’s seafront FEPOW memorial and helped organise and further establish the annual service at the commemorative monument on Remembrance Sunday.

Pauline Simpson, chaplain for the association, said Mr Major would be “greatly missed” by fellow members and the wider FEPOW family, and expected scores of people to attend his funeral, which she will be officiating.

“Bert knew my father as he was a FEPOW so I have got a bit of personal background with him as well,” she added. “He’s going to be quite a loss to the Yarmouth community.

“I’m very privileged to be taking part in the service, I imagine there will be many people there.”

Mrs Simpson stressed the FEPOW remembrance service would continue as it was feared it may dwindle after Mr Major’s death.

She said: “I want people to be assured that the service at the memorial on the seafront will continue.

“It’s built up into such a massive thing in recent years, it will still continue.”

Away from his dedication to the forces, Mr Major was an avid gardener and enjoyed spending time with his family.

Described as an “exceptional, gentle man” Jenny added: “He was dad. He was always fair, he might have been a bit strict at times, but so what. But you knew he was there for you, which I think is perhaps the most important thing at the end of the day.”

Mr Major leaves wife Peggy, 86, son Tim, 58, three grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.

His funeral is being held at St Andrew’s Church, Gorleston on Friday, May 24 at 11.45am.

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