Obituary: John Mack

Two men have died in a fortnight who had a significant role on the outcome of the Second World War, one aged 85, the other 94. The younger was a classical scholar of Haileybury and Exeter College, Oxford, and a Blue in various sports, the other was the son of a coalminer who became a bus driver and traffic manager. Both (later Major-General) Pat Turpin, and (acting Colonel, 1945) John Mack were key officers of the Royal Army Service Corps, whose logistic skills made possible the Eighth Army's rapid advance across the desert and made bearable the reverses suffered in the bloody and unsung battles up the spine of Italy. One was a professional soldier; the other one of those volunteers whose civvy street skills were so important to the war effort.

John Mack was known to many in the transport industry, as the ever-courteous, long-suffering traffic manager of the SMT (Scottish Motor Traction) Bus Company in east central Scotland to whom every complaint, however trivial, about any bus which somehow failed to arrive on time, or passed by a bus queue packed to capacity, should be addressed. He was also, I was told by Major- General Sir Francis de Guignand - who as Director of Military Intelligence in the Middle East, subsequently Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army (1942- 44) and Chief of Staff of 21st Army Group (1944-45), and the only one of the eight pallbearers at Field Marshal Montgomery's funeral who was not an officer of five-star rank, was in a position to know - one of the civilians in uniform who made a significant contribution to the winning of the Second World War.

"Do you know my friend John Mack, your bus manager?" asked de Guignand when he came to the Labour Party backbench defence group in 1963 and was told that I was a new Lothian MP. "Yes certainly, John Mack has been very helpful to me as a newcomer," I responded. "Well, you ought to know," said Montgomery's right-hand man, "that Mack, affectionately called 'our bus driver', was one of those but for whom the outcome in the desert might have been different. He was a genius at his job and that job of getting vehicles to the right place at the right time in working order was vital."

John Mack was born into a miner's family in Ashington, Northumberland. He started work on the Monday morning of the week he left school with Brook & Co, one of the earliest providers of bus services in Northumberland. When they decided to expand across the border they appointed the 19-year- old Mack as their driver in the first-ever regular bus service between Galashiels and Selkirk in 1921. Later the firm was amalgamated with Amos Brothers and developed services both sides of the Scottish/English border under the name of Brook and Amos.

In 1925 Mack went to Northern Ireland to set up a bus service between Portadown and Lurgan, returning in 1927 when Brook and Amos was acquired by the Scottish Motor Traction Co Ltd. Mack was appointed the border-area superintendent based at Galashiels. Characteristically he volunteered within a couple of weeks of the outbreak of war and was granted an immediate commission in the RASC. De Guignand's opinion is confirmed by the following 1945 testimonial:

Major J. Mack OBE joined the 5th AA Battery, the unit then under my command, in October 1939. He was entrusted with the organisation of transport in A Company, a duty which he carried out so successfully that he was transferred to my HQ where he carried out the duties of transport officer for the whole unit. This involved the intricate detailing of some 800 vehicles responsible for the supply of ammunition, petrol and food to 75,000 men constituting the AA defences of the south-east of England, a task of considerable difficulty and requiring a quick organ-

ising brain during the early "blitzes".

Major Mack carried out this large commitment efficiently, smoothly and with a strong sense of economy.

In 1941 at my request Major Mack joined me on the HQ staff of the 56 (London) Division where he was given the task of reorganising and controlling the transport services of the division. He afterwards took over the duties of Senior Supply Officer, a position he carried out as efficiently as his transport duties.

As SSO he went overseas with the division, and an outstanding achievement was his contribution to the planning of the move of the division from Kirkuk in Iraq to Enfidaville in Tunisia. A move involving 18,000 men, 2,000 laden vehicles for some 3,000 odd miles. That the move was completed with no hitch in the supply of petrol arrangements and in the record time of 30 days was in no small measure due to the foresight, energy and knowledge displayed by Major Mack . . .

T.L. Frankland, Lieutenant-Colonel RASC

What Frankland might have added was that had it not been for this feat the Allies would not have won the crucial battle of Meredene which opened up Tunisia to the Eighth Army.

The 56th Division had carried out one of the longest approach marches in military history, a march which took them across seven deserts from Iraq to Tunisia and they went into action successfully within hours of reaching their destination.

On 9 September 1943, Mack and the 56th Division landed at Salerno. He had to organise the myriad of different trucks - the Canadian military- pattern Chevrolets, the Bedford quadrangle locomotion trucks, the Austin K2 ambulances, the US Jeeps and many more. His knowledge of and an insistence about vehicle maintenance was, I am told, crucial in the terrible battles of the storming of Mount Camino and Monastery Hill, crossing the Volturno and the Garigliano rivers. Although enemy opposition in the early stages after the Salerno landing was swept aside, the operation of an opposed landing in difficult country did not progress as rapidly as had been expected.

Enemy tank reinforcements, constant counterattacks, mines and demolitions all hampered the advance but the bridgehead was made secure. When Mack's division reached the Volturno an assault crossing preceded by an artillery concentration was planned. One battalion, for which he was logistically responsible, encountered heavy and accurate artillery, mortar and machine- gun fire and 10 boats which his trucks were carrying were smashed even before they reached the water.

The plain north of the river was dominated by Mount Grande and this was captured by the Brigade of Guards; other brigades cleared the north bank and were able to infiltrate across in increasing numbers. And so the difficult task of clearing the Germans out of the waistline of Italy went on, back across mountains and difficult country the enemy was pushed, and the reason they were pushed was that our logistic support showed more imagination than that of the Germans. Torrential rain and heavy, sticky mud made the tracks impassable for lorries and so Jeeps loaded with water, food, ammunition and other supplies set off in the impenetrable darkness. Movements had to be at night; the Jeeps carried no lights; the drivers - officers and men - were muffled in greatcoats because of the intense cold. Silence was essential. After 10 days the troops were withdrawn from Monastery Hill. It was no case of being forced out by the enemy. It was that the command chose to do so because it was seen that from the point they had reached the infantry could not press and capture Monastery Hill. The infantry and their vehicle support went back and reorganised for a fresh start.

For his part in this operation Mack was given mention in dispatches in addition to the military OBE that he had already been awarded. I was told that it was only reluctance to give DSOs to non-regular officers in support corps that denied him a greater honour.

My lasting recollection of John Mack was as his colleague on the organising committee of the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, three years after he had retired plotting meticulously transportation in the city for the duration of those games. As an organiser he was a winner in war and peace.

John Mack, traffic manager and bus driver: born Ashington, Northumberland 8 December 1902; OBE 1943; married 1925 Annie Dickson (died 1984; two sons); died Wilmslow, Cheshire 18 September 1996.

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