Wednesday 16 October 2019

Major Leslie Spray

Stephen Dodd

He survived a death pit in China to experience an uncommon run of high adventure. Stephen Dodd on one man's quite remarkable and less than ordinary life.

WHEN the going got tough, which for Leslie Spray was a far from uncommon occurrence, he had a phrase for it. A bit hairy, he would say. The danger might come behind enemy lines, or on a mission to the D-Day beaches, or perhaps fighting the Germans from a front-line trench in Crete. No matter the peril, Major Spray would record it with humour, but without fuss. Just another day's work; just another hairy episode in the life of a Royal Marine.

There is a stoicism in his story, a familiarity with hardship and threat which has become alien to modern times. In the myriad near-misses of Leslie Spray's life lies enough detail to fill a breathtaking autobiography, yet he never once sought to add glamour to his history. A few notes, understated and intriguing, fill out the tales he passed to family and friends. It was an appropriate response, its roots in an age where heroism could be just a job, with reward enough in comradeship and survival, in a mission completed and an order obeyed.

Leslie Spray's military career began in 1926, when he ran away to join the Royal Marines. His childhood had not been unduly blessed. His father's English family had little time for his mother's background. Mary Ridge was an Irish girl, a Catholic from Connemara, and in the class-ridden world of petty England, it was a liaison to be frowned on.

Leslie had been born in France, where his parents eloped to escape the wrath of his father's family. The boy did not evade the situation for long, however. He was separated from his parents and sent to live with two maiden aunts. He glimpsed his mother on only a few occasions. He remembered seeing her standing behind the bars of the schoolyard, there to catch sight of her son during a break in lessons.

Military service took Leslie from the strictures of family, and he embarked on a series of astonishing adventures.

Without doubt, the "hairiest" moment of all came early in his career, and came through illness, not from the threat of a gun. In China, with a Marine detachment on a gunboat on the Yangtze, Leslie Spray travelled upriver to rescue a potentially embattled settlement of missionaries. En route he contracted smallpox. The disease took hold, and eventually his comrades feared the worst.

The young soldier was deemed dead, and his "corpse" was piled with others in a makeshift mortuary, awaiting imminent cremation. Then, underneath his shroud, Leslie twitched. Revived in hospital, he survived to live another 72 years.

The move towards war found Leslie Spray in Ethiopia, where he was awarded his first commendation, a British Empire Medal, after taking part in an attack behind enemy lines on an Italian communications post.

Though he moved quickly up the ranks becoming the youngest Marine sergeant Leslie Spray sometimes found himself facing the class system that riddled the British army. Newly commissioned at the start of the Second World War, he was attached to a branch of a cavalry regiment, with responsibility to secure 20 miles of British coastline against German attack. With him were 65 cavalry officers, 57 of whom were titled.

Ordered to construct defence lookout posts, in which the officers would live, Spray needed all his diplomacy to persuade his fellow officers to build the pillboxes on high ground from which the coast could be observed. The cavalrymen preferred a lower option. It might not be tactically useful, the assembled lords and dukes explained, but it would be warmer.

The end of 1940 saw Spray in Crete, facing a German invasion. It was here he had his closest brush with the enemy, when a young German soldier jumped into the trench he was defending. Leslie Spray had his gun pointed at the youth's head. The lad panicked, dropping his rifle. Spray found himself unable to fire at point-blank range and spared his life.

He escaped from Crete, leaving the island in a canoe and sailing to Egypt on a minelayer. There he had two notable encounters.

He was introduced to Captain David Stirling of the nascent SAS, who decided he wanted Spray in his unit and arranged a demonstration to entice him to join. In the desert, Stirling stood and pointed to a plane in the sky, from which SAS parachutists would descend. Having watched the first four men fall to their deaths, Leslie Spray made his choice.

"I was tempted," he recorded later, "but pleased I said no."

Egypt was also the setting for a more pleasant meeting. In a Cairo hospital he met a young Australian nurse. Two years after the war ended, Ellen Menzies would become his wife.

War brought movement, and it was in travel that the greatest dangers often lay. Troop ships were routinely sunk. Leslie Spray once showed his son a photograph of himself in a group of 40 soldiers at the start of the war. Through various misfortunes, he was the only one left alive at the war's end.

D-Day brought an unusual mission, when Spray and fellow Marines landed on the heavily fortified Normandy beaches sometime in advance of the invasion. At the dead of night they paddled clear of their submarine and made landfall. There they collected two buckets of sand. Technical experts in London needed to judge its consistency, to find out whether it would withstand the weight of armoured vehicles.

It was a tale Leslie Spray never revealed to his son, merely explaining that he had done "something quite hairy" before D-Day.

A week beyond VE day, Spray's commanding officer summoned him.

"Don't think your war is over, Leslie," he told him. "There's still a Japanese war. You're to fly to Australia."

More travel, this time in the bowels of a Lancaster bomber. He left Britain in a flotilla of six aircraft. Through malfunction, and enemy attack, Leslie was on the only aircraft that made it to Sydney. "Eventually arrived after 51 hours flying time," he recorded, then added enigmatically: "What a hair-raising trip."

There were further adventures. At the close of hostilities, he was asked to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki to assess damage. He had already been to Nagasaki before the atom bomb was dropped, and declined to go again, concerned about the devastation to a city he had admired.

For a time, too, he was Naval Provost Marshal of Hong Kong. Again, the job was no sinecure. Fleet sailors were in the city, edgy and waiting to be demobbed. During his time there, Spray had to deal with regular brawls and five murders. Even the Marine detachment, he wrote, "needed shaking up". It contained five members of a Glaswegian razor gang, he explained in his notes, concluding: "All eventually dealt with."

Peacetime brought new employment. Leslie Spray worked as a security adviser for the Blue Streak rocket project in Australia, ran a hotel and taught fly-fishing. When he retired to the far northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s, he became a driving force of the local community, serving as a school examiner and chairman of the local council. He set up his own independent weather station, taking readings twice a day, and once noting a record January temperature for the far north.

Leslie Spray his full name was Leopold Cooper Stuart John Marcus Spray but he understandably preferred "Leslie" died at the age of 92, his energies still intact and his love of activity undiminished. Even in illness, his stoic's life served him well. When his wife died 12 years ago, too, there were new challenges to face. At the age of 80, Leslie taught himself to cook, becoming an adept chef, locally prized for his exotic desserts.

He remained active until his death, taking his last journey on the weekend before he died. Fittingly, it was made under his own steam. Leslie drove the desolate roads that surround his home, making a tour of his favourite pubs and stopping for a quick half-pint.

He is survived by his son Campbell, a Sunday Independent journalist, and daughters Joanne and Sarah.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section