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Significant Scots
John Forfar, MC


Professor John Forfar, who had died aged 96, was medical officer of 47 (Royal Marines) Commando, and won an Immediate MC for rescuing the wounded under fire at the capture of Walcheren; he went on to have a distinguished career as a paediatrician.

In June 1944 the Allied armies who landed in France needed to capture Port-en-Bessin intact as a terminal for PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), which would carry petrol across the Channel to fuel the advance . The mission of 47 (RM) Commando was to capture the port by marching 12 miles behind enemy lines and attacking the German defences from landward.

The marines suffered heavy losses during the landings, and Forfar, whose landing craft struck a mine offshore, had lost all his surgical equipment . As the marines attacked, he set up a succession of aid posts . By the end of the battle for Port-en-Bessin he had treated 52 marines and some soldiers, seven Germans and two French civilians. Of 47 Commando’s 420 men who had sailed from Southampton, only 276 could be mustered on June 9. The rest were killed, wounded or missing.

When General Sir Brian Horrocks, commander of the British 30th Army, heard the details of the taking of Port-en-Bessin he wrote: “It is doubtful whether, in their long, distinguished history, the Royal Marines have ever achieved anything finer.” Forfar was mentioned in despatches.

Between June and November 1944, 47 Commando fought along the French and Belgian coasts in a series of fierce battles. Their last action was storming the strongly fortified island of Walcheren, which guarded the port of Antwerp.

On the afternoon of November 3 1944, as they assaulted a series of batteries set in the dunes which ring the island, the leading troop came under sustained heavy fire that killed 15 marines and wounded 21 . With mortar shells bursting all around him, Forfar attended to the wounded. The troop commander, Major JTE Vincent, was not found until Forfar went on another 50 yards under a rain of mortar bombs. It was the first time that Forfar had come under mortar fire, and each time he saw a shell coming he threw himself flat on the sand behind the wooden groynes before rushing forward once more.

He found Vincent lying grievously wounded, and as he was treating him, five Germans appeared over a sand dune and opened fire with a machine gun, killing one of the stretcher party who had crawled forward to join Forfar and wounding another. Forfar coolly continued to treat his patient, who had been shot through the eye and pleaded with Forfar: “Don’t leave me here, sir.” Forfar, who was a small and wiry man, picked the casualty up, put him over his shoulder and carried him to safety. (The troop commander survived to live a long and useful life into his 80s, and the two men kept in touch.) Forfar was awarded an Immediate MC.

John Oldroyd Forfar, a son of the manse, was born in Glasgow on November 16 1916 and educated at Perth Academy. After reading Medicine at St Andrews University he embarked on a six-month appointment as a house surgeon in Perth. In 1942 he was commissioned into the RAMC in the rank of captain, serving briefly with the 11th Field Ambulance before joining 47 Royal Marine Commando.

After the war Forfar specialised in the care of children, training in Scotland, with brief spells at Great Ormond Street in London and on a four-month WHO scholarship to the United States. In 1950 he was appointed a consultant at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh and then Professor of Child Life and Health at Edinburgh University. His particular clinical interests were in nutrition and metabolism.

He served on many committees, including those of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of Edinburgh and London , and served as president of the British Paediatric Association from 1985 to 1988 — as BPA president he gave evidence to the Cleveland child sex abuse inquiry, and his contribution was commended by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in her report.

It was largely thanks to Forfar’s tireless lobbying — in the teeth of considerable opposition — that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was established in 1998.

Forfar’s commitment to medical education was expressed in the long-running course in Saudi Arabia which was run by him and his some of his colleagues in Scotland. Theirs was the only course in that country which taught male and female students together, and one of Forfar’s first tasks was to dismantle the barrier in the lecture theatre which the security police had set up to separate the genders.

In 1973 Forfar was the driving force behind the production of Forfar and Arneil, a 2,000-page textbook of paediatrics which is used throughout Britain, and recently went into a seventh edition.
Forfar retained his Scottish burr and had a dry sense of humour. Once, when a marine complained that he had received a shrapnel wound while reaching out of his shelter to retrieve the pipe which he had dropped, Forfar told him: “Aye, laddie, I told you before that smoking is bad for your health.”

After the war Forfar continued to take a pastoral interest in the survivors and dependants of 47 Commando, writing many letters to the widows and children of the dead. Later his finely-observed, modest wartime account From Omaha to the Scheldt: The story of 47 Royal Marine Commando (2000) received the Royal Marine Historical Society Award in 2005.

In June 2009 the mayor of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain unveiled a memorial plaque on the Allée Professeur John Forfar, a walk which links the two villages.

Forfar married, in 1942, Isobel Fernback, a fellow medical student; she died last year, and he is survived by their daughter and two sons.

Professor John Forfar, born November 16 1916, died August 14 2013


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