Scarborough's George Southern BEM, a war hero and 'perfect gentleman', dies aged 98

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The Honorary Life President of Scarborough’s branch of the Royal British Legion has died aged 98 after a short illness.

George Southern BEM was a decorated Navy veteran and author, and played an important role in the Royal British Legion in the town for many years.

He was born in Leeds on February 20 1921 and left school at the age of 14 to start work as an apprentice joiner.

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In 1940, just before his 20th birthday, George joined the Roundhay Division of the Local Defence Volunteers (the Home Guard) in Leeds before being drafted into the Royal Navy in February 1942.

George Southern BEM in the Royal Navy. Picture from the Southern Family.George Southern BEM in the Royal Navy. Picture from the Southern Family.
George Southern BEM in the Royal Navy. Picture from the Southern Family.

After basic training at HMS Collingwood in Hampshire he travelled to Glasgow to join the newly commissioned Hunt Class destroyer, HMS Zetland.

George married his wife Kay in Leeds on May 16 1942 during his first period of leave.

During the Second World War HMS Zetland was deployed on Atlantic and Mediterranean escort duties including the famous Malta Convoy of August 1942 which was fiercely attacked.

George was an Honorary Citizen of Valletta, Malta.

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On board HMS Zetland, George was also part of the Allied flotilla involved in Operation Torch in November 1942 which was the successful Anglo-American invasion of North Africa.

In December 1943, George was awarded the British Empire Medal, which is given for military service worthy of recognition by the Crown, for saving lives and fighting fires during a heavy German air raid on the Italian port of Bari.

On December 2 1943, a convoy of ships carrying fuel and ammunition was bombed by the Luftwaffe leading to a large number of Allied ships being destroyed.

George was demobbed from the Royal Navy at the end of the war and moved to Scarborough after the birth of his son George in 1946.

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With Kay, he owned and ran the Golden Hind Restaurant in Eastborough for many years.

In his later life, George was well known in Scarborough for his work with the Royal British Legion, of which he became a member after Kay’s death in 1995.

He initially became a member as a Poppy Appeal collector before moving up to committee member, treasurer and finally Poppy Appeal organiser.

He was Honorary Life President of the Scarborough Branch of the Legion.

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George was an active member of the committee of the Scarborough Sea Cadets and regularly travelled to the Netherlands to participate along with the cadets in the country’s Liberation Day.

He also enjoyed visiting local schools to talk about his recollections of the war years.

Peter Parkinson, chair of the Royal British Legion’s Scarborough Branch, described George as “life’s perfect gentleman”.

He said: “He would help anyone across the road, pick anything up for anyone and he never had a bad word to say about anyone.

“He always looked for the good in people, never the bad.

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“He was very modest, he didn’t brag about [his war achievements], if someone asked him about it he was happy to talk but he always said there were lots of other people there and he was just doing his job.”

Despite being a modest man, George’s heroic actions saving lives and fighting fires during a heavy air raid on the Italian port of Bari during the Second World War earned him a British Empire Medal.

Over an hour-long attack, German bombers sunk Allied ships, one of which contained mustard gas which added to the loss of life.

Little was known about the tragedy at Bari harbour due to the censorship and destruction of official documents.

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In 2002, Airlife Publishing published George’s book Poisonous Inferno, World War II Tragedy at Bari Harbour, in which he told the story of the events on December 2 1943.

He wrote about his experience

rescuing people and the aftermath of the evening.

George’s account of the incident is one of only a few books published on the subject.

The book’s publication led to him being interviewed and appearing in documentaries produced in Italy, Japan and, more recently, the United States.

He is survived by his son Paul.

Honouring our Heroes

Earlier this year we launched The Honouring Our Heroes campaign to keep veterans in our mind all year round.

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Particularly as we head into 2020 and the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we want to tell the stories of those who served in the forces or played a part in the home effort, to whom we owe the greatest debt.

If you know of someone who should be honoured for their service contact Corinne Macdonald on 01723 860164 or [email protected]