Desert Rat Jimmy visits Glenrothes Heritage Centre

Jimmy Sinclair with staff at the Glenrothes Heritage Centre
Jimmy Sinclair with staff at the Glenrothes Heritage Centre

The staff of Glenrothes Heritage Centre were in the presence of a bona fide war hero when they received a special visit this week.

For they had called upon 102-year-old World War II veteran Jimmy Sinclair, one of the few ‘desert rats’ alive today and the last surviving Scottish soldier who served in the 7th Armoured Division alongside Field Marshall Montgomery in such celebrated battles including the siege of Tobrok, Monte Cassino and El Alamein.

Jimmy was there to conduct the prize draw as part of the First World War exhibition which has just come to an end this week after six very successful and critically acclaimed months.

And the veteran proved the arduous four and a half years fighting against the Hitler’s north African forces, under the command of Erwin Rommel, and the ensuing decades had done nothing to dull the memories of such heroic events.

“They were very tough times and I lost a lot of my good pals, but defeating Hitler was a job that had to be done,” he told the Gazette.

The much decorated Jimmy, who also received the Royal reward for his service two years ago, saw frontline action in some of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, even on one occasion surviving a direct hit on a truck he was in, but asked what he thought was the hardest aspect of his time in the searing desert heat he remembered the lack of fresh water being the biggest obstacle during his time there.

“Not having enough water to drink and wash was hellish and something I will never forget,” he said.

“It was the one thing nobody got used to and everyone hated.”

Also tough to deal with was leaving behind his three-month-old daughter Olive and wife back home as he wasn’t given the chance of leave for nearly four and a half years.

“She was nearly five and starting school by the time the dad she didn’t know finally came home. That was difficult and with being in such an alien environment for so long made it very difficult for me and many of my comrades to settle,” explained Jimmy.

After the war, Jimmy served for two years with the Control Commission in Berlin, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the infamous bank executive Hugo Baring, before returning to Scotland to work as a slater.

Amazingly in later life, Jimmy struck up a friendship with the son of the leader of the African-based Nazi forces that he spent years fighting against - Erwin Rommel, and spent several years corresponding with Manfred Rommel until his death in 2013.

“He was a wonderful chap and a friend,” remembered Jimmy fondly.

Jimmy also counts Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as friends, having met them on several occasions, Camilla’s father Bruce Shand having also served in Africa as a British Army officer.

Today, Jimmy keeps his mind sharp by writing poetry with much of his work drawing on his memories and experiences during the war years.

“I don’t know if it’s any good but people seem to like it and I do enjoy writing it,” said Jimmy, who has even seen some of his works publish.

He has also been an ardent supporter of Scottish Independence meeting both Alex Salmond and the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during the run-up to the referendum.

Asked to comment on his colourful life and achievements, Linda Ballingall, chairman of the Glenrothes Heritage Centre said Jimmy should be seen as a “clear inspiration”.

“He’s lived a quite incredible life and is still going strong which is fantastic to see,” said Linda.

“I count myself as fortunate to have met him on many occasions over the years and we are extremely grateful for his support of the Heritage Centre, he’s quite a man,” she added.

Jimmy Sinclair was involved in many of the major battles during his four and a half years in Africa during World War II.


The 241-day siege of the port town of Tobruk by the Axis forces proved a crucial turning point as far as the Allies western desert campaign was concerned. It started on April 10, 1941 when German and Italian forces, under the command of Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, attacked Tobruk. The ensuing hostilities raged unabated until November 27. The defence of Tobruk was seen as vital for the Allies as part of the support and defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal allowing them to control an area that would force the enemy to use an alternative and vastly increased overland supply route of 930 miles via Tripoli.

The term ‘desert rats’ came from the Nazi propaganda machine that referred to those defending Tobruk as “rats”, a term that the soldiers embraced as an ironic compliment.

The battle of Tobruk also marked the first time an advance of the highly respected and ruthless German Panzer tank division had been halted.

El Alamein

The Battle of El Alamein, fought in the deserts of North Africa, is seen as one of the decisive victories for the Allies. The Battle of El Alamein was primarily fought between two of the outstanding commanders of World War Two, Fieldmarshall Montgomery and Rommel.

The Allied victory at El Alamein lead to the retreat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.

Monte Cassino

Four costly assaults by the Allies against the ‘Winter Line‘ held by German and Italian forces at the beginning of 1944.

The aim of the offensive was to break through the enemies defence and advance to Rome.

The battle involved sustained and intensive close combat in the ruins of Monte Cassino abbey which had been systematically targeted in Allied bombing raids. The often hand-to-hand combat resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.