Jim Fraser, who has died aged 92, won a Military Medal in North Africa and, as his personal tank driver, was responsible for General Montgomery adopting the beret that became so associated with him.
In November 1941 Fraser, serving with 8th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (8 RTR), took part in the battle of Sidi Rezegh, part of “Crusader”, the operation to raise the siege of Tobruk. On November 23, during an attack on an airfield, he saw a German 75mm gun coming straight towards him through clouds of smoke as he rounded a corner.
As he hauled on the steering sticks of his Valentine tank, the gun opened up with armour-piercing shells. The first caught the tank a glancing blow on the side. The next one went straight through the back of the tank into the engine but failed to explode.
With fighting going on all around them, the crew could not bail out of the crippled tank and were forced to spend the night inside. Fraser emerged at daybreak to a scene of burning tanks and dead bodies. His commander, standing on the turret with his binoculars, was then hit, and much of his knee was sliced off. A tourniquet was applied, but it was a makeshift job, and Fraser set off across the desert to find help.
He was lucky to find a dugout manned by British soldiers, some of whom he led back to his tank. The injured officer was taken off by field ambulance. The citation for the award of Fraser’s MM said that he had undertaken the rescue under heavy shell fire – despite strict orders not to do so because there was no way of knowing who was in possession of the ground that he would have to cross.
James Marshall Ralston Fraser was born in Glasgow on September 17 1920. His family moved to Colchester when he was 12, and he attended the Blue Coat School until he was 14. In 1937 he enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps, and was posted to the Royal Tank Regiment. Fraser was wounded three times during the war, and had just rejoined his regiment after a spell in hospital when Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army. Monty had a specially modified command tank, and Fraser was selected as his driver. On the first occasion that he drove Monty, the general was wearing a large Australian bush hat. The wind blew it off, and Fraser — who had to stop the tank while it was being retrieved — shoved his own beret up into the turret and muttered to the ADC: “Tell the General to wear this and maybe we will get there a bit quicker.” Montgomery wore Fraser’s beret — which is now in the Bovington Tank Museum — until he acquired one of his own which had both a general’s badge and a Royal Tank Corps badge. On his rounds of inspection in the desert, Monty would often tell Fraser to stop the tank (affectionately known as “Monty’s Charger”) so he could talk to the soldiers. They were astonished that an officer of such exalted rank would take the trouble to do so and thus the Monty legend grew. Fraser served in India and Korea before retiring from the Army in 1959 as a Warrant Officer Class 2. He became a postman, served on the executive committee of the Union of Post Office Workers and subsequently held the office of national chairman. He was also a Labour borough councillor for Colchester, an Essex county councillor and a magistrate. As a young man, he played rugby and football for the Combined Services. In 1956 he was awarded the BEM . After finally retiring and settling in Colchester, he made regular tours to commemorate the anniversaries of the battles fought in Egypt and Libya. Jim Fraser married, in 1944, Margaret Agnes Storey. She predeceased him, and he is survived by their son and two daughters. Jim Fraser, born September 17 1920, died March 21 2013