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John Surtees MW

John Surtees MW

Became an MW 1956, died 1996

Tribute by Vincent Larvan MW

John, affectionately known as “The Major” was a director of Percy Fox & Co Ltd, shipping and brand agents. A jovial personality, served with one of the London City Military units. At the tall of France was in caucus sieged by the enemy. Eventually became a P.O.W. His address was ‘Boodles’ for all correspondence etc. He enjoyed riddles. On the Institute’s early visit to California we were entertained at the Firestone Estate when we were invited to ride their mustang ponies. Both Jon (and Pat Lloyd MW 1961) volunteered to give us a demonstration. The animals knew some dirty tricks, after tearing around they suddenly drove in their front legs and Jon cartwheeled over the pony’s neck. It looked nasty, Jon surfaced brushed himself down and laughed at the experience. No one else chose to try their luck.

Tribute by Pat Lloyd MW

One of my oldest trade friends and the one who got me on to the government hospitality wine committee of which he had been a senior member for some years.  He was also involved at some time in the Buckingham Palace wine affairs and probably in charge.  A really delightful man of whom I was very fond.

Tribute by Robin McLaren

He spent almost the whole of WW2 as a prisoner of the Germans, and I heard that a a good deal of this incarceration was at Colditz.  In his early days at Percy Fox, John was asked by his german principal Alfred Langenbach to proof read a new book called “the Wines of Germany”, and later joked about translating it from English to English.  Alfred’s written English was less than brilliant!

In the 1970’s Percy Fox had become part of the Wine Traders Consortium whose majority was owned first by Whitbread and Courage.  Then Courage bought out Whitbread’s share and Percy Fox became a Saccone subsidiary.  This did not suit the three very traditional directors who formed a new company called Clarkson, Surtees and Matheson with the Garvey agency and a few others.

Announcement of his death published by the Grocer’s Company

The Court of Assistants have learned with great sorrow of the death suddenly on Monday 18th November 1996, in his seventy eighth year, of their friend and colleague John Surtees.  John was brought up in Kent where his father was Chief Constable and educated at Eton.  After Sandhurst he was commissioned in the Rifle Brigade.  His battalion took part in the gallant defence of Calais in May 1940 where he was wounded, and in spite of a bold attempt to escape from a train, was taken prisoner.  He was awarded the Military Cross and retired from the Army in 1948 having reached the rank of Major.

He joined the wine trade where he was managing director or chairman of several companies in the post war years including the old established city wine firm of Percy Fox & Co. He became a Master of Wine in 1954 and for his work advising the government Hospitality Department was made OBE in 1975.

He was married three times leaving two daughters by his first wife, both of whom are Freemen.  In the Company he joined as a probationer of Willie Thompson, was admitted to the Freedom in 1945, the Livery in 1950 and to the Court in 1961. His successful year as Master in 1966 was marred only by the unavailability of the Hall after the fire.  A Warden in 1963, he was also Pepper Warden in 1987.  His greatest contribution to the Company was as a member of the Wine Committee on which he served continuously from the time he joined the Court, and of which he was Chairman for over twenty years.

His charm, his wisdom and his love for the Company endeared him to all his colleagues who will always remember with pleasure his six years as a much loved Senior Member. To his wife, whom he only recently married, and his two daughters we send our heartfelt condolences.

Obituary published in the Royal Green Jackets Chronicle, Vol 31, Jan-Dec 1996


John Freville Henry Surtees was born on 26th January 1919 and educated at Eton. Being unsure of his choice of regiment, he took the exams of both Woolwich and Sandhurst and came top in both.  John joined IRB at Tidworth and was a carrier Platoon Commander with them when they, and the 60th and Queen Vics were set to reinforce and defend Calais.

On May 21st 1940, IRB were dispersed in Suffolk villages constructing road blocks in anticipation of the German invasion of England.  Orders were received at 1900 for an immediate move to Southampton where they embarked on SS Archangel just after midday on 22nd, arriving in Calais harbour on 23rd.  On 25th, Brigadier Nicholson received the order to hold the town to the last, and that every moment the enemy could be held off was of the utmost importance to the safety of the BEF.   They delayed the Germans until the following day and Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the Second World War that “Calais was the Crux”.   The time gained by those who so gallantly defended Calais was to help with the evacuation of 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk.

John with his carriers was given the task of trying to defeat a strong enemy road block in the suburban area.  The block had already overwhelmed the advance guard tanks and the attack by John’s platoon was also unsuccessful, but he managed to pin the enemy down and the block was outflanked.

Those who know the sand dunes along the beaches will understand the difficulty for the movement of carriers, and shortly after the road block incident, John’s  carriers were to become stuck in the sand so he and his men took to the trenches in “C” Company’s earlier position.  The battle lasted four days against impossible odds and eventually the town was taken by the Germans.  John was captured but not before being wounded in the leg and moved to a German Field Hospital which had been set up in a Convent in the middle of Calais.  John used to speak of the kindness offered to him by the nuns and the German guards alike.

He spent five years as a Prisoner of War and in that period made several ingenious attempts to escape and once managed to get away for five days before being recaptured.  On his release from captivity in 1945, he was to learn of the award of the Military Cross for his gallantry five years earlier in Calais.  He then joined 2RB as a Company commander, before becoming GSO2 Allied Liaison Branch in 1946/7.  Then a short spell as 2i/c of a company at the Green Jackets depot at Barton Stacey until July of 1948 when he was invalided out of the army.

In civilian life he eventually became Chairman of wine importers Percy Fox and Co.  He was Master of the Grocers Company in 1966/7 and a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine.  He took a prominent part in government entertaining, and was appointed OBE.

He spent many years on the Committee of the Club and Regimental Association, giving sound advice especially when choosing the claret for the Club’s Annual dinner. One of his last acts for the Rifle Brigade was to visit Calais and advise about the new position for the Green Jackets Memorial. John was very much a rifleman in the true sense. Nothing was too much trouble for him.  His kindness, infinite charm and wisdom made him a very large circle of friends by whom he will be sorely missed.

He had been twice married with two daughters before Marian in October 1996. He died in November and few who were present will forget the beautiful Memorial Service at St Michaels Cornhill on 22nd January.

Obituary published in the Times on 18 December 1996

Major John Surtees, Gallant defender of Calais who spent five years as a POW

Major John Surtees, who had died aged 77 when serving with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in the desperate defence of Calais in 1940.  After the German attack on May 10, and their subsequent sweep across France, the War Office decided to reinforce and defend Calais with a force of 3000 men.  Calais soon came under attack by the 1st Panzer division, and then by the even more formidable 10th Panzers.  The British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment lost most of its tanks in reconnaissance, leaving a total of 21 to oppose 550.

Brigadier Nicholson, commanding the garrison, deployed his infantry around the ramparts and ditches, and in spite of contradictory and unrealistic orders from the War Office, managed to check the 10th Panzers in its attempt to break through into the town.  Casualties on both sides were high, and the defenders, who were shelled by German artillery and bombed by the Luftwaffe, were hampered by fifth columnists mingling with the mass of refugees.

Some French soldiers joined the British and fought with great gallantry; others did not.  Although the fall of Calais was inevitable, the delay and damage the defenders inflicted on the Panzers was considerable, and contributed largely to the successful evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk further along the coast.  Very few of the defenders of Calais were able to escape when the battle was finally over, and were marched off to spend five years as POWs in Germany.  Surtees, who was wounded in the leg during the fighting, was awarded an MC.  During his internment, he made several ingenious attempts to escape, and was once at large for five days before being recaptured.  After his release in 1945, he became a major in the 2nd Rifle Brigade and in 1946 was appointed GSO2 with the Allied Liaison Branch of BAOR.  He spoke fluent French and German.

John Freville Henry Surtees, son of Major Lambton Surtees, was born on January 26th 1919 and educated at Eton and Sandhurst.  The Surtees family derives its name from the “Sur Tees” estates in Northumberland granted to their ancestor after the Norman Conquest.  One of them fought alongside the Black Prince at Crecy.  Another was R S Surtees, the creator of Jorrocks, who combines “unaffected urban vulgarity with profound love and understanding of foxhunting”.

After leaving the army in 1948, John Surtees went into business and became chairman of wine importers Percy Fox and Co.  He was Master of the Grocers Company in 1966/67, and a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine.  He took a prominent part in government entertaining and was appointed an OBE.

Surtees was highly intelligent, and when considering which branch of the Army he should join, took the entrance exams for both Sandhurst and Woolwich, passing top in each.  A man of great kindness and impeccable manners, he was an enthusiastic cricketer, an above average golfer, a first class shot and a skilled fisherman.

He married first, in 1946 (dissolved 1967) Audrey Falkner; they had two daughters.  He married secondly, in 1969 (dissolved 1985) Anne Denham.  He married thirdly, in 1996, Marion Collins.

John Surtees was very well connected as can be seen from the IN MEMORIAM report in the Times dated 23 January 1997

The Lord Lieutenant of Greater London and Lady Bramall attended a service of thanksgiving for the life of Major John Surtees held yesterday.

The Very Rev the Hon Oliver Fiennes officiated.

Sir Charles Graham, (brother in law), and Mr William Hepburne-Scott (grandson) read the lessons.

Lord Saye and Sele gave an address.

Buglers of the Royal green Jackets sounded Last Post and Rouse.

Among others present were:

Mrs Surtees (widow)
The Master of Polworth and the Hon Mrs Andrew Hepburne-Scott, Capt and Mrs James Hepburne-Scott (sons in law and daughters)
Mr Robert Hepburne-Scott, Miss Georgina Hepburne-Scott, Miss Caroline Hepburne-Scott, Mr Walter Hepburne-Scott, Miss Emily Hepburne-Scott, Mr George Hepburne-Scott (grandchildren)
Lady Graham (sister)
Brig and Mrs D A Barker Wyatt (brother in law and sister in law)
Major and Mrs Rex Hitchcock (stepbrother in law and step sister)
Mr and Mrs James Graham
Mr and the Hon Mrs Maisie Graham
Miss Susanna Graham
Miss Catherine Graham
Miss Iona Graham
Miss Arabella Graham
Miss Georgina Graham
Miss Laura Graham
Mrs Audrey Surtees
Isabel, Lady Napier
Mr and Mrs John Napier
Mrs Julian Summer
Cathryn, Lady Cawdor
The Dowager Countess of Westmorland
Earl and Countess Cathcart
The Earl of Clanwilliam
Ann, Countess of Yarborough
The Earl of Inchcape
Viscount and Viscountess Hood
Lady Ann Seymour
The Rev David Say
Lady Saye and Sele
Lord Carrington
Baroness Trumpington
Lady Terrington
Lord and Lady Cornwallis
Lord and Lady Milne
Lord Monteagle of Brandon
Lady Vanessa Brown
Lady Mary Ann Denham
The Hon Seymour Fortescue
The Hon Mrs Martin Fortescue
The Hon Mrs Oliver Fiennes
The Hon Martin Fiennes
The Hon Michael and Mrs Spring Rice
The Hon Sir Clive and Lady Barbara Bossom
The Hon Lady Dundas
Nancy, Lady Paget
Sir Richard Paget
Sir James Colyer-Fergusson
Sir Michael and Lady Thomas
Sir Michael Hogg
Sir John Smiley
Sir Guy Fison MW
Major Sir Anthony and Lady Bonham
Elizabeth, Lady Gilbey
Field Marshall Sir Roland and Lady Gibbs
General Sir David Fraser
General Sir Thomas Pearson
Lt General Sir James Wilson
Sir Ewen Fergusson, Chairman, Coutts and Company
Sir Hugh Bidwell
Sir Nigel Althous
Lady Delacombe
Sir Brian McGrath MW
Sir Michael and Lady Pickard
Major Rhidian and Lady Honour Llewellyn
Mr John and Lady Sophia Kinmont
Major General Charles Vyryan, Colonel Commandant, the Royal Green Jackets
Brig Colin Harrisson, Chariman, Rifle Brigade Club and Association
Major Ron Cassidy, Secretary, Rifle Brigade Club and Association and Mrs Cassidy
Mr Christopher Stewart Smith, Master, Grocers Company
Mrs Colin Mattingley, Clerk, Grocers Company
Mr and Mrs Elliott Viney and other members of the Grocers Company
Mr David Stevens MW, President, Institute of Masters of Wine
Mr I H McCausland, 60th Rifles
Mr Brian Burrough and Mr Douglas Nevard, Government Hospitality Fund
Mr C Gunnery, President, Eton Ramblers
Mr Roderick Bullough, Boodles
Mr Jack Hill, H Sichel and Sons
Major General A S H Irwin
Major General Mark Bond
Major General M E Carlton Smith
Major General and Mrs Hew Butler
Brigadier E C B Davies-Scourfield
Brigadier Alan Cowan
Lt Col John Dymoke
Lt Col Frederick Burnaby-Atkins
Major and Mrs Ion Cavacoressi
Major and Mrs J C Mansel
Mr Richard Henderson
Mr and Mrs Anthony Smith
Mr and Mrs Henry James
Mr and Mrs Timothy Carter
Mr John Henderson
Mrs John Talbot
Mr and Mrs Charles Nunnerley
Mr Robert Henderson
Mr and Mrs D Tudway Quilter
Mr Julian Tregonning
Mr James Vyvian
Mr George Mann
Mr Charlie Fison
Mrs Patrick Crighton-Stuart
Mr David Bedford MW
Mr Simon Berry
Mr and Mrs Anthony Berry
Mr C W O Parker
Mr John Floyd
Mr Charlie Webster
Mr Colin Campbell
Judge and Mrs Colthart
Mr Mark Scrase-Dickens
Mr David Pepercorn MW
and Mr Nicholas Taylor; together with many other friends