Sir John Donald

Air Marshal Sir John Donald.

Born: November 7, 1927;

Died: November 6, 2014.

Air Marshal Sir John Donald, who has died aged 86, commanded the RAF hospital in Cyprus when Turkish forces invaded the north of the island in 1974. The Turkish military offensive was in response to the coup d’état earlier that year by the Cypriots. The coup deposed the Cypriot president Archbishop Makarios and installed a provisional president Nikos Sampson: a Greek ultra nationalist. He was known to be stridently anti-Turkish so tensions in the community were on a knife edge.

It was under such conditions that Sir John had to ensure that, as Officer Commanding the Princess Mary Hospital in Akrotiri, Cyprus, medical care continued. Following the invasion the local population was greatly displaced and many were homeless. Sir John made his hospital available to all and provided sanctuary for old and young. His constructive action in a politically fraught situation helped the British to retain a balance between the warring Turkish and Greek forces. His belief that empty beds in a hospital were wrong: “There is always,” he said “someone in need.”

Sir John’s reading of a tricky situation was further tested when the British nationals on the island were evacuated. Conditions were hazardous in the extreme and the medical operation was carried out by Sir John with exemplary diligence. He was awarded an OBE for his duties in Cyprus.

John George Donald was born at Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire, educated at Inverurie Academy and then read medicine at Aberdeen University. After working at Aberdeen Royal Mental Hospital he moved south to further his studies at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Deal. He did his national service with the RAF and signed on for a short-service commission. He loved life in the RAF and he spent the rest of his career with the service.

An early posting was as the medical officer at RAF Colombo in Ceylon where he was one of the few doctors who treated the sick in a nearby leper colony. Such was his interest in tropical diseases he studied for a diploma in tropical medicine at Edinburgh University – winning the prestigious Greig Medal for Excellence.

Two important appointments followed. First as medical officer at the V-bomber base near Lincoln and then the RAF’s senior medical officer at Nato’s headquarters at Fontainebleau.

It was in 1972 that he was sent to Cyprus where he gained the respect of his colleagues and the local community. The island was split in two and the continued failure to reach a settlement polarised the population. Sir John’s calm resolve did much to reduce the tensions throughout the island.

In 1976 he returned to the UK and was posted to RAF Ely and two years later appointed the RAF’s Principal Medical Officer in Germany and promoted to air vice-marshal. That was followed in 1981 by a posting at HQ Strike Command, where he was responsible for the medical care at 51 RAF stations

The year before his retirement in 1986 Sir John was appointed to the RAF’s most senior medical posting – Director General of Medical Services. He was determined to maintain his contacts with the medical profession and in 1986 became, for three years, medical director of Security Force Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and then worked as a consultant with American Medical International.

Although he retired to Dorset Sir John remained a proud Scot – often returning to Aberdeenshire and involving himself in such annual events as the Oldmeldrum Highland Games in the Pleasure Park. He was greatly honoured to be asked to open the games in 1986. Mr Bob Forsyth, the sports organiser of the games, says: “Toby was a lovely, modest man. For some reason in Oldmeldrum he was always called Toby.

“When he opened the Games he went into a marquee for tea and the entire Colour Squadron of the RAF stood up and applauded him.

“Some years later Toby unveiled a plaque in the town hall for eminent people of the community. His name is on the plaque and he considered a great honour to be so remembered in his home town.”

While in Oldmeldrum he often played golf on the local course – which he had played as a boy. Other passions included ornithology and skiing.

Sir John, who was knighted in 1984 and appointed an Honorary Surgeon to the Queen in the previous year, is survived by his wife Jean whom he married in 1954 and by their son and two daughters.

©ALASDAIR STEVEN of the Glasgow Herald