'Houdini man' who survived gas explosion, WW2, ship bombing, hurricane, gangrene and drowning...dies at 95

'Houdini man' who survived gas explosion, WW2, ship bombing, hurricane, gangrene and drowning...dies at 95

Amazing: William Gemmell Alexander

In the forces: William Gemmell Alexander

First published in News
Last updated
The Westmorland Gazette: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter

A MAN who cheated death more than half a dozen times before going on to become the head of an accident prevention charity, has died at the age of 95.

William Gemmell Alexander, a former Sedbergh School pupil who lived in Dent and Kendal as an adult, earned an MBE for his war-time work.

He and later served as director general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), after:

  • Surviving a gas explosion as a baby.
  • Escaping from German soldiers in Second World War in full British uniform.
  • Escaping unscathed after the attempted bombing of a ship he was asleep on.
  • Surviving a hurricane which flattened his house while he was inside it.
  • Almost losing his leg to gangrene.
  • Surviving a wounded knee in the Second World War.

l Almost drowning after becoming caught underneath a sinking ship – escaping only because a large wave smashed the ship and cut him free.

He also saved the life of his daughter, Alison, from drowning while the family was living on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

“He was a bit of a Houdini,” explained son, Harvey Alexander. “He was very lucky. He led a very full life, at any rate!”

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Mr Alexander, known as Gemmell, was born in 1918 in Cheshire and attended Sedbergh School from 1932 onwards.

It was during his time at Sedbergh that he developed his love of walking and as a 60-year-old climbed Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in just 24 hours.

At the age of 70, to celebrate his birthday, he walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks twice on the same day.

In the years after he left school he joined expeditions to Lapland, the Cayman Islands and Iceland, where his met his future wife, Rona, with whom he had five children.

After reading law at Oxford he enjoyed a glittering military career, serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th Army Division.

He served in France until the Dunkirk evacuation.

Unfortunately he missed the evacuation and was forced to hide in a friend’s attic until he could ‘make a dash for it’ – in full uniform.

On his return he was posted to Africa with the Eighth Army and was promoted to captain and then major after his senior officers were both killed.

He was involved in desert fighting, alongside his brother, who did not survive, and also took part in beach landings in Sicily and Italy.

Later, he was present at the capture of the Belsen concentration camp.

In 1946, he began several years of travelling the world with the Colonial Service.

After returning to England he worked at the Co-operative Wholesale Society and the International Co-operative Alliance, before serving with RoSPA and then as the county road safety officer for West Yorkshire.

Mr Alexander lived in Dent following his retirement and moved to the Riverside nursing home in Kendal at the age of 90.

His funeral will be held on Thursday June 26 at noon at St Andrew’s Church, Dent.

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