The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 15 No 6 - December 2012

OBITUARY: John Ross Yelland

John was born in Kimberley in 1931 and died peacefully on 21 October 2012, after a final bout with cancer, a month after turning 81. His mother was a school teacher and his dad a military man, who had trained as a pilot and helped to develop Kimberley Airport after the Second World War. As a child, John apparently got up to all sorts of mischief including almost prematurely ending his life by trying to make a rocket out of an old boiler and lots of petrol. He was also a keen cub scout, with all three of his sons following in his footsteps. He was educated at Kimberley Boys' High School and, since his matriculation in 1949, enthusiastically maintained contact with many of his classmates. He learned at an early age to exceed expectations.

John Yelland read Architecture at the University of Witwatersrand before graduating in 1955. He had an involvement with many landmark buildings, some of which were the SASC building in Durban, the Post Office at Marine Parade, the University of Durban-Westville, and also the Sydney Opera House during his stint in Australia. He also worked as an architect in England, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi). He retired as the head of the Durban office of the CSIR's Building Research Division. John's main interests were archaeology, history and genealogy. He was a founding member as well as president/chairman of various historical societies and genealogical societies, a volunteer at the Family History Centre in Durban and involved in recording South African rock art. During his youth he participated in three major expeditions into completely unmapped areas of Africa, lived with Bushmen, and searched in northern Nyasaland for the African equivalent of the 'Yeti', then known as the 'Umfiti', almost dying of malaria during his return journey through Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). He wrote books on his expeditions which have been keenly enjoyed by his grandchildren and his friends.

His sporting interests included hockey, gymnastics, motor sport, rowing, canoeing and flying. He continued his interests as his three sons got involved in gymnastics and canoeing, by studying to become a gymnastics judge. His sons are well known in canoeing circles, with his three younger grandsons following this interest. His granddaughter, Erin, finished as the top NSW (Australia) gymnast.

He met Sheila Gillian Foy while working in Nyasaland (Malawi). They were married on 31 March 1962. They recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. His sons are Ross (who emigrated to Australia as an engineer/MBA), Bruce (a medical doctor) and Neil (a chemical engineer). He fought three bouts of cancer, in every case coming perilously close to succumbing. The final weeks of his final bout were mercifully swift, and he was alert and taking an interest in the many discussions up to his last few days. Thankfully all his family had come to spend time with him. He took particular delight in his young grandchildren who adored him.

A month or so ago he told me that, looking back at his life, nothing had given him as much value as military history. He was a past-chairman of the Durban Branch from April 1976 to April 1978 and a long-serving committee member and scribe of the Durban (now KwaZulu-Natal) Branch of the South African Military History Society. He is survived by his wife, Gill, and their three sons and seven grandchildren.

Don Porter

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