Obituary: Major John T Durbin MBE LLB WS, Gordon Highlanders officer and solicitor

Major John T Durbin. Picture: Contributed
Major John T Durbin. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 2 April, 1928, in London. Died: 17 June, 2013, near Greenlaw, Berwickshire, aged 85

MAJOR John Durbin spent most of his life in his beloved Gordon Highlanders, often in overseas hotspots and latterly as a Territorial Army training major in Edinburgh after completing his regular service.

That service, starting when he was 18 just after the Second World War, took him to Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Borneo, Kenya, Cyprus and Germany with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) during the Cold War.

Although he studied law and became a solicitor later in life, he stayed close to his regiment as a TA officer and, until his recent death, was one of the Gordon Highlanders’ oldest-surviving officers.

His last appearance “on parade”, at the age of 83, was for the unveiling of the The Gordon Highlander Statue at the Castlegate in Aberdeen in October 2011, by the Duke of Rothesay (Charles, Prince of Wales).

Prince Charles was Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment from 1977 until 1994 when it was amalgamated to become part of The Highlanders.

To see the Aberdeen statue unveiled, he said, was one of the proudest moments of a life largely dedicated to the regiment with the famous Stag’s Head cap badge and the motto Bydand (Stand Fast).

After his regular military service, Durbin gained a law degree from Glasgow University and, already into his fifties, became a solicitor, eventually specialising in property conveyancing until retiring from Haig Scott & Co of Struan House, Edinburgh, in 1990.

The letters WS after his name reflect the fact that he was a lifetime member of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, an independent society of Scottish lawyers dating back to the 16th century. The society, whose home, the early 19th-century Signet Library, is in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square, supports lawyers and legal businesses through research services, training, networking and events.

Although a distinguished member of the society, however, Major Durbin felt his true home was among the Gordon Highlanders.

John Terence Durbin was born in London on 2 April, 1928. He went to Wallington County Grammar School in Surrey and King’s College, London, joining the Gordon Highlanders on a Short Service Commission (SSC) on 30 November, 1946, aged 18, with the service number 373488.

He carried out his first training with 1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders, the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) and the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC).

He moved on to a Regular Commission (Reg C) on 2 April, 1949 and was assigned until November 1952, to 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders and the British 7th Armoured Division, best-known for their World War Two action as The Desert Rats.

Soon after receiving his Reg C in 1949, he found himself involved in one of the first major international crises of the Cold War.

Since the previous year, Soviet troops had blockaded Berlin – at the time divided between the victorious wartime powers.

The main party of 1st Battalion the Gordons flew into Gatow airport, Berlin, in May 1949, immediately after the blockade had been lifted. They were greeted on the tarmac by the Gordons Pipe Band – belting out Cock o’ the North – who had reached the city on the very first train to enter from the West after the blockade. The battalion was deployed there until April 1950.

From 1952-53, Durbin was seconded to 1st Battalion The Black Watch and sailed to Korea as part of the Commonwealth Division in the United Nations force trying to contain the North Korean and Chinese invasion of South Korea.

As a platoon commander, he helped The Black Watch defend a vital position known as “The Hook”, which they had taken over from American troops, against waves of Chinese forces.

After hand-to-hand fighting, and hunkering down after calling in artillery fire on its own perimeter, 1st Battalion The Black Watch succeeded in holding The Hook.

By August 1953, Durbin was back with the 1st Battalion the Gordons as part of the Singapore-based UK Far East Land Forces (FARELF). From 1956-60, he was with 1st Battalion back in the UK, also serving within Germany with the British Army of the Rhine and in Cyprus (1966).

On the Mediterreanean island, the battalion lost 16 soldiers in clashes with, ambushes by, or forest fires started by EOKA guerrillas seeking independence from Britain and union with Greece.

Durbin’s D Company were based in tents in the island’s Troodos mountains, where the guerrillas were also based. His 16 comrades rest in Nicosia, in a UN-controlled cemetery between the ethnic Greek and Turk regions of the now-independent but still-divided island.

After two more years in Commonwealth forces’ Singapore Base District as a GSO-3 (General Staff Officer, Grade Three), Durbin found himself in Kenya from 1963-65, where he and his comrades in 1st Battalion the Gordons witnessed the tumultuous end of the British Empire in East Africa.

The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya had failed militarily but the end of British rule was nigh. Durbin was based at the Gilgil garrison in Kenya’s Rift Valley, 60 miles north-west of Nairobi where the overall British force, 24th Infantry Brigade East Africa Command, was headquartered.

Their role was as a “fire brigade”, to prevent disturbances during the transition to independence. Thereafter, Durbin served in Borneo before being “loaned” to the fledgling Malaysian Armed Forces from 1965-67, during which time he was named MBE by the Queen.

He was back home with 1st Battalion the Gordons in 1968, retired from regular service in 1969, continued as an officer in the “Terriers” (the TA) and went on to study law.

Following his retirement from the legal profession, Major Durbin divided his time between Edinburgh and the Borders, latterly spending most time at his home between Greenlaw and Coldstream in Berwickshire.

Having been divorced from his first wife in the mid-1980s and re-married in 2001, he and his Australian wife Margaret (née Stirling) spent the UK winters touring the Australian coast and the outback from their base in Melbourne.

Major Durbin was also a keen and proficient curler, an affiliated member of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, based in Ingliston, the mother club of the sport and its governing body in Scotland.

Major Durbin died peacefully at his Berwickshire home, Purves Hall.

Gordon Highlanders from every rank, including some who served with him, attended his funeral in Edinburgh, where a Gordon piper played The Black Bear, the march of his old D Company, and the Regimental Collect was read out by his grave in the Dean Cemetery.

He is survived by his wife Margaret, his former wife Jean (née Creighton, from Berwickshire), his sons Duncan and Gavin, his sister Mary, his stepchildren and their families.

PHIL DAVISON