Obituary: Sergeant James Gillies, Dunkirk veteran

Sergeant James Gillies: Monte Cassino and Dunkirk veteran who restored one of the original little shipsSergeant James Gillies: Monte Cassino and Dunkirk veteran who restored one of the original little ships
Sergeant James Gillies: Monte Cassino and Dunkirk veteran who restored one of the original little ships
Born: 10 April, 1914, in Dumbarton. Died: 28 February, 2015, in Erskine, Renfrewshire, aged 100

James Gillies, who fought at Dunkirk and Monte Cassino in the Second World War and later restored one of the “little ships” which rescued hundreds of British soldiers from the beaches of Normandy, has died, aged 100, at Erskine Hospital and care home for veterans of the armed forces.

Gillies was born in the Dennystown area of Dumbarton to Archie Gillies, a boilermaker’s labourer in Denny’s shipyard, and Maggie Mooney, a housewife and mother to five, of which Jimmy was the third.

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His father served in the First World War and on his return found a son who had hardly known him and who had been brought up at the feet of older men in the community, most of whom were too old for call-up to the forces.

In his own words, Jimmy was a “bit of a lad”. He regularly skipped school, which he finally left at 14, and started working in Denny’s beside his father as an apprentice engineer. His time there came to an abrupt halt when he threw a snowball and hit the gateman who had locked him and other latecomers out of the yard. Apparently the timekeeper’s procedure was to sound the horn for one minute and close the gates as soon as the horn stopped. If you were late for work by one minute or more in that era you were locked out for the day.

Jimmy moved on to farm labouring at Ardoch Farm, near Cardross, which was owned by the Cunninghame Graham family, and tenanted by farmer Jock Kinloch. He was on full board at the farm, sleeping in the hayshed. He moved on to Filshie’s farm, near Renton, before deciding that his career lay in driving cars, which became his hobby before he passed his test at 18.

Jimmy married Jessie Cooley in 1936 and they had five children, Jessie, James, Margaret, June and Carol.

After his wedding Jimmy probably felt he needed a more permanent job and paid for PSV training at Bone Brothers in Glasgow, obtained his licence in 1937 and found a job driving buses for SMT from its depot in Gavinburn in Old Kilpatrick.

He also owned his first car around this period – an old Austin 7 – which he says he picked up cheaply and renovated with parts acquired from various sources. It was unusual for ordinary workers such as Jimmy to own a car at this time but he was rarely without one. He would buy cars that needed attention and nurse them back to life, building a reputation for himself as talented mechanic.

However, the Second World War intervened and Jimmy was called up for action on 1 September, 1939 having been with the Territorial Army (TA) since 1937. He became a gunner in the 54th Light AA Regiment RA (TA). With his interest in vehicles and driving, he was also eventually assigned motor transport duties.

He was shipped to Cherbourg from Southampton in September 1939, and the next few months were spent guarding installations and training. By May 1940, his unit was involved in action against German aircraft and providing cover for infantry units.

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Many of his oft told stories, however, relate mainly to the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, and the battle for Monte Cassino in Italy from January to May 1944. The trek through France towards Dunkirk followed a command to withdraw on the basis of “every man for himself” and Jimmy and a few colleagues joined together to do just that. He rarely mentioned, though, that they had no rations or equipment, simply a weapon each and the clothes they stood up in.

The soldiers raided farms and orchards for food and Jimmy had a hilarious story of about having to use schoolboy French to borrow a pot from a farmer’s wife in which to cook a hen – “Avez vous a wee stewpot?”

Jimmy used his mechanical skills to return the favour of those who helped and were abandoning their homes to escape advancing German troops.

On arrival at Dunkirk Jimmy met a British sailor and exchanged his weapon for food because he and his mates were again starving. He didn’t remember much about the evacuation from the beaches other than that he was uplifted and safely taken back to the UK.

Monte Cassino is described as one of the hardest fought battles of the war, where some 250,000 people were killed or wounded. Jimmy told his family little about the horrors of the battle except that it was the worst campaign he was engaged in during his military service.

Gillies was demobbed in November 1945, having reached the rank of Sergeant, and returned to Dumbarton. His records show that his character was “exemplary” and he was mentioned in Despatches. He received a Bronze Oak Leaf Emblem in recognition of this achievement. Military service did not come to an end, though, as he continued with the TA after the war, eventually serving with the 8th Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

One of the tasks he remembered well was taking over the running of the bar at their HQ in Latta Street, Dumbarton, which was not profitable at the time. He turned the business around and the branch was able to purchase a coach from the proceeds with the families of the soldiers benefiting by enjoying many day trips around Scotland. He finally left the forces in March 1967, due to reorganisation, 30 years after first joining as a lad of 23.

Back in Civvy Street in late at 1945 he had to again earn a living to support his family and returned to his love of driving and mechanics. He drove for a number of firms such as George Young at Dalmoak Farm, the Dumbarton Co-op, the Scottish Gas Board and Walter Hubbard, later became the City Bakeries.

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He was a popular van salesman for bakery produce and with City Bakeries. He was known from Glasgow through Dumbarton to Balloch and Helensburgh and won a number of rewards for his high level of sales. The company also supported him in passing his Advanced Driving Test and in becoming a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

Jimmy was promoted to sales manager and his success was, to a large extent, down to his natural flair for sales, an ability to charm customers and to make sure they added a few cakes and pies to their order.

During his time with the City Bakeries, he also developed an interest in visiting auction sales in Glasgow and regularly helped out the auctioneers during the sales. He also bought a number of items himself and had a keen eye for antiques that would make a profit. His special interest was watches, which he sometimes sold on his bakery rounds. He remained with City Bakeries until 1978 after 25 years service.

Instead of retiring, Gillies took became storeman at McAllister’s Boatyard at Sandpoint in Dumbarton, where the Cutty Sark had been built. He noticed a boat that was partly submerged with other wrecks in the River Leven and inquired if it was available for sale. He found the owners, bought the boat and set about restoring it to its former glory. The boat was one of the “little ships” of Dunkirk fame – the Cordelia, a 35ft motor yacht of 11 tons built in Hull in 1934 – which ferried around 300 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk to the safety of off-lying ships before being towed back to Dover.

The renovation of the Cordelia became a major project for Jimmy and he managed to make the boat seaworthy again and to make a few trips “doon the watter” – short journeys to start with but eventually a trip to Rothesay under the command of the self-appointed and untrained Captain Gillies.

Jimmy sold the Cordelia, which is now owned by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, in 1986 and finally retired in 1988 at the age of 74 when he took up new hobbies, sequence dancing and travel. For the next 20 years he met up with a number of dance partners and joined a range of clubs.

Jimmy never forgot his war years and his fallen friends and colleagues. He faithfully attended the annual Remembrance Sunday parade at the Cenotaph in Levengrove Park. Sadly, the Second World War veterans who attended the service with him gradually faded away, leaving just Jimmy and his old friend, Frank “Batch” Hannaway, as the sole survivors who attended from that era. Both men have been honoured by the Scottish artist Tom McKendrick, who has started a project to paint the portraits of 100 war veterans, and has already captured the images of both men on canvas.

Sergeant Gillies was admitted to Erskine Hospital for Ex-Services personnel in 2013 and celebrated his 100th birthday there with family, friends and colleagues last April.

He was predeceased by his wife, Jessie, from whom he was divorced in 1995, and their daughter, also Jessie, and is survived by his four other children and 29 great-grandchildren and grandchildren.