Obituary: Sgt John Gilmour

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Special Boat Section commando's Second World War exploits proved him a hero

Born: 29 September, 1915, in Dunfermline.

Died: 5 March 2010, in Dunfermline, aged 94.

JOHN Gilmour was a brave and devoted commando, whose Second World War achievements focused largely on sea and beach missions.

He enlisted in the 79th (Scottish Horse) Rgt RA in May 1940. Volunteering for special service, he joined the 5th Special Services Battalion in November 1940. In early 1941 he was posted to No 6 Commando (101 Troop), which was absorbed into the newly formed No 2 Special Boat Section (SBS) in April 1942.

Founded in July 1940, the SBS specialised in beach reconnaissance and marking, railway and ship sabotage, the ferrying of secret agents and stores, enemy deception and close support of ground forces. They operated from canoes transported close to enemy coasts by submarines and fast surface craft.

From March 1943 he served in "Z" SBS, consisting of only five canoe pairs, attached to the 8th Submarine Flotilla based in Algiers. His acting promotion to Sergeant was confirmed in May 1943. He was awarded the Military Medal in February 1944 for his part in special operations during the course of four submarine patrols. He took part in beach reconnaissance and marking near Oran for the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942 (Operation Torch).

Making his way inland behind the invasion force, he came across the body of a US Ranger and was stunned to discover his name was also Gilmour. In May 1943 he was involved in Operation Marigold, a deception and snatch raid on the east coast of Sardinia. In the snatch raid the SBS team acted as boat handlers for an SAS team.

Ambushed by the enemy after someone slipped and dropped his tommy gun, they beat a hasty retreat but an SBS sergeant was taken prisoner. He undertook beach reconnaissance and marking for the landings at Salerno, south of Naples, in September 1943 (Operation Avalanche). The fourth operation involved landing agents in enemy territories.

The medal citation records that his bravery and devotion to duty during these operations set a fine example to all the other ranks of the SBS. Early in 1944 "Z" SBS was re-grouping in Ceylon in preparation for operations against Japan. Gilmour and five other SBS officers and men were rushed back to Malta to carry out simulated beach reconnaissance for strategic deception purposes in the Greek Peloponnese.

He and his team leader Captain Eric "Sally" Lunn landed by canoe from HMS Sybil on the south coast of Cephalonia– on the night of 23 March 1944. Having deliberately left traces of a recce, they attempted to launch their canoe, but it foundered in worsening weather and heavy surf.

They decided to make for the hills and attempt to get in touch with a partisan organisation. Cold and drenched by the sea, the pair soon encountered a German sentry. He was quickly overpowered, but not before his shouts raised the alarm. Under fire, they escaped in the dark but were separated, meeting up three days later at the HQ of the local Resistance group. Gilmour in particular, with his sandy-coloured hair and Scottish accent, had a hard time proving his identity and initially received a hostile reception.

In spite of enemy vigilance, cold, lack of food and the need to travel on foot over about 250 miles of mountainous territory, he and Captain Lunn, aided by the Resistance, managed to get to Ithaca, and then to the Greek mainland, undetected. They eventually made their way to the British Military Mission where transport to Italy was arranged and they returned to Malta 37 days after their departure. This summary does scant justice to the full tale.

Gilmour was awarded a Bar to his Military Medal, the citation noting that he showed high qualities of courage, endurance and resource. He sent a telegram from Bari in Italy to his wife, who was expecting their first child and had been informed that he was missing from operations. The message read: "Like the proverbial bad penny."

Gilmour returned to Ceylon to join the rest of "Z" SBS in special operations against the Japanese with Force 136 (SOE) in Burma, Malaya and elsewhere. He remained based in Ceylon and India until December 1945 and was demobilised in May 1946.

The discharge testimonial recorded that he was "a most reliable, honest and trustworthy man with an outstanding record of active service; he served in the Commandos and Special Service and was twice awarded the Military Medal. For three and half years he was a senior NCO, during which time he showed considerable initiative, resourcefulness, intelligence and leadership."

He returned to his pre-war occupation of shoe repairer with the Dunfermline Co-operative Society until 1960, when he took over the Continental Shoe Repairs business in the town, retiring at the age of 80. Although he rarely spoke about his wartime experiences, Gilmour always derived quiet amusement when recalling the SBS motto "Excreta Tauri Astutos Frustrantur" (Bullshit Baffles Brains).

For many years, he attended the Armistice Day services at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. He did much of his basic training in that area and had a great affection for it and the Firth of Clyde around Arran, where No. 2 SBS canoe training took place.

A keen sportsman, he enjoyed wrestling and swimming and played junior football in his youth. Later in life he enjoyed golf and supporting Dunfermline Athletic.

He married Gladys, an English rose then serving in the WAAF, in 1943. She pre-deceased him in 1988. He is survived by his four children, Margaret, John, Gillian and Anne, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren.