Gordon Mills was not overly impressed with his schooling: as a ploughman’s son and “a junior member of the hoi polloi” he felt he had been deliberately under-educated, then promptly dispatched into the workplace while still a child. He didn’t want a job as he loved learning but that came to an abrupt halt at 14 with little prospect of advancement: “I knew then, that day in 1936, if I wanted any further education I would have to travel that long and lonely uncharted road – the way of the autodidact.”
Within a few years he was finishing the second volume of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, while stationed in Bengal with a Beaufighter squadron. And he would always regard that time with his RAF comrades, in a basha east of the river Brahmaputra, as his best education. The assorted crew, with its quota of eccentrics, all shared their knowledge at the “University of Chiringa” and he thrived on the discussions, arguments and lectures, in that often rain-sodden, fetid and bug-ridden environment.
The boy from Gorgie would retain that thirst for knowledge for the rest of his life, enjoying a portfolio career that included working variously as a private investigator, in the civil service and in Warsaw during the Cold War, followed by a daredevil pursuit of exhilarating sports well into his 90s. Even losing his eyesight failed to daunt the adrenaline-seeking pensioner who, having never properly learned to drive, got behind the wheel of a 4x4 at the aged of 95 to try rough terrain driving.
The eldest of seven children, he lived on various farms in West Linton, Pathhead and Edrom, where he started school, before moving to Edinburgh’s Gorgie in 1929. He attended Craiglockhart Primary and Tynecastle High School but suffered from juvenile arthritis, which affected his education.
On leaving school he vowed never to stop trying to learn, starting a painter/decorator apprenticeship and attending evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art. Still a teenager when the Second W orld War broke out, he volunteered for the RAF at 19 and joined 43 (Hurricane) Squadron at Drem airfield, as a U/T armourer, serving alongside Battle of Britain heroes. He became an armourer at pilot training school in Grangemouth before boarding the troopship SS Tamaroa in 1942 where he was designated a ship’s gunner. Arriving in Egypt in time for the Battle of El Alamein, he was posted to a camp in the sandhills, moving back and forward into the desert collecting mainly German and Italian explosives, bombs, ammunition and machine guns. From there he moved to Kebrit, El Ferdan, Ballah and Kantara until the desert war ended and he was sent to join 177 Beaufighter Squadron as an armourer at Chiringa (now in Bangladesh) via Bombay and Burma. He spent over a year there until news of victory over Japan came through on 15 August 1945, noting in his diary: “Just heard THE WAR IS OVER… We don’t know what to do – what to say – or even what to think. We know very little about the new atomic bomb but know that it has certainly ended the war abruptly: all of us expected many more months of warfare – perhaps stretching into years. Now it is done. It was over at last.”
During a tortuously slow route home his ship was caught in a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay, one of the worst experiences of his life. “It seemed the end of the world was near as waves as high as five storey tenement buildings appeared about to crash on top of us, but somehow the ship, tottering and heaving, seemed to slide up the side of the wave, and as we thought how marvellous it all was, another giant wave would take us by surprise and crash down on the deck, which was itself like a raging river of boiling water when the ship was on a level keel for a few seconds. Then, as the ship tilted, a cataract flooded down the side.”
After docking in Liverpool on Christmas Day 1945 Mills became an Educational and Vocational Training instructor, attached to the Royal Navy at Rosyth. In peacetime he joined an army parachute regiment, earning a bonus of five shillings a jump, before taking a job in insurance, becoming a private investigator and setting up Mills & Brown decorators. He also spent time in Warsaw, working via the Foreign Office, during the Cold War – work that remains cloaked in mystery.
In 1952 he married his first wife, Jean, with whom he had two sons. After being widowed he went travelling, climbing and walking and began writing, including his autobiography. Fascinated by Gorgie, he wrote a history of the area. Other interests included practical bacteriology, philosophy, creative writing and wood sculpture.
In 1998 he married his second wife, Yvonne, but soon began losing his sight through macular degeneration and Charles Bonnet syndrome. Facing this challenge with customary tenacity, he joined the RNIB Talking Book Service and Scottish War Blinded, now Sight Scotland Veterans, the latter facilitating his taste for adventure. His daredevil ways had been fuelled by his skydiving and he went hang-gliding aged 70, hot air ballooning at 80, tandem cycling and micro-lighting in his 90s. He abseiled, tried acoustic shooting, archery, played chess and skied for the first time aged 96. He loved gliding and, though he had only peripheral vision, the peace and quiet of the air gave him a better view of the world below than he had enjoyed for years. At 97 he came up with the idea of a collective 500-mile walking challenge for veterans with sight loss. They eventually clocked up about 9,000 miles.
He continued to write using a large keyboard and audio assistance and his artwork, previously meticulous, simply became abstract. In his 100th year, in keeping with his ethos of ongoing improvement, he was learning Spanish.
He is survived by his wife Yvonne, sons Callum and Fraser and extended family.
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