Extended biography of SSgt Tom Gillies

Tommy Gillies was born in Glasgow in 1919, the youngest of four children. He spent his childhood in the city and finished his education there in 1936 with four higher certificates.  He worked in the insurance industry until war became imminent in 1939. Tommy was notified in July 1939 that he was to report as a member of the 1st Militia were it was possible that he could be detailed to work in the coal mines. Luckily he was in the half of his militia unit selected to join the ranks of the Highland Light Infantry and not the pits.

Early in 1940 Tommy found himself manning a Lewis Gun position on the end of Southend Pier in Essex – a long way from Glasgow. He was then detailed to man an anti-aircraft gun on the merchant ship Halland, a ship employed on North Sea convoy duties. Tommy was manning his position on the stern of the Halland on 15 September 1940 when she was subjected to heavy air attack. The ship took a direct hit and sank very quickly; Tommy and his number 2 on the gun were the only survivors from a crew of 39. After many hours clinging to a life raft the two survivors were recovered and taken ashore. Tommy spent some weeks in Scottish hospitals having his wounds treated.

Once his recovery was complete Tommy returned to the drudgery of home defence duties with the HLI, he was determined to find something more interesting. He explored the option of a commission in the REME and the RASC as well as submitting a successful application for flying duties with the RAF. The RAF door was firmly closed but the newly formed Glider Pilot Regiment accepted his application. Tommy grasped the opportunity becoming a ‘Glider Pilot in the Army Air Corps Glider Pilot’. Even as a very fit infantry soldier used to thirty mile marches Tommy found the Airborne run-marches required supreme effort. Nevertheless he got through the GPR Depot at Tilshead and began flying training.

Tommy started his flying career at 16 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Burnaston near Derby.  He thoroughly enjoyed every second of his time at the controls of the Miles Magister trainer. After flying solo Tommy ventured further afield on a cross-country navigation exercise and managed to get lost over the midlands. He found himself flying amid the barrage balloons protecting the city of Birmingham from Luftwaffe attack. The balloons were lowered for Tommy’s benefit and with his fuel gauge reading empty he made an emergency landing on a small airstrip where wartime ‘no landing’ signs were very evident. Every cloud has a silver lining though and Tommy was soon surrounded by curious girls from nearby armament factories who wanted to meet this strange young man who had landed amongst them on an airstrip that nobody had dared to land on before. The fun was soon over when Tommy’s irate RAF instructor arrived to claim him! Tommy flew back under supervision and under the hood (instrument flying), this was followed by intensive map reading practice.

Tommy moved on to Croughton for conversion to Hotspur gliders. Here he adapted to the feeling of flying without the comforting presence of a parachute. His handling skills on the Hotspur were soon put to the test at Croughton when his tug pilot lost visual contact with the Tommy’s glider in thick cloud and cast off the glider. Tommy made a successful landing on a farm some distance from base. In October 1942 Tommy moved on to RAF Brize Norton where underwent Heavy Glider conversion onto the Horsa Assault Glider. On completion of Horsa conversion he was posted to 3 Squadron GPR who were then flying from Hurn Airport near Bournemouth. This was a pleasant interlude as Tommy and his comrades were billeted in a hotel on the seafront at Southbourne. He flew Horsa gliders from Hurn and managed to get into the cockpit of the local Search & Rescue flight’s Walrus amphibians, logging touch and go circuits in Poole Harbour.

In February 1943 Tommy volunteered to take part in experimental flights on the Horsa Glider to gain more experience and flying hours. He took part in some curious sorties:

Volunteered to pilot a Horsa on a night flight utilising a strong beam of light fixed in the yoke of the towing rope. The idea was to enable the glider pilot to keep position when the unseen towing aircraft was flying through cloud. The experiment was a dismal failure. On take off the dazzle from the beam totally obscured the tug to such an extent that the Horsa could not be kept in position. The strain on the tow rope was so severe that that eventually it broke leaving Tommy and his 2nd pilot Sgt Mewett, and nine glider pilot observers at 1,500 feet in the blackout over Bournemouth. A landing was attempted on a faintly discernible road only to find at the last possible moment that Tommy had entered a cul de sac. Houses were clipped by each wing tip as a successful landing was made in what thankfully turned out to be an accommodatingly long garden!’ 1 

 The nocturnal drama was reported in the local newspapers in detail:

The first thought of nearby residents who heard the machine as it landed thought a bomb had fallen and were amazed to find a glider in one of the gardens. The glider tore up the garden, wrecking an aviary and damaging a shed. Six of twelve canaries from the aviary were lost but due to the skill of the pilot only superficial damage was done – to one of three bicycles in the shed.’ 2  

 In April of the same year 3 Sqn GPR sailed to Oran in North Africa. In company with 2 Sqn and RHQ GPR they were moved by convoy via Scotland, removing all rank and Airborne insignia in the interests of security. On arrival Tommy joined others in a concentrated flying training programme that was designed to convert the majority of GPR pilots onto the American CG4A WACO glider. This would be the aircraft they would fly for Operation LADBROKE – the Airborne landing on Sicily.

In preparation for the invasion the Airlanding component of 1st British Airborne Division flew across the Atlas Mountains from Algeria to Tunisia. The ‘D’ day for Op LADBROKE had been set for the night of 9 July 1943. That night Tommy took off in a WACO (Chalk Number 130) with an American Glider pilot as his 2nd pilot, Flight Officer Browning had volunteered along with approximately thirty other US pilots to make up the crews required to fly the Airlanding Brigade on its first operation. What followed was one of the most tragic and controversial incidents in Airborne history. Flying into high winds and flak the USAAF tugs cast the majority of the British gliders off too far out to sea and too low – there was little hope of even reaching Sicily let alone landing on the correct LZ. Amid the darkness, high winds and rough seas over 300 Airlanding Brigade troops and glider pilots were tragically drowned. Tommy was a victim of the debacle.   

A successful ditching was made but with the heavy load the glider was soon almost totally submerged leaving the crew to cling onto something above water. After some hours in the sea, Tommy was able to swim to a Marine Commando landing craft spearheading the dawn landings. The Commandos beached on some rocks only to be met by sustained machine gun fire, Tommy and several others were hit and were bundled into another landing craft then ferried to the ‘Winchester Castle’.’ 3

Thankfully Tommy had sustained only minor wounds and thus was able to enjoy a leisurely cruise to Malta and then down the Mediterranean to Ismailia. It would be six more weeks before he would rejoin the survivors of a now sadly depleted 3 Squadron back in Tunisia.  During his time in Tunisia Tommy spent time training in the desert with ‘Popski’s Private Army’. The invasion of Italy was imminent and 3 Sqn embarked on the cruiser Aurora along with Popski’s men and ‘the phantoms’. Luckily the Italians surrendered and the Royal Navy entered Taranto unopposed. However HMS Abdiel was struck by a mine and 130 personnel were killed including many embarked paratroopers.

Tommy returned to Tunisia after the landings, where 3 Squadron was attached to 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade and renamed 1st Independent Squadron GPR. When the bulk of 1st Airborne Division returned to England the Independents remained in the Mediterranean theatre of operations.  Training at the US Airborne Training Centre in French Morocco was followed by a move to Comiso in Sicily. The squadron built up a high level of hours on both WACO and Horsa as they moved around the Mediterranean. The Independent Squadron was used to deliver a Soviet Military delegation into occupied Yugoslavia to assist Tito’s partisans. Tommy however found himself employed in the infantry role with 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade at Monte Cassino.

Tommy flew with the Independent Squadron as part of Operation DRAGOON – the Allied landings in Vichy France. On 15 August 1944 the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade took off with forty-five Horsa gliders in support carrying all of its heavy equipment. As the Airborne force crossed the coast the pathfinder force signalled that the Landing Zones were obscured by mist. The landing was aborted and the glider/tug combinations turned back to Italy. Shortly after landing a further signal indicated that the mist ha cleared, the op was back on. Tommy flew with Dick Clarke, after a combined total of 7 hours flying they approached Le Muy and shot a good approach to the LZ. In spite of losing both wings to anti-glider poles they made a good landing and delivered their load intact.

By the autumn of 1944 Tommy was back in Sicily and preparing for another glider-borne operation. This time he would fly a WACO and the destination would be Greece. Tommy and Dick Clarke delivered a 3 inch mortar and its crew to Megara about ten miles outside Athens. Tommy had many happy times in Greece and that was to be his final operation.

In April 1945 Tommy returned to England where he was offered the option of a commission in the Glider Pilot Regiment. After considering the number of ditchings, sinkings, wounds and crashes he had accumulated he elected to return to the much safer insurance industry in Glasgow and London.


1 By permission of The Eagle 2 By permission of The Eagle 3 By permission of The Eagle
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