The Gordons

Lieutenant-Colonel John Turnbull MC

John Turnbull was an outstanding field commander who won an MC in Tunisia and a bar to the award at the battle of Kangaw, the decisive action of the Arakan campaign in Burma. As a lieutenant attached to the commandos, he took part in the Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, in 1942. The task of 1 Commando was to turn the enemy's sea flank, cut their communications and force their withdrawal. Within 3 days they were in control of many strategic coastal roads.

During one part of the operation, Turnbull was ordered to withdraw his section after a fierce engagement. To do this he had to lead his men, some of whom were wounded, through a curtain of intense fire. Having personally extricated one man and moved him to relative safety, he discovered that another was missing and went back, found him and brought him to cover. More than 20 soldiers were recommended for decorations and Turnbull was awarded the Military Cross.

John Hugh Stephenson Turnbull was born at Montrose on 10th Jan 1916. His father was Sir Hugh Turnbull, former Commissioner of the City of London Police. John was educated at Haileybury and commissioned into the London Scottish in 1937.

In 1939, on Sept 3rd, his platoon were at Albert Docks in London guarding a German ship, the Pomana. Turnbull noticed that it was low in the water, and when he heard the engines start up he hurried on board. He discovered that the captain had opened the sea-cocks and intended to ram the dock gates. He commandeered the ship and prevented it from sabotaging the dock.

He arrived in Burma in November 1944 and with 1 Commando navigated 5 miles up a muddy tidal creek to land near Kangaw under a heavy Japanese bombardment. They pushed on to Hill 170 and came under machine-gun and mortar fire. The forward platoon was forced to withdraw, leaving 3 casualties. Major Turnbull dashed forward, throwing smoke grenades and engaging the enemy with covering fire for the rescue party. He remained there until the wounded men were retrieved and he carried back his comrade who had been killed.

The hill was secured but the Japanese concentrated their efforts to retrieve it, at first by heavy artillery bombardment and then by repeated assaults. The commandos counter-attacked so that the enemy could not launch a final assault. This went on for 3 days and nights by which time the whole of 3 Commando Brigade was on Hill 170, but it ended with the withdrawal of the Japanese who had lost 2,500 men. The men of 1 Commando received 30 medals for bravery, including one VC. Turnbull was given a bar to his MC.

By 1945 he was in command of the unit and he finally received his regular commission into the Gordon Highlanders which had been held up since 1941. He successfully commanded D company in Malaya during the Emergency and went on to Germany in 1954 as GSO2. Following this he returned to the UK to command the Gordons Depot. He was second in command of the 1st Gordons before retiring in 1961.

He farmed sheep in Argyll for 24 years, and was a keen fisherman. He married Sophie Landale, fathered a daughter, and became a member of the Royal Company of Archers. His final years were spent in a wheelchair because of a back injury incurred in the war. He died on 26th June 2004, in Comrie, Perthshire where he had lived since 1984.

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by Stephen Luscombe