JOHN T. D. DURBIN
Major | Infantry
The apples turn to brown and black, the tyrant's face is red. Oh the war is common cry, pick up you swords and fly. The sky is filled with good and bad that mortals never know. Oh, well, the night is long, the beads of time pass slow, tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow. The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath.
– Jimmy Page & Robert Plant
From the bleak and hardened ground stretching to the west rose a series of hills, ridges, fingers and other knobby features that became and extraordinary landscape of texture and geographical formations. Known formally by their elevations, many of these peaks and spines were known by names given out of affection, humor or spite. Two masses of these hills sloped into a valley that broadened into a featureless expanse about half a mile wide, broken only by a frozen river cutting across the center straight to the base of the hills on the right before curving back into the plain and winding north. A dry winter and months of shelling left little of interest among the dirt and clay void, and only the most stubborn trees and shrubs remained clinging to receding line of vegetation on the pulverized hilltops. On the left of the shallow pass between the hills rose a few ridges that formed the Hook, known intimately by anyone who had stood within a few thousand yards of its beaten slopes. It was just visible from across the field on a round knob of a hill in the village of Yongdong Po.
It had been about a month since the Black Watch had contested the Chinese for possession of the Hook, enough time to rest for those coming off the line and to provide training to those just arriving in country. Yongdong was a place where a man could take his boots off at night, but was still within some proximity to the front where he could become familiar with the combat environment. The occupants of the reserve point made an effort to add some civility to their existence by constructing humble paths and signage with names from towns and cities at home. The surrounding buildings were primitive types with thatched roofs and mud walls, similar to some of the wattle and daub homes from medieval times.
A vibrant and youthful Lieutenant leaned on his hooked walking stick of ash, a traditional symbol of leadership – and punishment, if needed – that accentuated his status as an officer and a gentleman. Despite his officer class and professional attitude, he had a tendency to be mischievous that was expected at age twenty-five, but it was a quality he would carry through his career. He was rather cool while leaning on his cane with a pistol on one hip and his fist resting on the other. Lieutenant John Durbin arrived in Korea likely to replace one of the platoon commanders victim to the Chinese storm on steep flanks of the Hook that had claimed more British lives than any other single battlefield in Korea. John had been in the service for six years since joining after World War II. He had eagerly accepted a short service commission into the Gordon Highlanders, a unit which he adopted as his home and was forever close to him. He switched to a regular commission in 1949, solidifying his odyssey as an army officer and seeing his first assignment in support of the Berlin crisis with the 1st Gordons.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection
The Lieutenant’s introduction to Korea did not quite prepare him for what lay ahead. All he had seen of Korea thus far was the impoverished people and barren country, coated with snow during the winter months that did the broken land the favor of masking the damage done during the previous two years of fighting. Further obscuring the war zone that Durbin was now a part of was that he greeted the Black Watch during their Christmas celebrations. Every man had a bottle of Scottish whiskey or rum and tea, and perhaps more if they received gifts from home or otherwise procured spirits. To heighten their joy, the brigade commander rescinded orders to put the battalion back on the line by New Years, and they all knew there was at least another week of relative comfort before leaving reserve.
Many men of the Black Watch were seasoned Scots and Brits by the time they returned to the Hook a second time. A mixture of regulars and National Service draftees, it was sometimes difficult for a young officer to show authority as well as compassion to men who had time under fire and lost many comrades already. However, coming from a respected Scottish regiment such as the Gordons, the officers and men of the Watch were eager to accept Durbin into their lives during a merry season.
Nearly every part of returning to the line was ominous, beginning with heavy shelling and notes left on the wire by the Chinese. “Welcome back, Black Watch,” the notes read. The men blamed it on their porters, who were on average a good lot of workers, but of course easy for a Chinese to blend in and become indistinguishable to Western eyes. On their flank, the American 38th Infantry Regiment had their own propaganda to broadcast to the Chinese.
Those who had been there in November found the Hook just as they had left it – a blighted ridge laced with trenches, sandbags, and hoochies rampant with rats and other vermin, and always under fire from enemy artillery. The supply route leading up the back of the hill was a favorite target of the Chinese, as was the Black Watch Command Post. Along the perimeter of the lines, barbed wire and telephone line was strung between iron pickets pounded into the ground that had been softened by both Chinese artillery and American air supremacy. Seeing the area closely for the first time, John had a visceral image of what his forefathers’ war was like thirty-five years prior.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection
The American Marines that had originally held the hill with their shallow two-foot deep trenches had relied on air power to push the Chinese back continually. They would pull off the hill just before their positions were overrun, pound the hill from the air to annihilate the Chinese, and return to their posts. When the Black Watch took over in November, the Americans were astounded to hear that they intended to hold the ridge as infantryman – with just some artillery support and grim determination. Since they had done this once already, those returning to the thawing ground in the spring felt they would not survive a second fight. They had done much to improve the positions at the time from digging deeper trenches and fortifying their hooches, and on taking over from the Kings they were displeased to see their counterparts had left quite a bit of trash and sooty dug outs from use of diesel oil in wicked tins. With 6 Platoon now under his command, John settled into life on the Hook and after two days there was a remarkable difference in the quality of their living conditions.
The shelling came constantly every night and between that and the freezing temperatures, patrols were actually desirable. The men had relatively adequate winter clothing, but the air was still bitterly cold and after being hunkered down for hours, the winter temperatures penetrated to their bones. Journeying out into the valley provided an escape from the shells targeting their trenches and enough exercise to get one’s blood flowing enough to think feeling might be returning to fingers and toes.
Compared to the other companies who were shelled frequently – C and D Companies it seemed daily – the B Company positions were fairly quiet during the first month, though to use the term was very relative and bombs landing in any proximity was enough to keep John tense and alert until the shattering explosions became a normal feeling. Recce patrols were sent from all companies to both familiarize with the terrain and each other as well as to determine enemy positions and activity. After a month, they rotated back to reserve for exercises within the Brigade.
Spring brought hard rains that mired the trenches and also warmer weather that seemed to encourage the Chinese offensives. Across the valley, purple azaleas defiantly pushed through the bombed landscape to bloom and welcome the refreshing weather. By this time, Lieutenant Durbin was accustomed to the primitive life of an infantryman and well acquainted with the Chinese. On April 8th the Watch took over the Hook again and were greeted by a multitude of shells and the indecipherable female voice projecting from the enemy propaganda machine. A few days after taking over the hill, B Company was spotting enemy patrols and on the 11th combat inched closer to Durbin as a mortar bomb – either well placed or misplaced – landed squarely on the 5 Platoon command post after one in the morning. The following afternoon the company area was blasted with over thirty 76mm artillery shells and more sporadic barrages throughout the month from mortars, 76mm and 122mm shells, one of which wounded Lance Corporal McLennan on the afternoon of the 18th. On the first of May another shell wounded fellow platoon commander Second Lieutenant Graham and Corporal Muirhead. Much of the retaliation from B Company consisted of replying to propaganda machines – the Watch replied to “We will not shoot tomorrow if you do not shoot today,” by attempting to blast the speakers into oblivion. By the first week of May, patrols and observations revealed an obvious build up and reinforcement by the enemy and all officers and men anticipated a brewing fight.
From eight until eleven on the night of May 8th, it was exceptionally quiet and the humid air hinted of the muggy Korean summers. Over the next few hours, the enemy began poking at the Hook and spotty shelling broke the gentle night from midnight on with a steady amount of noise. B Company was ordered to fire all small arms on known positions across the valley and they began sending bullets down range at phantom targets who triggered trip flares across the battlefield. Moments later about forty Chinese were spotted below the 5 Platoon positions. They scattered when a heavy barrage of artillery, tanks and mortars zeroed on them. John learned later that they were to raid his own position and destroy the tanks’ searchlights.
Peering over the edges of the trenches revealed the horrifying sight of what appeared to be hundreds of Chinese swarming up the slopes of the Hook. Gunfire and artillery erupted and continued without cessation in an attempt to decimate the masses of Chinese that seemed never to yield, crawling over their own dead to reach the crest of the hill. The topography of the hill made it so that at a certain point just below the trench line the Chinese would disappear from sight completely for a few suspenseful moments before reappearing suddenly right at the top. The Scots had only the men next to them to confide in and rely on and it took their best efforts to simply survive.
At about four-thirty a brutal hour of five hundred shells and mortars commenced, targeting Point 121, 5 Platoon and 6 Platoon. There was little a man could do during such a barrage, and John forced himself as close to the earth as possible with each impact, gritting his teeth so fiercely that he thought he might grind them away. The largest shells felt as though they lifted his body off the ground completely before slamming back into the dirt just as soon as another impact repeated the abuse. The whole ordeal left much of B Company rattled and attempting to reorient themselves on weak limbs and ringing ears. The relentless Chinese continued to clamber over the wire obstacles and creeped out of a thick veil of smoke on the skyline, silhouetted by the glow of flares and beams of tank searchlights.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection
As the eastern horizon illuminated in pale twilight, the battle was dwindling. A couple of bazooka rounds directed at the tanks in 5 Platoon area seemed to be the final punch from the Chinese as the last rifle cracks echoed and minor artillery missions chased any stubborn enemy from various ridges. In the valleys between the fingers extending from the Hook, the battle’s smoke was taken slowly with the breeze. Beating helicopters arrived and left with wounded and on the other side the Chinese were observed carrying their own casualties away – they were left to their duties and not fired upon as a courtesy. The day passed as men collected equipment and exchanged stories of the battle, some exaggerated and some laced with grim humor. They were spared heavy shelling, but a few rounds did whistle in and cause some disruption. By nighttime, the propaganda loudspeakers were active again: “You only beat off a patrol action last night, but you will have something bigger to deal with in five nights time!” And it was assumed from the repeated verbiage that the Watch had dealt a blow to the Chinese and beaten them up quite a bit – but they would return.
On the evening of May 13th, the Black Watch finally left the Hook after a day of torrential rain and exchanged positions with the Dukes who would fight yet another battle on The Hook two weeks later. They had ten days at Yongdong before The Watch was ordered back into the fight to support the Dukes from Point 146. The Chinese poked the battalion while the Dukes fought them head on at The Hook. The rest of the month and all of June was spent patrolling and enduring harassing artillery barrages each day until the Durham Light Infantry relieved the Watch on the evening of July 3rd and their Korean tour concluded. While the regiment was bound for Kenya, John was to return to his own regiment and in only a few days said goodbye to those who had fought so loyally beside him.
Durbin's tour in Korea was just the beginning of his extensive service across the world with the army. He would spend only a few years at home between 1949 and 1969, that time being collective as he was never in Scotland for long. He returned to the Gordons in August 1953 for the last months of the regiment’s three year posting in Singapore to combat Communist terrorists in the Malayan jungles. As it was still at the beginning of this post war period and the first of many overseas missions that the Gordons could be called upon and have the ability to be within the field of fire in 24 hours’ notice. It was also at this time that the 1st Battalion was handed over to Lieutenant Colonel J. E. G. Hay, DSO, the only officer with the distinction of having commanded two battalions of the regiment having previously been commander of the 5/7th Battalion from the desert through Normandy.
The region was an important asset for the British in terms of geography and trade and the British had previously trained the largely Chinese population in guerrilla warfare in order to resist the Japanese. A few years later, however, the spread of communism threatened the colonies and in 1948 an insurgency broke out led by the same Chinese groups trained by Britain during the war. In order to deny the terrorists any type of support from the local population, roughly 650,000 villagers had been relocated into 550 villages. With this majority of the civilian population accounted for, the British forces were free to penetrate into the jungle, secure bases, and hunt down guerillas.
Initially, the Gordons deployed in the district of Pahang on the east coast of Malaya, an area larger than the size of Wales. The terrain in this area was extremely formidable and only made worse by searing heat or tropical rain and a multitude of pests and other dangers. Lieutenant Durbin replaced the Motor Transport Officer Captain Nickson, who sadly left his command due to illness. The quarters at the motor park, set in an open square in Tampin, was, despite the afore mentioned discomforts, very enjoyable compared to the primitive trenches and makeshift barracks in Korea.
Missions tended to be frustrating and often left the men chasing poor intelligence or simply following tracks in the jungle. Though progress was slow, the battalion did make contact with the enemy and destroy their camps several times. The MT platoon cared for all unit vehicles, a task which was amplified in necessity in the coming months due to an impending visit from the Central Inspectorate of Vehicles Team. September and October built up to a feverish fourteen-day period where the motor transport personnel were excused of all extraneous duties to prepare for the five-day inspection. For twelve hours each day from seven in the morning, Lieutenant Durbin ran a tight operation under an ‘iron hand’ that discouraged any man from being caught sitting idle in the cab of his vehicle. The section passed the grueling inspection and after leaving Singapore in the first week of April also received a congratulatory letter from Commander in Chief FARELF for the excellent condition of all vehicles and documents and excellent hard work of all NCOs and drivers. This reinforced the pride the unit had in what they considered to be the best MT section in the country and John’s promotion to captain added further dignity to the platoon.
A year and a half worth of ceremonial duties followed the return from Singapore and for the period Captain Durbin was posted as commander of D Company, the ‘holding’ company most frequently tasked with all things parade and ceremonial including two Guards of Honour. These duties were broken up when the Gordons were called upon to tackle the terrorist threat in Cyprus in July 1956. The work was to be similar to their job in Malaya, though the Mediterranean island was much more temperate and the men were looking forward to a glimpse of one of the most beautiful islands in the world. The move from Edinburgh to Cyprus took only ninety-six hours, a record acknowledged by the War Office. The British controlled the island since 1878 when they received it as part of the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War and since then the Cypriots had been seeking independence or unification with Greece. Having used the island as a bargaining chip throughout history, notably in the First World War, it became evident that Greece held little interest in working with the British to unify with Cyprus and this fueled the support for independence which had gained great momentum since 1945.
The Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA) formed in the early 1950s out of necessity for a military campaign to end British colonial rule. Unlike other nationalist groups of the era, the EOKA was nationalistic and conservative and opposed by the island’s communist groups. It was not necessarily the ideology that was threatening to the Crown, but the targeted attacks on British people and military installations on the island beginning in April 1955. Subsequent attacks on British forces, including the Gordons, were particularly terrifying since the EOKA did not care about controlling land and instead aimed to sabotage, ambush, and assassinate. As it had been in the beginning of the Malayan Emergency, the local police were inadequate to contend with the terrorist threat and politically the situation was rapidly crumbling.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection
The battalion ended up in the most fertile part of the island, surrounded by citrus groves and a brilliant sea not 200 yards away. Headquarters, A and B Companies were posted to Xeros while C and D Companies went to the Troodos mountains. Until December, the unrest grew stronger and more obvious as the Gordons faced bomb threats almost daily and the terrorist factions did well at spreading rumors and propaganda that the battalion Colonel Hay dispelled with a fiery statement. Homemade weapons, supplies, and other contraband was confiscated on raids that became routine and ultimately, as the winter brought snow to D Company in the Troodos, it was decreed that all shotguns and service rifles were to be turned in and the Gordons were tasked with enforcing this order.
Very little of consequence occurred outside of the regular riots and explosions. Headquarters moved to the Troodos at the beginning of August and the EOKA ramped up their resilience to this move. Captain Durbin was transferred from D Company and posted as the battalion intelligence officer, a rather demanding position in an operation dealing with information gathering form the local populace. There was a vast difference between the Turkish, who were genial and welcoming, and the Greeks who were indifferent, sometimes antagonistic, but did grow friendlier the further from cities one traveled. John’s Mediterranean service closed on December 21, 1956 when the Gordon Highlanders sailed from the island back to Edinburgh. The revolt on Cyprus had not dwindled and reflecting on the operation they found the general attitude of those fighting the British presence really loved them, but it was for the speculative ten percent of the populace that were the hardcore fighters vehemently opposing the peace enforced by a colonial army but necessitated the occupation. The Gordon Highlanders left Cyprus with a sense of accomplishment that they had made a positive impact on the Greeks and the Turks by lessening the horrors brought upon a peaceful people by the EOKA’s bloody methods for patriotism.
The three-week journey by ship to East Africa brought the Gordons to Gilgil garrison where Major Durbin would witness the end of the British Empire in that region. The Gordons were serving in Africa somewhat leisurely, mostly training and participating in field exercises when there developed a looming threat in Swaziland that flared on June 10, 1963 when political activists organized a scratch army numbering around 3,000 to march into the capital of Mbabane, intending to besiege the Resident Commissioner. The local police could not prevent this and the Gordons received the assignment to move to the capital and two days later left Nairobi for Mbabane. Though the entire countryside was not rampant with terrorism, there were enough gangs of armed men and boys to intimidate local authorities and reduce morale to such a point that outside intervention was absolutely necessary to prevent such lawlessness from the strikers. It was also the Gordons’ responsibility to then raise morale and efficiency of the police to prevent the situation from developing again upon the ultimate withdrawal of the battalion.
Now commanding D Company, Major Durbin arrived on June 15th and during the day moved twenty-five miles east of Mbabane to the Teachers Training College at Manzini. The battalion executed their first night operation with great care, but complete force. In the cold morning air, the battalion moved from Mbabane along narrow roads that snaked 6,000 feet up the mountains to an area called Piggs Peak. At three miles from their destination - a mine home for the rebels - the men of the Gordons left their vehicles and crept slowly up to the mine in tennis shoes, surrounding the area. The strikers had no chance and local police moved in to arrest the leaders. By that afternoon, the mine had returned to normal operation.
Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection
Photo Credit: © The Gordon Highlanders Museum
The next target were sugar plantations around the Big Bend. This operation and the results were just the same as the first night action - surround the rebels quietly in the night and let the police arrest the ringleaders at daybreak in order to separate the intimidators from the intimidated. On June 20th, John met with the Prison Authorities to inspect the Malkerns and Mawelawela detention camps where he planned on posting men from D Company as guard duty, which they assumed the next day while other members of the company carried out a goodwill tour in the Peebles area. By June 23d after much success since arriving, D Company found itself assigned to its own district of responsibility covering Stegi and Manzini where they created and maintained roadblocks through the rest of the month and the entirety of July.
One of the most difficult tasks for the month was combating propaganda. Rumors were floating around that the 1st Gordons had just come from slaughtering Mau Mau in Kenya and they were about to do the same in Swaziland. To settle the unease of the Swazis, the Gordons provided entertainment with their pipes and performed a number of goodwill operations for the people. By the end of the month, the attitude between the Swazis and the Gordons was very cordial and it was clear that the propaganda was nothing but nonsense the strike leaders fabricated. After two months in Swaziland, the Gordons had carried out five operations and made 673 arrests. They were flawlessly successful and efficient and showcased the top-notch training and vindication for the post-war fire-brigades. When it was time to depart Swaziland on August 6th, the farewell parade was presented by the Pipes and Drums and two companies of the Gordons under command of Major Durbin. The battalion was presented with a set of Swazi shields, spears and axes among words of gratification and appreciation.
Later that year, both Kenya and Zanzibar achieved independence in December 1963 and the people of Zanzibar had especially requested the Gordons to be part of their ceremonies and parade. The Gordons had previously been on the island on a rotational basis and the people had developed an appreciation for the unit. Their stay in December was rather recreational, filling their time outside of ceremonial duties with swimming, shopping, eating and drinking. Despite the celebrations in Zanzibar just two months earlier, insurrection broke out in if need be, but the situation remained quiet until their rotation in May 1964.
A quiet year passed in Edinburgh and in April 1965 the Gordons moved to Borneo where D Company, still under command of Major Durbin, settled in at Serudong Laut. The jungle was marshy and filled with lagoons, rivers and other waterways. John’s camp was rather miserable with hardly any accommodations for comfort. Drinking water came only from fresh rains; hygiene was questionable and it was generally view to be a rather rotten way of life. They managed to transform the camp throughout their stay, but constant patrolling and simple living was demanding on the men. The jungle nights were inky, sopping wet from constant rains, and cut by sharp flashes of lightning. Patrols were extremely slow as to not disturb the birds, but if the vegetation was debilitating enough to require hacking through by machete the patrol would have to wait in silence stewing in their own sweat and jungle moisture before proceeding again. A year of this work to track down Indonesian terrorists and rout them out was exacting and exhausting.
When the Gordons time to depart came in late 1965, they had proven that the fierce military presence in the East Indies had not been a repeat of Malaya that dragged on for indeterminable years, but had been a quick and efficient show of force to extinguish the threat to the region. When the Gordons left, Major Durbin remained in Kuala Lampur as General Staff Officer II with the fledgling Malaysian Armed Forces. While much of his responsibilities consisted of staff work, he frequently liaised with the Malaysian Navy and Air Force in training and was pivotal in bringing the country’s armed forces out of infancy, an achievement for which he was recognized with an award of the Member of the British Empire. It was a fine way to begin the end of his career, for after two years in Indonesia he returned to Scotland and retired from the Army shortly after – though he never truly left the Gordon Highlanders.
"TPYF Scotland." Remembering Scotland at War. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
Davison, Phil. "Obituary: Major John T Durbin MBE LLB WS, Gordon Highlanders Officer and Solicitor." The Scotsman. The Scotsman, 13 July 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
United Kingdom. The National Archives. War Office. Recommendation for Award for Durbin, John Terence Della. N.p.: Ministry of Defence, 1967. WO 373/173/50. The National Archives. 1 Jan. 2001. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
The Life of a Regiment: History of the Gordon Highlanders. Vol. 6. 1974. Print.
The Tiger and Sphinx, Regimental Journal of the Gordon Highlanders, 1953-1958.
United Kingdom, War Diaries - The Black Watch, War Department, 1952-1953.
A very special thank you to Bert Innes and the Gordon Highlanders Museum.