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

KOREA

 

After the U.S. 7th Marines secured The Hook in late October 1952, the defense of the ridge passed on to the Commonwealth forces.  Having been less than satisfied with the quality and positions of trenches and bunkers, the regimental commander Colonel David Rose ordered the improvements.  Though the men were disgruntled, as foot soldiers tend to be, the changes no doubt saved many lives days later on November 18th when they fought a fierce onslaught of Chinese in what escalated from heavy shelling to hand to hand combat.  After holding out to the next day, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry replaced the Scots, allowing them much needed rest and recovery from casualties.  It was not the last they would see of the Hook.

Lieutenant Durbin arrived in Korea a month later on December 20th and was assigned to the Black Watch, 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.  At the time, they had taken up reserve positions in Yongdong Po, a typical rest area for battle weary troops.  The Lieutenant was vibrant and youthful, with rosy cheeks and smooth features.  He typically leaned on a hooked walking stick of ash, typical of Scottish officers before his time, but falling out of style since the First World War.  It was a traditional symbol of leadership – and punishment – that accentuated his status as an officer and a gentleman.   Despite his proper upbringing and professional attitude, he had a hankering for mischief that he carried through his career in the service.  He could quickly make one forget that with how he swaggered with the cane at his side and pistol on his hip.  Now aged twenty-five, John had been in the service for six years since eagerly joining after World War II.  After his short service commsion, he was first assigned to the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, a unit which he adopted as his home and was forever close to him, and up until 1952 also served with the Royal Armoured Corps, Royal Army Service Corps, and 7th Armoured Division.  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, of course 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 in was that he greeted the Black Watch during 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. 

 

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.

 

The American Marines that had originally held the hill with their 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.

*

 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.

 

The shelling was constant 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 enough exercise to get one’s blood flowing enough to think feeling might be returning to one’s fingers and toes.

*

Spring brought warmer weather that seemed to encourage the Chinese offensives.  By this time, Lieutenant Durbin was accustomed to the primitive life of an infantryman and well acquainted with the Chinese.  On the night of 8 May the trip flares triggered en masse, and peering over the edges of the trenches revealed the horrifying sight of thousands 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.

*

 On 13 May 1953, the Black Watch finally left the Hook after relief by the Dukes who would fight yet another battle on The Hook two weeks later.  However, The Black Watch was not off the lines for too long and returned for their fifth tour in combat (Durbin's second) from 23 May to 4 July.  Finally, after the armistice in July 1953, Lieutenant Durbin returned home with the regiment after just less than a year of harrowing fighting in Korea.

 

MALAYA

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.  Just shortly after returning home and back to the 1st Gordons in August 1953, the unit moved to Singapore as part of the U.K. Far East Land Forces to combat Communist terrorists in the jungles of Malaya.  The region was an important asset for the British in terms of geography and trade.  During World War II, the British 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 Battalion was 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.  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.

 

CYPRUS

Just a year and a half after returning from Singapore, Durbin and the 1st Gordons were called upon to tackle the terrorist threat in Cyprus from 1955 to 1956.  The work was similar to their job in Malaya, though the Mediterranean island was much more pleasant in terms of climate.  Company D was based in a camp of tents in the Troodos Mountains, not far from the guerilla’s location.  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.

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.  However, the ideology was not the threat to the Crown, but the targeted attacks on British 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.  A total of sixteen Gordons died fighting to maintain the Crown, and Cyprus eventually achieved independence in 1960.

Durbin with walking stick.jpg
 

EAST AFRICA

From 1963-1965, Major Durbin moved East Africa where he would ultimately 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.  There developed a looming threat in Swaziland and on 10 June, 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 1st Gordons received the assignment to move to the capital.

The Gordons left Nairobi two days later 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.  The mission for the Gordons would be called Operation Green Belt.  The 1st Gordons 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: © The Gordon Highlanders Museum

Durbin D Coy on the move 1963.jpg

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.  The first week was a great success, but there was still work to do for the rest of the month.  By June 23, D Company found itself assigned to its own district where they created and maintained roadblocks in Stegi and Manzini.  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.

 

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 since 1961 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.  By the end of the month, the battalion moved to Gilgil Garrison in the Kenya Rift Valley, about 60 miles North West of the capital Nairobi.  Despite the celebrations in Zanzibar just two months earlier, insurrection broke out in February 1964 and D Company subsequently provided aid to the nation over the next few months.

Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection

Photo Credit: © The Gordon Highlanders Museum

J D near Parun Ni 1953.jpg

Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection

Photo Credit: Ronnie Bell Collection

Sources:

 

(1) Hastings, Max. The Korean War. London: Pan, 1988. 371. Print.

(2)  "TPYF Scotland." Remembering Scotland at War. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

(3) "Second Battle of the Hook." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

(4) 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.

(5) 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.

(6) The Life of a Regiment: History of the Gordon Highlanders. Vol. 6. N.p.: n.p., 1974. Print.

 

A very special thank you to Bert Innes and the Gordon Highlanders Museum.

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    Zanzibar indepedence parade - Maj. Durbin in rear, left, centered on road