The yacht Cordelia (right) which helped to rescue so many British soldiers from death on the Normandy beaches and which was later restored by Jimmy Gillies at McAllister’s boatyard on the River Leven at Dumbarton.
By Tom Moy
Dumbarton man James Gillies, better known as Jimmy, celebrated his 100th birthday on Thursday 10th April at Erskine Hospital and care home for veterans of the Armed Forces.
He was born at 59 William Street in the Dennystown area of Dumbarton at 8.20 a.m. on 10th April 1914 – the last door at the bottom of Dennystown brae and next to the River Leven. His parents were Archie Gillies and Maggie Mooney – Archie working at that time for Denny’s Shipyard in Dumbarton as a boilermaker’s labourer and Maggie acting as the typical housewife of the time.
Jimmy was the third child of five Gillies children – Maggie, Archie, Jimmy, Willie and Sarah, in that order. Jimmy and Sarah are the only two surviving children of the family. He says he was very close to his mother and, although christened simply James Gillies, regarded his middle name as Mooney.
His father served in the First World War and on his return home found a son who did not know him and had learned a second language – bad language. Jimmy’s upbringing during the war years included sitting around with the older men in the area (who were probably too old for call-up) chatting about life in their colourful language and naturally picked up the alternative vocabulary – which he has partly retained to this day, particularly when he gets angry.
Barefoot in Dennystown, Dumbarton – Jimmy Gillies and his pals in William Street.
In his own words, Jimmy was a ‘bit of a lad’. He regularly skipped school and was generally up to no good. He left school at 14 and started working in Denny’s beside his father as an apprentice engineer. His tenure with Denny’s lasted all of a few weeks – he was late for work one day, and when he found the gates of the yard closed, he chucked a snowball at the timekeeper (with a 3/8 nut inside – accidentally he says) and subsequently picked up his P45 and his final pay packet.
Apparently the timekeeper’s procedure was to sound the horn for one minute and close the gates as soon as the horn stopped – so on this basis, if you were late for work by one minute or more in that era you were locked out for the day.
Jimmy then moved on to farm labouring starting with Ardoch Farm near Cardross with farmer Jock Kinloch. He was on full board at the farm – sleeping in the hayshed – and one of his memories is walking a horse, which Jock had bought, from Drymen to Ardoch, a distance of some 12 miles. It was probably double that distance as no doubt he had to walk to Drymen in the first place to pick-up the horse.
He subsequently moved on to Filshie’s farm near Renton and then on to various labouring jobs, generally involving basic hard graft. Driving became a bit of a hobby for him at this time and he taught himself to drive by taking joyrides in whatever cars were available in his various working places. He says he passed his test at 18 years old and continued to drive for a number of local firms on a casual basis as permanent jobs were not readily available at that time.
Jimmy married his wife Jessie Cooley on 10 July 1936 when he was 22 years old and they had five children together, Jessie, James, Margaret, June and Carol, in that order. He is now a grandfather to 12 and a great grandfather to 15 with two more to add to the list later this year.
After his wedding Jimmy probably felt he had to secure a more permanent job and paid for PSV training at a company named Bone Brothers in Glasgow, obtained his licence in 1937 and found a job driving buses for SMT from their depot in Gavinburn in Old Kilpatrick. This became his most stable job since leaving school and he said it was easy work compared to his previous driving roles; no loading and unloading lorries, simply enjoying the relative comfort of driving double-decker buses.
Again Jimmy has many stories to tell about his PSV career including the one where he picked up some women who had been ‘tattie-howkin’ in Cardross and were waiting for the bus with their bonus baskets of potatoes. When they boarded the bus Jimmy took off, watched them moving towards their seats carrying the baskets in his rear view mirror and jammed on the brakes. Naturally the potatoes went everywhere and as the women tried to pick them up off the floor Jimmy kept stopping and starting the bus causing total chaos. Goodness knows how he managed to get away with such an action but no doubt rules were a little different in those days.
He also owned his first car around this period – an old Austin 7 – which he says he picked up cheaply and renovated with parts acquired from various sources. It was unusual for ordinary workers like Jimmy to own a car at this time but he was rarely without a car from that point on mainly because he would take over cars which needed attention and would nurse them back to life. He often boasted that he never failed to complete a journey when driving his cars which was testament to his natural abilities in the field of vehicle maintenance. This also gives an early indication of his resilience and self-determination and his ability to make the best of any situation.
Brigadier Alistair Pearson of Tullochan, Gartocharn, one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers and a great hero of the Battle of Pegasus Bridge.
But the war then intervened and Jimmy was called up for action on 1 September 1939 having been with the Territorial Army (TA) since 1937. He became a gunner in the 54th Light A.A. Regiment R.A. (TA) number 1452408 (a number he remembers clearly to this day) and with his interest in vehicles and driving, he was also eventually assigned motor transport duties. He was shipped off to Cherbourg in France from Southampton on 26 September 1939 and the next few months were spent guarding installations and training. By May 1940 his unit became involved in action against German aircraft and providing cover for infantry units. But, his many stories of the war relate mainly to the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940 and the battle for Monte Cassino in Italy from January to May 1944.
The trek through France towards Dunkirk followed a command to withdraw on the basis of ‘every man for himself’ and Jimmy and a few colleagues joined together to complete the task. Jimmy rarely mentions the fact that they had no rations or equipment, simply a weapon and the clothes they stood in. He often tells the tales of raiding farms and orchards for food and one story in particular comes to mind. His small group caught a hen and needed a pot to cook it in. They came across a farm and wondered who could ask for a pot in French. One of the lads in the group said he learned French at school and volunteered. He knocked on the door and the lady of the house answered to be addressed by the volunteer with the request ‘avez- vous a wee stewpot’. But, even with the pidgin French, they managed to find a pot to cook their hen.
The local French people were also abandoning their homes to escape from the advancing German troops and, in spite of the circumstances surrounding his own retreat, Jimmy found time to help a French family with a broken down truck. He used his mechanical nous to identify that the truck engine’s air filter was blocked and promptly discarded it, restarted the engine and sent them on their way.
On arrival at Dunkirk, Jimmy met an RN sailor and asked for some food but the sailor told him he did not even have enough for himself. But he noticed Jimmy was carrying a Bren-Gun (which apparently was a new-issue weapon at the time) and happily took the gun in exchange for food. In Jimmy’s words he was starving and food was more important than a weapon at that particular time. He doesn’t remember much about the evacuation from the beaches other than he was uplifted and safely taken back to the UK.
Monte Cassino is described in various publications as one of the hardest fought battles of the Second World War where some 250,000 people were killed or wounded. Again Jimmy says little about the horrors of the battle but does say that it was the worst campaign he was engaged in during his war service.
Jimmy was demobbed on 16 November 1945, having reached the rank of Sergeant, and returned home to Dumbarton. His records show that his character was ‘exemplary’ and his name was published in the London Gazette on 29 November 1945 as mentioned in a Despatch for distinguished service. He received a Bronze Oak Leaf Emblem in December 1946 and a ‘Mention in Despatch Certificate’ in September 1947 in recognition of this achievement. From being a ‘bit of a lad’ he had matured into a brave soldier who admirably served his country during six terrible years of war.
Jimmy Gillies with his fellow soldiers in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
But Jimmy’s military service did not come to an end as he continued with the TA after the war, eventually serving with the 8th Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. One of his tasks he remembers well was to take over the running of the bar at their HQ in Latta Street, Dumbarton which was not profitable at the time. He turned the business around and the branch was able to purchase a coach from the proceeds with the families of the soldiers benefiting by enjoying many day trips around Scotland. He finally left the forces in March 1967 due to reorganisation, 30 years after first joining as a lad of 23.
But back in Civvy Street at the end of 1945, he had to again earn a living to support his family and returned to his love of driving and mechanics. He drove for a number of firms in the post war years such as George Young in Dalmoak Farm which turned out to be the start of a long friendship (some 70 years) with George senior and his family. He visited Dalmoak with his friend Jimmy Cameron most Thursdays to keep George senior company and to help babysit the children when George’s wife went out for the night. The Youngs later moved to a farm near Dunoon but Jimmy kept in touch and still receives visits today from one of the children from his babysitting days, George junior, and his wife Lola.
He also drove for the Dumbarton Co-op, the Gas Board, Walter Buchanan (who owned the garage in West Bridgend Dumbarton) and Walter Hubbard the bakers. With the Co-op and Walter Hubbard (Hubbard later became the City Bakeries) he was a van salesman for bakery produce. With the City Bakeries he covered areas from Glasgow through to Balloch and Helensburgh and won a number of rewards for his high level of sales. The company also supported him in passing his Advanced Driving Test and in becoming a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, an achievement he was rightly proud of.
Jimmy’s was promoted to Sales Manager and his success was, to a large extent, down to his natural flair for sales, an ability to charm the local housewives and to make sure that they added a few cakes and pies to their order when all they came to the van for in the first place was to buy a loaf of bread, or cigarettes – he was probably ahead of his time in using this ‘selling up’ technique.
During his time with the City Bakeries, Jimmy also developed an interest in visiting auction sales in Glasgow on Mondays – one of his rest days. He became quite well known around the auction houses and regularly helped out the auctioneers during the sales. But he also bought a number of items himself which he thought he could sell on for a profit. One of his buy/sell successes was an outboard motor but his garage today stores quite a number of his failed transactions. But he seemed to have a penchant for watches and would regularly show these off to potential buyers. For example, during the loading out process of the City Bakeries’ vans each morning he could be seen with the watches on display, strapped on up his arms between his wrists and his elbows. It was another of Jimmy’s unique sales techniques but, given that some of these watches are still around, probably not his most successful venture.
Jimmy remained with City Bakeries until 1978 when the vans were franchised and Jimmy decided to take redundancy at the age of 64. His job with Hubbard/City Bakeries started in 1953 and therefore covered a period of 25 years – the longest and most stable period of his employment history.
Jimmy Gillies in the wheelhouse of the Cordelia which he rescued and restored at McAllister’s boatyard at Sandpoint on the River Leven.
But his working life was still not over, he went to the local employment exchange and they offered him a job as storeman at McAllister’s Boatyard by Levengrove Park. He took the job and helped to reorganise and bring stock control to the store, even making sure that the owners paid for their chocolate biscuits instead of just taking them as they pleased. In an interesting twist of fate, while at the boatyard, Jimmy noticed a boat which was partly submerged and enquired if it was available for sale. He found the owners, bought the boat and set about restoring it to its formal glory. The boat was one of the ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk fame – the Cordelia, a 35ft motor yacht of 11 tons built in Hull in 1934 – which ferried around 300 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk to the safety of off-lying ships before being towed back to Dover. The renovation of the Cordelia turned out to be a major project for Jimmy and he managed to make the boat seaworthy again and to make a few trips ‘doon the watter’ – short journeys to start with but eventually a trip to Rothesay under the command of the self-appointed and untrained Captain Gillies.
Jimmy sold the Cordelia in 1986 and finally left the boatyard and went into retirement in 1988 at the age of 74. He then took up a couple of new hobbies, sequence dancing and travel. For the next twenty years or so he met up with a number of dance partners, joined a range of clubs in the Dumbarton and Glasgow area and even spent his holidays dancing down south in places such as Blackpool. In between times he visited Dublin to see Michael Flatley in Lord of the Dance, Ottawa in Canada to visit his cousin Jackie Mooney and subsequently added Orlando, Las Vegas, San Francisco, including Alcatraz, and Los Angeles with visits to Disneyland and Universal Studios into his itinerary. In Los Angeles he also visited the old Queen Mary, berthed in Long Beach, and had to be dragged away from two American ‘blue rinse’ ladies who seemed mesmerised by Jimmy telling them the story that the Queen Mary was built near his home town and that one golden rivet had been added to the superstructure – Jimmy, the storyteller supreme.
But he never forgot his war years and his fallen friends and colleagues. He faithfully attended the Remembrance Sunday parade in Levengrove Park every year for as many years as he can remember. Sadly, the World War II veterans who attended with him gradually past away leaving just Jimmy and his old friend Frank ‘Batch’ Hannaway as the sole survivors who attended from that era. Both Jimmy and Batch have also been honoured by the well-known Scottish artist Tom McKendrick who has started a project to paint the portraits of 100 war veterans for posterity and has already captured both Jimmy and Batch on canvas as part of that project.
Jimmy’s new life in retirement was interrupted by a triple heart bypass in May 2006 with the surgeon saying that he was at that time the ‘oldest person to survive such an operation’. But after a few months recuperation he was back in action and still driving a car and dancing at the then age of 92.
Jimmy Gillies with his daughters, June and Carol, his grandchildren and extended family and old soldiers who threw at big party to celebrate his 100th birthday at Erskine Hospital for Ex-Services personnel.
But he had to eventually slow down in January 2011 aged 96 after a TIA (mini-stroke). He did struggle for a year or so after the TIA and sadly lost his driving licence during this time (but typically not without a fight). He also made an amazing recovery from this setback but his mobility was starting to deteriorate and he was eventually admitted to Erskine Hospital for Ex-Services personnel in November 2013.
Jimmy’s certainly had an interesting and eventful life to say the least. He’s lived through very hard times but always came out the other end smiling and with a story to tell. He says he was a ‘lucky man’ who witnessed colleagues die by his side during the war but who avoided serious injury himself – and he cheerfully says he would ‘change nothing in his life’. There is no doubt he is a born survivor who lived life to the full and who can now look back at 100 years on a road well-travelled.