A.F.C. Gazetted 2 Jan 1939.
D.F.C. Gazetted 30 July 1940.
Bar to D.F.C. Gazetted 9 Sep 1941:
“The Officer has led the wing on nineteen occasions since July, 1941, and his fine leadership and cool courage have been an inspiration to his fellow pilots throughout all operations. On three recent escort missions Wing Commander Gillan has displayed especial skill and determination. He has destroyed one and damaged another enemy aircraft.”
Wing-Commander John Woodburn Gillan was born on 4 July 1907, the son of Rev. David Hedley Gillan and Helen Drummond of Edinburgh. He passed through R.A.F. Cadet College, Cranwell and was granted a permanent commission as Pilot Officer with seniority of 30 July 1927, promoted to Flying Officer on 30 Jan 1929, Flight Lieutenant on 1 June 1932 and Squadron Leader on 1 June 1937. At Cranwell, Gillan was Captain of Athletics, Victor Ludorum sportsman and was awarded the Groves Memorial Prize for the best all-round pilot of his term.
On 17 Jun 1937, Gillan was flying a Hawker Demon MkI with 601 (County of London) Squadron. After losing power on take-off at R.A.F. Hendon, the aircraft stalled and hit a fence. The plane was written off and Gillan sustained severe leg injuries. After recovering from this, Gillan was appointed to command No.111 (Fighter) Squadron and served in the Far East and Mediterranean, as well as Instructor at R.A.F. Cranwell and the Central Flying School.
The following year, on 10 Feb 1938, Gillan flew Hawker Hurricane L1555 (nicknamed ‘state express’ after the cigarette brand 555 state express) from Turnhouse, Edinburgh to Northolt, London, a distance of 327 miles. Gillan achieved this in a time of just 48 minutes at an average speed of 408.75 mph, becoming the first person to exceed 400 mph in an aircraft, setting a record and becoming ‘No.3’ cigarette card in the Kings of Speed Series. He also inherited the moniker of “Downwind” as he was assisted by a tailwind. For this feat, he was awarded the Air Force Cross in the 1939 New Year’s Honours and pictured on the wing of the aircraft with King George VI.
In 1940 Gillan became Commanding Officer of 49 Squadron and flew 9 operations piloting a Hampden. He was awarded the D.F.C. on 30 Jun 1940 for a raid on Stavanger, Norway. He attended the Buckingham Palace Investiture with his fiancée, Miss Clare Luce, the American actress, who was a ‘tireless worker in the cause of many Anglo-American war charities’. In July 1941 he arrived at R.A.F. North Weald as Wing Commander (Flying), a new post in Fighter Command. Douglas Bader held the equivalent position at R.A.F. Tangmere. Gillan led the wing on 19 occasions, flying the same ‘circus’ fighter offensives as Bader, claiming a Messerschmitt Bf 109 damaged on 23 July 1941 and another Bf 109 destroyed on 19 Aug 1941.
On 29 Aug 1941, Gillan led the wing on Circus 88, escorting Blenheims of 139 Squadron to the railway yards in Hazebrouck, France. Flying 5 miles north of Dunkirk in Spitfire Vb W3715, he was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and crashed into the Channel. The combat report of German pilot Uffz Friedriech Rietzler contained an engagement with a Spitfire 5 to 7 km north of Dunkirk: “On 29th August 1941, at about 08:27, I attacked a Spitfire at 7000 meters, in the area Dunkirk-Ypres. After my first shots, he skidded on his left wing. I followed him and kept on firing at short range. The air battle ended at 5 meters high. Then the Spitfire hit the sea at about 5 or 7 km off Dunkirk.”
Gillan’s close friend, Squadron Leader Brian Thynne, who was a controller at a station during the time of the crash, when he had heard that his friend had been shot down, jumped into an aircraft and went searching for him. Thynne was threatened with a court-martial because he refused to give up the search. Gillan was awarded the bar to D.F.C. posthumously. Gillan and Bader’s citations were Gazetted side-by-side in the London Gazette of 9 Sep 1941, with Gillan having been declared ‘missing’ and Bader taken prisoner of war. The body of an unknown R.A.F. officer bearing the markings of a Wing Commander washed ashore on 23 Oct 1941 and was buried in Dunkirk Town Cemetery in Plot 2, Row 2, Grave 41. It was determined that Gillan was the only missing officer of that rank unaccounted for with more than one decoration, and after exhumation, his final resting place was confirmed. The inscription on his headstone reads: ‘His dauntless spirit is alive for evermore’. He is commemorated at Saint John Episcopal Church, Edinburgh.
The following is from an extract from a newspaper article entitled ‘Two Air Heroes’:
“Two of Britain’s most daring airmen, Acting Wing-Comdr. Douglas-Bader, D.S.O., D.F.C. and Wing-Comdr. John Woodburn Gillan, D.F.C., A.F.C., have been awarded bars to their Distinguished Flying Crosses. This is Bader’s second bar to his D.F.C.. He also holds a bar to the D.S.O.
“Bader, who is legless, baled out from his burning fighter while on operations over France last month. He is now a prisoner of war.”
“Gillan, who is 23, was reported missing after one of the R.A.F. daylight sweeps against the enemy. In 1938 he flew a Hawker Hurricane from Edinburgh to Northolt in 48 minutes at 450mph. His engagement to Miss Clare Luce, the American actress, was announced last year.”
Clare Luce had appeared in films with Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and on Broadway with Fred Astaire in the musical Gay Divorce’ (1932). Sadly, during the London run of the play, she suffered a serious injury during the table tap routine which put an end to her dancing career. Luce went on to serve on the Committee of the American Artists’ Ambulance Association, with Bébé Daniels, Vic Oliver, Ben Lyon and Leigh Stafford, fundraising for British Army Ambulances. Gillan’s heartbroken mother donated money to buy two Hurricanes to be named ‘Our John’ in his memory. She began a fundraising scheme herself named the ‘John Bomber Fund’:
“Gillan’s mother, Mrs Helen Gillan of Regent Terrace, Edinburgh, has been responsible for the organisation of the ‘John Bomber Fund’ in the city. The fund has already contributed three separate sums of £500 each to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. When she heard that her son was missing, Mrs. Gillan said: “The news that John is missing has made me more determined than ever to do everything I can to assist in bringing the war to a speedy close. One certain way in which we can help to do that is to get more bombers”.
John’s father, The Reverend David Hedley Gillan was born on 20 Dec 1869, the son of George Green Gillan, and educated at Ayr Academy and Glasgow University. Ordained to the Indian Chaplaincy on 14 July 1897, Gillan served with the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders Ecclesiastical Department in the India Campaign and became Chaplain at R.A.F. Cranwell on 1 Apr 1920, with his son, John, passing through seven years later. The following is an obituary from The Edinburgh Evening News 1 Oct 1953:
“Death of a Distinguished Chaplain – The Reverend D. Hedley Gillan was ordained to an Indian Chaplaincy (Indian Ecclesiastical Establishment) in 1897 and served in that capacity for 23 years being chiefly associated during that time with Highland regiments. On his return to the UK in 1920, Rev. Gillan served as a chaplain with the Royal Air Force for seven years in England. Later he was minister in the parish of Golspie, Sutherlandshire. Mr Gillan was survived by a younger son, David Hedley, at present serving as a Wing Commander in Germany with the R.A.F. Regiment. Prior to joining the Regiment he was a Lieut-Colonel in the Indian Army. Mr Gillan’s daughter Dr Christian Gillan (now Mrs A.C. Wilson) served in the R.A.F. medical branch during the war.”
John’s only younger brother, David Hedley Drummond Gillan, was born on 23 Jan 1912 and commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Indian Army on 8 Mar 1933 and promoted Lieutenant on 28 Apr 1934, serving as Captain with the 8th Punjab Regiment from 28 Jan 1940. Promoted to Major on 1 July 1946, Gillan was Mentioned In Despatches for services in Burma on 19 Sep 1946 then transferred to the Royal Scots on 1 Jan 1949 and made Honorary Lt.-Col. Before following the Gillan family tradition of joining the R.A.F. on a short service commission on 30 May 1950.
The Reverend David Hedley Gillan’s joint memorial with John Woodburn Gillan hangs on the wall of Saint John Episcopal Church, Edinburgh.
Watch the video of Steve Nuwar presenting this astonishing collection.