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North East engineer and Normandy veteran turns 100

06 April 2020

A Legion d’honneur recipient and ICE Fellow celebrates his 100th birthday on 7 April

North East engineer and Normandy veteran turns 100

In these times of fear and worry during the coronavirus pandemic we are celebrating some good news with ICE Fellow John Gillespie.

John, a former Managing Director of the Port of Tyne, and OBE celebrates his 100th birthday on 7 April. John is an inspirational figure in the North East and was the man who rediscovered the rare Telford Atlas, which was later rebound to preserve its historical significance.

John, who lives in Ponteland, was planning a party to mark the occasion, but it had to be a muted affair sadly due to the current situation with the Covid-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, the Institution of Civil Engineers is keen to wish John the happiest of birthdays on his special day.

Michael Taylor, ICE North East's Heritage Panel Chairman said "A 100th birthday of a man who seems to have done everything! D day landing, Pluto, silversmith, CEO at the Port of Tyne - the list goes on and on! Indeed his memoirs extend to half a million words. A life to be celebrated."

Back in 2015 he was presented with the Legion d’honneur (France’s highest honour) at a ceremony at Durham Cathedral, alongside fellow veterans.

John Gillespie
John Gillespie

John became an Officer (Chevalier) of the Legion d’honneur for his bravery as part of an ingenious team that laid fuel pipelines from Liverpool to Emmerich, Germany, pumping a million gallons of petrol a day to support the Allied advances.

Born and educated to degree level in civil engineering, in Glasgow, John joined Sir Robert McAlpine in 1939 to work on war work on the Clyde and was a fire watcher during the Clydebank Blitz. In 1942, he volunteered for the Royal Engineers to take a greater involvement in the war effort.

Following officer training in Aldershot, he worked on the construction of a number of army installations and trained for Force PLUTO, Pipelines Under The Ocean.

On 17 June, 1944, he boarded the Empire Miss, in Portsmouth Harbour and set sail for France, landing on Gold Beach Arromanche, between Omaha and Juno beaches, on the first anniversary of his wedding to his wife, Ellen.

Petrol pipelines were established from an offshore mooring to the beach, where John’s team built 1,200 ton steel petrol storage tanks under camouflage nets, supplying the British, American and Canadian Armies, as well as aviation fuel to the RAF.

The team then took the journey, through Boulogne, where they joined with other PLUTO pipelines, and on through France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany, braving minefields and other perils along the way.

Following this, John’s company travelled on to the shores of the Baltic and beyond, capturing German rocket scientists who went on to play a major role in developing the US space programme. Only the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima stopped him from moving on to serve in Japan.

Last year he travelled to France to join in the celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Sean Harris, Director of ICE Membership said:

‘’In these challenging times, we are keen that the Institution of Civil Engineers joins you on your special day in recognising an extraordinary life and an inestimable contribution to both the profession and your country.

"You joined the Institution in 1948, but a few years earlier had joined the Allies on GOLD beach as part of Operation OVERLORD, the D-Day landings and the prelude to liberating Europe and making it a better, fairer and safer place for all.

"Throughout your civil engineering career, you have continued making society a better place, becoming a Fellow of ICE in 1973 and an Officer (Chevalier) of the Légion d'honneur, France's highest honour some years later. It is therefore with enormous respect, gratitude and affection that we wish you the happiest of birthdays.’’

  • Joanne Stephenson, communications lead at ICE