Military honour for North East engineer and Normandy veteran

A North East member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) will be among Normandy veterans gathering in the region to receive France’s highest military honour for his wartime efforts.

Normandy Veteran John Gillespie with Regional Director Penny Marshall
Normandy Veteran John Gillespie with Regional Director Penny Marshall

At 95, former Managing Director of the Port of Tyne, John Gillespie OBE, is an inspirational figure in ICE North East and was the man who rediscovered the rare Telford Atlas, which was later rebound to preserve its historical significance.

Having been at the forefront of preparing for the development of the port for the export of cars from Nissan, in Washington, John has played a significant role in using civil engineering to boost the regional and national economy.

John, who lives in Ponteland, will be presented with the Legion D’honneur at a ceremony at Durham Cathedral on November 7th, alongside fellow veterans.

However, it is 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, that John is being awarded the Legion D’honneur.

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 June 17, 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.

John said: “The award of the Legion D’honneur, at the rank of Chevalier, or officer, has been a long time in coming, with talks taking longer than I believe many had hoped, but to receive this as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations, alongside so many other veterans, is wonderful.”

Penny Marshall, Director of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) North East, said: “John’s story is inspirational and shows the vital role that engineers played in the war effort. For him to receive the Legion D’honneur is fitting recognition for what John achieved during the Second World War, but certainly nothing more than he deserves.”

“John’s story certainly didn’t end when the war did, and his work with Port of Tyne, from 1953 to 1983, and his ongoing support as a retired member of the ICE, has been an inspiration to everyone.”

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