Ian Gourlay: Courageous captain who became Commandant General of the Royal Marines

 

Acting Captain Ian Gourlay showed the mettle that would one day make him Commandant-General of the Royal Marines when he led his troop in the capture of the enemy-occupied Adriatic island of Solta in September 1944. The operation succeeded largely because of "his inspiring leadership and devotion to duty", which "were beyond praise and an example to all", the recommendation, in an Admiralty file marked "Secret" in handwritten red ink, says.

Gourlay, serving in 43 Commando as part of the Vis Brigade, formed in 1944 to work with Yugoslav partisans, had first made a reconnaissance of the island off the rugged Dalmatian coast, then seized and held a dominant feature that the enemy were using as an artillery observation post. This place, vital to the defence of the island, was strongly fortified, mined and wired – but Gourlay, the account says, "pressed home his attack with speed, tactical skill and determination, forcing the enemy to withdraw." The achievement was all the greater because physical handicap attended it: "Although wounded in the head early in the action, he refused to leave his troop and continued to take charge of the tasks of consolidation and patrolling."

The action took place over several days, from 17 to 25 September. The recommendation continues: "On the 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd his positions were heavily engaged by artillery, mortars and machine guns, and for 24 hours no rations could reach his position, but in spite of weakness from his wounds, hunger and lack of sleep, he showed complete disregard to personal danger, and outstanding courage." "Strongly recommended" is the comment typed in beneath, in the space signed by Field Marshal Henry Maitland "Jumbo" Wilson, Eisenhower's successor as Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean Theatre.

Earlier in the Second World War, from 1941-44, Gourlay, who was commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1940, had been in the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. After the war's end he joined 45 Commando until 1948, and was an instructor at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich until 1950.

During this period, the young officer – who had, as a schoolboy at Eastbourne College, Sussex, won his colours in cricket and rugby – found time for tennis, and played mixed doubles with friends, including the daughter of a Russian aristocratic family who had fled to England before the 1917 revolution, Natasha Zinovieff. The couple married in 1948 and had a son and a daughter.

Posts at home followed, until in 1954 Gourlay, having attended Staff College, was appointed Brigade Major, 3rd Commando Brigade. The Marines went to Cyprus and Gourlay was mentioned in despatches during operations aimed at quelling the Greek Cypriot Eoka campaign against British rule. No publicly stored record of his action, however, remains.

His life was to change when in July 1956 President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal. Suez, Gourlay told friends, "was the time I gave up smoking." During the four-month delay between Egypt's seizure of the Canal Zone, and the British and French attempt to win it back, Gourlay planned the commandos' landings, while politicians fretted.

This was when, for the first time as a senior officer, Gourlay got to know a man who came to admire him – the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten, then also Acting Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, joined others in having doubts about the campaign. Though commandos could seize the Canal Zone in three or four days, Mountbatten thought, not enough troops could be sent in fast enough behind them to maintain the position.

For his work on Operation Musketeer – Suez – Gourlay was appointed OBE. The official documents detailing what he did are among those "closed" for 60 years.

After another spell as an instructor, Gourlay became second-in-command of 42 Commando from 1959 until 1961, then was GSO1 at HQ Plymouth Group until 1963, when he became 42 Commando's Commanding Officer until 1965. The route to the top progressed via a post at the Ministry of Defence, following which Colonel Gourlay was Commander, 3rd Commando Brigade until 1968. He was Major-General, Royal Marines, Portsmouth until 1971, and Commandant-General, Royal Marines, with the rank of Lieutenant General until 1973, when he became the second-last full General to hold the post.

On retirement in 1975, Gourlay was head-hunted by Mountbatten to take over the director-generalship of the international educational organisation, the United World Colleges, to be "chief of staff" for his beloved great-nephew Prince Charles, to whom he was about to hand over the presidency. "As Colonel Commandant of the Royal Marines, I knew that the best Commandant General the Royal Marines had ever had was going to retire as a four-star General at a very early age," Mountbatten told ADC Peterson, author of Schools across Frontiers: the Story of the International Baccalaureate and the United World Colleges (1987). "So I persuaded him to come at a salary about half what he would have got in industry."

Fifteen years later, on Gourlay's retirement, after he and his wife had travelled the world promoting the UWC, Prince Charles paid him tribute: "Hand-picked by my great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, he sustained the momentum of the organisation with a selfless sense of commitment... I shall miss his enthusiastic presence in the office."

Gourlay transformed the skills learnt in war to the pursuit of peace. "He was a really skilled boss," a former colleague said. "His ability to persuade you to do something was quite subversive."

The UWC, which had one college at the start of his leadership there, had seven by its end. Gourlay's notes are remembered as felicitously worded, and he was capable of witty verse. An early riser, he cat-napped to keep going. After stepping down as D-G, Gourlay became vice president for life. His wife, son and daughter survive him.

Anne Keleny

Basil Ian Spencer Gourlay, soldier: born Chorlton, Lancashire 13 November 1920; MC 1944, MBE 1948, OBE 1956, KCB 1973, CVO 1990; married 1948 Natasha Zinovieff (one daughter, one son); died London 17 July 2013.

Sport
Romelu Lukaku
sportChelsea striker sends second teasing tweet of the day
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Sport
Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura sprays a line after calling for a free kick for Brazil
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Tax Solicitor

£40000 - £70000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Tax Solicitor An excel...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This is an exce...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz