Major Colin Gillespie MBE (43 Hl)

10 January 2024

Major Colin Gillespie, who has died aged 98, was a sapper officer who saw active service in the Second World War and with the SAS in Malaya; after retiring from the Army, he became one of the West Country’s leading wine growers. 

Colin Leonard Beauchamp Gillespie MBE, the son of an officer in the Royal Marines who served in the battleship Royal Oak at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, was born at Chatham, Kent, on May 10 1925. He was educated at Wellington and joined the Royal Engineers.  After being commissioned, he was posted to 625 Field Squadron RE, 6th Armoured Division, in Italy in the last stages of the war in north-west Europe. 

After the war, Gillespie served in Palestine and Hong Kong, and in 1953 he became one of the RE instructors at Sandhurst. He returned from Malaya in 1959 and commanded B Squadron at the SAS camp near Malvern, Worcestershire, before taking a staff appointment at HQ East Africa Command, Nairobi, Kenya. One of his tasks in 1961 was to lead a party to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and then set off fireworks to celebrate neighbouring Tanzania’s Independence Day. 

In 1957, Gillespie was posted to HQ Far East Land Forces in Singapore. Lieutenant-Colonel (later Major General) Tony Deane-Drummond, the commander of 22 Special Air Service Regiment, visited the HQ from his base near Kuala Lumpur in Malaya, and was impressed by Gillespie’s training in parachuting and his experiences in the Indian jungle. He asked him to join one of the squadrons for operations against the communist terrorists.  Gillespie was flown to a police post in a remote area and then made a four-hour trek across rough country to the SAS camp. Armed with a 12-bore shot gun, he took part in many patrols, led by Iban trackers. He subsequently commanded a 10-man troop in the north, close to the Thai border. At short notice, however, he and his small force were pulled out of the jungle; two squadrons had been flown in great secrecy to Oman and the decision had been made to close down the SAS operation in Malaya. 

He returned to England to command 9 Independent Parachute Squadron before taking it to Cyprus as part of the UN peacekeeping force. He was appointed MBE at the end of an exacting tour. 

Gillespie retired from the Army in 1971 and became a wine grower, establishing himself on a farm at the village of North Wootton, near Wells, Somerset. Gradually expanding his acreage, he cultivated French and German vines and also produced wines under contract for other growers in the South-West.  He twice won the Gore-Browne Trophy for the best wine of the year and from 1980 to 1985 served as chairman of the English Vineyards’ Association. In 1999, he sold his farm and business and retired to Wells.  

Colin Gillespie was born May 10 1925 and died June 19 2023.