General Sir Gordon Holmes Alexander MacMillan of MacMillan and Knap, KCB, KCVO, CBE, DSO, MC & Two Bars (7 January 1897 – 21 January 1986) was a professional soldier who rose to become a general in the British Army. As a young officer during the First World War, he displayed outstanding bravery and was awarded a Military Cross and two Bars. At the age of 19 and while still a second lieutenant, he was appointed acting adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Between the World Wars, MacMillan remained in the army, occupying posts of increasing seniority. He married Marian Blakiston Houston in 1929, and they had one daughter and four sons.
During the Second World War, MacMillan served initially in England, putting in place defensive strategies against a possible invasion by the Germans. He was appointed Brigadier General Staff IX Corps in December 1941, remaining in this post during the Operation Torch landings in North Africa and through to the fall of Tunis in May 1943. He was given command of the 152nd Brigade in June 1943 and led it during the successful Sicily campaign. Upon return to Britain, he was assigned command of the 15th (Scottish) Division and led the formation during the Battle of Normandy, Operation Epsom and Operation Bluecoat, towards the end of which he was wounded. Once recovered, in November 1944, he returned to mainland Europe as GOC 49th (West Riding) Division near Nijmegen. Upon the death of Major General Thomas Rennie, he assumed command of the 51st (Highland) Division immediately following the crossing of the Rhine on 23 March 1945.
After the war, MacMillan served as the army's Director of Weapons and Development. In February 1947 he was appointed GOC British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Soon after his arrival, the British Government decided to bring to an end its Mandate in Palestine. This decision triggered an escalation of violence in the territory, leading to the withdrawal of all British forces by 30 June 1948. He then served as GOC Scottish Command (1949–52). His final army posting was as Governor and Commander-in-Chief Gibraltar (1952–55).
Gordon MacMillan was hereditary Chief of the Clan MacMillan. After retirement, he remained Colonel of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders until 1958. Following his retirement, he immersed himself in Scottish life and society, being appointed chairman of several institutions. Much of his time was devoted to the upkeep of the house, gardens and woodlands at Finlaystone, the family house in the West of Scotland.
MacMillan was born near Bangalore, Kingdom of Mysore, India, on 7 January 1897. His father, Dugald MacMillan, was a coffee plantation owner. However, when he was three years old, his parents, both of Scottish origin, decided to return to Britain to bring up their only son. At the age of ten, he joined St Edmund's School, Canterbury, from where he won a Prize Cadetship to attend the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1915.
MacMillan was commissioned from Sandhurst and posted to the 3rd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH), stationed near Edinburgh, in August 1915. He joined the 2nd Battalion A&SH in North East France in April 1916, and immediately became involved in fierce trench warfare at Brickstacks. This was followed by engagements, as part of the battles of the Somme and Passchendael, at Cuinchy, Bazentin-le-Petit, High Wood, Mametz Wood, Arras, Le Cateau and the Selle. While still only 19 years old and a second lieutenant, he was appointed acting Adjutant of the battalion in November 1916. He was promoted to lieutenant in April 1917, and formally confirmed as Adjutant in June. He remained in this post for the rest of the war, serving seven different commanding officers. The casualties were immense and at one time, while a second lieutenant, he found himself by default commanding the battalion.
MacMillan was one of only 168 soldiers to receive the Military Cross (MC) and two Bars in the First World War. His MCs were awarded for exceptional gallantry in the battles of High Wood (July 1916), Arras (April 1917) and Le Cateau (October 1918).
After the war, MacMillan remained in the army, continuing to serve as Adjutant until December 1920, when the battalion was stationed in Ireland during "the troubles". He was promoted captain in 1924, serving periodically as a company commander before entering the Staff College, Camberley in 1928. In 1929, he married Marian Blakiston Houston. He went on to serve successively as captain, Staff Captain and General Staff Officer 3rd Grade (GSO 3) in the War Office in the early 1930s. Having rejoined his regiment, from August to October 1934 (with the rank of brevet major), he commanded the Guard for the Royal Family at Balmoral. His next appointment, in 1935, was as Instructor (GSO 2) at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Canada, where he served for two years before rejoining his regiment and then returning to the War Office as a GSO 2 in the Training Branch. By the time war again broke out in 1939, he had been promoted major (1938), and then posted as GSO 2 to the staff of HQ Eastern Command.
In April 1940, seven months after the outbreak of the Second World War, MacMillan was appointed as GSO 1 in HQ 55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division as a lieutenant colonel. The division was amongst several responsible for coastal defence and for engaging any possible enemy airborne landings. In May the following year, still concerned with home defence, he took up command of the 199th Infantry Brigade and was promoted to brigadier. In December 1941 he was chosen to be Brigadier General Staff (BGS) in the HQ of IX Corps. Initially the corps was involved in coastal defences, supporting Eastern Command, but was soon to become engaged in preparing itself for the invasion of North Africa.
The Corps embarked from the Tail of the Bank in February 1943 and set themselves up near Algiers in March. The corps fought three major battles (Fondouk, Goubellat and Kournine) against German troops and travelled 470 miles over six weeks before entering Tunis on 7 May. MacMillan was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for what Lieutenant General John Crocker described in his citation as his "very high order" of service in the command structure of IX Corps during the campaign.
In Tunis, MacMillan was transferred briefly to the First Army headquarters as Brigadier General Staff whose responsibilities included arranging for the victory parade on 20 May which involved 26,000 allied troops. Following the parade, he was posted to command the 12th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Mixed Division but within four weeks was given command of the 152nd Infantry Brigade, one of three brigades making up the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. Just 19 days after his appointment he led the brigade in its landings in Sicily at Portopalo Bay on 10 July. Between then and 23 August, the brigade was involved in a series of actions, notably at Scorda, Vizzini, Francofonte, and the Sferro Hills. MacMillan was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his performance in this campaign.
On return to the United Kingdom from Sicily, MacMillan was given command of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division with the rank of major general. The division was engaged in intensive training in North Yorkshire for an eventual landing on the European mainland. It landed near Caen on 13 June 1944 and became heavily engaged in intensive fighting as part of Operation Epsom between 26 June and 2 July, for which it was congratulated by General Sir Bernard Montgomery for its "very fine performance" in the first successful move to break out of the Normandy beachhead. This was followed by further very tough action to secure the Bois du Homme as part of Operation Bluecoat at the end of July/beginning of August. On 3 August, MacMillan was wounded in the knee by shrapnel and evacuated to Scotland. That evening, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O'Connor wrote in the following words to his wife: "Babe is slightly wounded. It is a tragedy as he has been the mainstay of this party, and stands out head and shoulders above everyone else. He is one of the best, if not the best, and commands the best lot out here. This is beyond dispute. I shall miss him as a friend, collaborator and adviser. Most of the success out here has been the result of his initial efforts." MacMillan was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath for "his excellent example and untiring efforts" during the period following the landings.
Once pronounced fit in November, MacMillan was given command of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, which was assigned to hold an area known as "the Island", near Nijmegen in the Netherlands, against German advances. Several minor skirmishes took place during the wet and bitterly cold winter. The Division, however, had just launched an offensive to drive the Germans out of their remaining positions when MacMillan was ordered to take over the command of 51st (Highland) Division from his good friend Major General Thomas Rennie, who had been killed during the crossing of the Rhine on 23 March.
The division was engaged in a number of hard-fought battles as it moved swiftly north-eastwards into Germany until the German surrender on 8 May 1945. MacMillan led his troops in the victory parade in Bremerhaven on 12 May. He was subsequently made a Grand Officer of the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau for his "exceptional valour, leadership, loyalty and outstanding devotion to duty and great perseverance" during the liberation of the Netherlands. He was also mentioned in despatches for "gallant and distinguished service" on two occasions.
As soon as the war ended, MacMillan was appointed Director of Weapons and Development on the General Staff at the War Office in London. He was also made Colonel of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in October 1945.
On 13 February 1947, MacMillan took up duties as General Officer Commanding (GOC) British Troops in Palestine and Transjordan, and, while there, was promoted to lieutenant general. One unnamed journalist described this as "perhaps the most unpleasant job that has ever fallen to the lot of a British general" but went on to observe that MacMillan is "quiet, efficient, yet capable of divine wrath when the need arises: he is a great leader and is both loved and respected by his subordinates."
Just five days after his arrival, the House of Commons was informed that the British government had decided to place the question of the future of Palestine before the United Nations. This meant that MacMillan would be the last GOC. It set the stage for the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in May 1948 and for an increasingly violent struggle between Jews and Arabs.
The head of the civilian government in Palestine was the High Commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, while the GOC was responsible for maintaining law and order with a force of over 100,000 troops, an army of more or less the same size as the whole British Army at the beginning of the 21st century. His period in Palestine was marked by increasingly divergent views between the local administration and the British Cabinet in London on the role of the army. MacMillan recognised the increasing futility of trying to keep the peace between two parties committed to war rather than to cohabitation, and the need to prioritise arrangements for the safe, orderly and timely evacuation of all troops and other British residents as well as 270,000 tons of military equipment and stores. He was the target of three assassination attempts by Palestinian Jews, and he was criticised fiercely by Arabs and Jews respectively for his failure to intervene in time to stop the Deir Yassin massacre and the attack on the Hadassah convoy.
Following the end of the British Mandate and the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (both on 14 May 1948), the pace of British withdrawal increased. MacMillan boarded a naval launch in Haifa that would take him to HMS Phoebe on 30 June 1948, "the last man of the British Forces to leave Palestine".
In January 1949 MacMillan was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and appointed General Officer Commanding Scotland and Governor of Edinburgh Castle, where his office was located. This came at a time when the army was adjusting to peacetime conditions.
From 1952 until his retirement from the army in 1955, MacMillan served as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the City and Garrison of Gibraltar. He was promoted to the rank of general. This was a period of rising tension between Spain under Franco and Britain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar, which was not eased by the visit in 1954 of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on the last leg of their tour of the Commonwealth. During this visit, the Queen invested MacMillan on the Royal Yacht Britannia as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
From 1955 MacMillan lived at Finlaystone, his wife's family home on the southern bank of the River Clyde, near the village of Langbank in Scotland. His family, consisting of his wife Marian, daughter Judy and four sons, George, John, David and Andrew, had been based here during World War II and the Palestine assignment. Apart from doing much, including a lot of manual work, to maintain and improve the house, its garden and the surrounding estate, he immersed himself in Scottish affairs. He continued as Colonel of the A&SH until 1958, and subsequently led a successful campaign to save the regiment from disbandment in 1968. He also served for many years as one of the Commissioners of the Queen Victoria School, Dunblane, of which he had been ex-officio Chairman when GOC Scotland.
Relieved of his military duties, MacMillan was able to devote more time to Clan MacMillan matters, arranging gatherings at Finlaystone and frequently visiting Clan members in North America. He was appointed Her Majesty's Vice-Lieutenant for the County of Renfrew in 1955.
MacMillan also served as Chairman of the Greenock Harbour Trust and of the Firth of Clyde Drydock at the time of its establishment. He was appointed the first Chairman of the Cumbernauld Development Corporation, responsible for building a "new town" between Glasgow and Stirling. From 1955 to 1980, he also chaired the Executive Committee of Erskine Hospital which had been created as a hospital and care home for ex-service men and women in the First World War. Other voluntary work involved him as Chairman of the Scottish Police Dependants' Fund and the City of Glasgow Council of Social Service. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Law (LLD) by Glasgow University in 1969.
MacMillan died in a car accident on 21 January 1986.
He is buried against the north wall in the highly overgrown section of Newington Cemetery in Edinburgh but a path has been created to his grave.