John Gorman – Tank buster, policeman and politician

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In July 1944, on his first day in action in Normandy, he earned the Military Cross.

John Reginald Gorman was born on February 1, 1923, at Mullaghmore House near Omagh. He was the son of Major JK Gorman MC. He was educated at Haileybury and then after war broke out, due to difficulties travelling between N Ireland and GB, at Portora RS 1939 – 41.

He tried to join the RAF and where he was found to be underage. After basic training with the Royal Artillery he went to Glasgow University. Following an interview with the Irish Guards (his father’s regiment), he was commissioned as a a Lieutenant in 1942 and posted to 2nd. IG which was converting to an armoured role in the newly formed Guards Armoured Division.
In July 1944, on his first day in action in Normandy, he earned the Military Cross.
At Cagny, five miles from Caen, Gorman’s troop was confronted by four enemy tanks, among them a King Tiger whose gun was aimed at one of Gorman’s tanks. He had previously told his driver, Corporal James Baron, that if they were to encounter any of the feared Tigers, “The only thing we can do is to use naval tactics — if the 88mm gun is pointing away from us, we shall have to use the speed of the Sherman and ram it.”

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Two M4 Sherman tanks, a Sherman Firefly, and a Sherman Crab on July 18, 1944, preparing to launch Operation Goodwood

The Sherman duly crashed through a hedge and careered down the slope at 40mph towards the King Tiger. With 75 yards to go before impact, the Sherman’s gunner, Guardsman Scholes, fired a high-explosive shell at the King Tiger, but it failed to penetrate the armour.

The British tank struck the King Tiger hard on its right track, and both crews bailed out. The Sherman’s front gunner, Guardsman Agnew, mistakenly took refuge in a ditch with the German crew; on realising his error, he saluted smartly and disappeared into a cornfield to rejoin his comrades.

Having led his men to safety behind a hedge, Gorman raced 400 yards to leap into a lone Firefly tank, where one crew member had been decapitated and two others were in shock. The vehicle was still workable so, after removing the body and wiping the blood from the gun sights, Gorman fired its gun to disable the Tiger and his own tank, before driving behind three more Tigers to score two hits. He then carried three burning men from another Sherman to an aid post.

For this action, Gorman was recommended for an Immediate MC and Baron for a Military Medal. Both men were presented with their medals in the field by General Montgomery.

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Sir John Gorman playing a fife

Outside Brussels the regiment was greeted by jubilant crowds, and an elderly woman presented Gorman with a copy of Some Experiences of an Irish RM, which had been left at her parents’ house by another Irish Guardsman in 1914. But the war was not yet over, and Gorman, by now a captain, attended the briefing on the impending Arnhem campaign given by Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, the Corps Commander. When Horrocks announced that the “honour of leading this great dash which may end the war” would be given to the Irish Guards, Gorman expostulated: “Oh, my God, not again!” Gorman and his troop crossed the Nijmegen bridge before the advance was called off.

Having left the Army in the rank of captain in 1946, Gorman joined the RUC and became a district inspector in Antrim.

During the IRA’s border campaign in the 1950s Gorman acted as a liaison officer with MI5 and MI6, and in 1960 his security contacts put his name forward for the position of chief of security at BOAC. One of his first duties was to supervise the security arrangements for the royal tour of Pakistan, Nepal and Iran in 1961, at the end of which he was appointed CVO. He was later promoted the airline’s head of personnel, with a seat on the board. In 1968 he moved to become the airline’s manager in Canada, and, from 1975, in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In 1979 Gorman returned to his native province to become deputy chairman and chief executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the country’s largest owner of public housing. He succeeded in cleaning up corruption and selling off council houses, and in 1986 became part-time director of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, an office he held until 1995.

In 1990 he aroused controversy when he invited the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to address an IoD meeting in Belfast, in Haughey’s capacity as President of the European Union. Prominent among opponents of the visit was the Unionist politician David Trimble. None the less, after Trimble’s election as Ulster Unionist leader in 1995, Gorman joined the UUP, and in 1996 was nominated by his party as a member of the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, a body which had been set up in parallel with inter-party talks. He was subsequently chairman of the Forum, a position which he held until its last session in April 1998.

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John Reginald Gorman in 1943

Following the Belfast Agreement of the same year, Gorman was elected as member for North Down in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and served as a Deputy Speaker of the assembly from 2000 until its suspension in 2002. As the lone Catholic in the Unionist camp, Gorman, with his neat military moustache, cut a somewhat idiosyncratic figure (his opponents called him “Captain Mainwaring”). On one occasion television viewers in the Province were entertained by the astonishing spectacle of him urging the bemused Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to blow up IRA arms in “one big bang”.

In 2002 Gorman published an autobiography, The Times of My Life.
John Gorman was appointed MBE in 1959, CBE in 1974 and was knighted in 1998. In 2005 he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. He served as High Sheriff of Belfast in 1987-88.

He married, in 1948, Heather Caruth, who survived him with two daughters and a son. Another son predeceased him.

Sir John Gorman, born February 1, 1923, died May 26, 2014

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