Sir Colin McVean Gubbins

Personnel header
Major General Colin McVean Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC
Life dates
02 Jul 1896 - 11 Feb 1976
Profile Picture
Profile picture

Major General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins KCMG, DSO, MC was the founder and first commander of the Auxiliary Units.

He joined SOE in late 1940, initially to head up training, and took overall command from 1943. He was an Army interpreter in Russian and French.

Born to John Harington Gubbins, CMG (1852-1929), Oriental Secretary at the British Legation, and Helen Brodie McVean (1869-1922) in Shiba, Tokyo, Japan. He died aged 79 at "Obbe", Leverburgh, Isle of Harris shortly after being appointed the Western Isles Lord Lieutenant.

He married Nora(h) C. S. Somerville-Warren in 1919 and, after a divorce, married Anna E. Tradin in 1950. In 1939 Gubbins and Nora were living at Bridge End, Carlton, Bedfordshire.

Post war he seems to have held various Company Directorships and was Chairman of a few Companies (such as Gray Carpets and Textiles) alongside fellow Auxiliary Units Officer Major Edward Beddington-Behrens.

Gubbins gave a few talks on his Wartime role with SOE and was the main feature of a newspaper article in The Sunday Mirror 12 April 1959 talking freely about Auxiliary Units.

Unit or location Role Posted from until
Coleshill House, GHQ Commanding Officer Auxiliary Units 17 Jun 1940 Oct 1940

Ilkey Grammar School, Yorkshire,

Cheltenham College 1909-1913

Royal Military Academy, Woolwich,

National ID
DQDC 17/6
The Royal Artillery
Military number
Commissioned or Enlisted
16 Sep 1914

Army Officer


09 Nov 1914 Moved to France.

09 Jun 1915 Promoted Lieutenant.

26 Aug 1916 Acting Captain. Wounded 7 Oct 1916 returned to duty. 29 Brigade Royal Field Artillery 126 Battery.

01 Nov 1917 Promoted Acting Major.

02 Jan 1918 Returned to Captain. 

12 Feb 1918 Promoted Substantive Captain.

07 Apr 1918 Served in France & Belgium (wounded).

22 Apr 1919 Aide-de-Camp to General Officer Commanding, Archangel Force, Russia. The Archangel Campaign in Russia was a difficult one with a reluctant ally and limited supplies. A number of those who served with Gubbins in Russia would later join him in Auxiliary Units.

28 Nov 1921 Brigade Major, Royal Artillery, Irish Command (temporarily). He arrived in Ireland shortly after the partition when Eire gained its independence, but before the withdrawal of the British Army. The withdrawal took over a year and the Irish Civil War took place during this time.

14 Jan 1925 Adjutant.

21 Apr 1926 General Staff Officer 3, Army Headquarters, India.

1928-1929 Attended Staff College.

01 Feb 1931 General Staff Officer 3, War Office.

08 Apr 1933 Brigade Major, Royal Artillery, Eastern Command.

01 Jul 1933 Promoted Brevet Major.

24 Feb 1934 Promoted Major.

01 Jul 1938 Promoted brevet Lieutenant Colonel.

01 Oct 1939 General Staff Officer Grade 2. War Office (Military Intelligence Department).

1939 Head of Military Intelligence mission to the exiled Poles and Czechs in Paris, France.

20 Apr 1940 Acting Colonel. Commander, Independent Companies (North West Expeditionary Force), Norway (DSO). The Independent Companies were the forerunners of the Commandos. However, they arrived late in the campaign and ending up committed largely to fighting conventionally in the retreat. Those who served in the Independent Companies would form the backbone of many of the other Special Forces formed during the war.

25 May 1940 Acting Commander (Brigadier), 24th Infantry Brigade (Guards)  in Norwegian Campaign. Brigadier Gubbins conduct of a fighting retreat was recognised as a significant achievement following a very poor initial performance by British Forces.

17 June 1940 Appointed to raise and command Auxiliary Units. He was responsible for setting up the Patrols across the country and also oversaw the absorption of the Home Defence Organisation to form the Special Duties Branch. He initiated the setting up of the wireless network to improve the speed of communications.

20 Oct 1940 Appointed War Substantive Lieutenant Colonel as Director of Operations and Training, Special Operations Executive.

21 Dec 1942 Promoted Temporary Major General.

1943 Executive Head of Special Operations Executive 1943 (KCMG & CMG).

26 Apr 1946 Retired and appointed Honorary Major General.

Bridge End, Carlton, Bedfordshire (1939). Later Harrold, Bedford.
Other information


22 Sep 1916 to 1919; 1914/15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal. Awarded Military Cross - For conspicuous gallantry. When one of his guns and its detachment were blown up by a heavy shell, he organised a rescue party and personally helped to dig out the wounded while shells were falling all round.

06 Aug 1940 Distinguished Service Order, for conduct in Norway. Citation reads; When placed in command of a mixed force of all arms at a difficult moment in the Rognan Valley, he showed great skill and energy in organising a defensive position. He held the position successfully for 48 hours until ordered to withdraw. During the withdrawal to a small and congested harbour he showed great courage when part of his rearguard went astray. He immediately came back, collected two platoons, and went forward again with them and put them into action to stem the German advance. 

31 Jan 1941 Mention in Despatches

01 Jan 1944 Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George New Year's Honours List 1944.

01 Jan 1946 Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George New Year's Honours List 1946 awarded the title Sir.

Foreign Awards:

Officer Légion d'Honneur (France); Grand Officer Order of Leopold (Belgium); Croix de Guerre (Belgium); Order of Dannebrog, 1st class (Denmark); Commander, Royal Order of St Olav, with star (Norway; 26 Feb 1954); Grand Officer Order of Orange Nassau (the Netherlands); Polonia Restituta (Poland); Commander Legion of Merit (USA; 14 May 1948). Commander Order of White Lion.

Wilkinson and Gubbins left Auxiliary Units at the same time in Oct 1940 to join SOE initially working out of Baker Street. Gubbins, Wilkinson and Fleming all attended the final lunch in London of Military Intelligence (Research) on 2 Oct 1940.

Other pictures
Profile picture
Caption & credit
Gubbins 1918 (IWM ref HU115531)
Profile picture
Caption & credit
Mrs Gubbins, Mrs Gerry Holdsworth, and Colin Gubbins at Spearhead Ball at The Dorchester Dec 1956 (The Tatler)
Profile picture
Caption & credit
Gubbins at Copenhagen 1950 (The Sketch)
Profile picture
Caption & credit
Gibbins awarded CMG 15 Mar 1944 (The Tatler)
Profile picture
Caption & credit
Colin Gubbins (from National Gallery)

Gubbins and SOE

IWM ref HU115531

Aberdeen Press & Journal 1 Aug 1940

TNA ref WO373/148/514 (USA award 14 May 1948), also HS9/630/8 SOE file

The Tatler & The Sketch & The National Gallery