Henry's Top Matches
About Henry Maitland Wilson
Field Marshal Henry Maitland Wilson, 1st Baron Wilson, GCB, GBE, DSO (5 September 1881 – 31 December 1964), also known as "Jumbo" Wilson, saw active service in the Second Boer War and First World War, and became a senior British general in the Middle East and Mediterranean during the Second World War. Described as "sound but not spectacular" he enjoyed the confidence of Winston Churchill.
Early life and military service
Wilson was the eldest son of the Suffolk landowner Capt Arthur Maitland Wilson, and his wife, Harriet Kingscote, a descendant of the 1st Earl Howe. Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Fuller Maitland Wilson (1859–1941), who commanded XII Corps during World War I, was his uncle. Wilson was educated at Eton College and after attending Sandhurst was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade as a 2nd lieutenant in March 1900, and served in South Africa in the Second Boer War, for which he was awarded the Queen's and King's South Africa Medal each with two clasps.
Promoted captain in 1908 he served in Ireland, and in 1911 became Adjutant of the Oxford OTC. In October 1914 he was appointed Brigade Major of 48th Brigade in 16th Irish division, with which he was sent to France in December 1915. His capabilities as a staff officer led to him being moved to become GSO 2 of the 41st Division on the Somme and of the XIX Corps at Passchendaele. In October 1917 he was appointed GSO 1 of the New Zealand Division. For his war service he was awarded the DSO in 1917 and was thrice mentioned in dispatches.
After being hand-picked for the first post-war staff course at Camberley, and a spell at Sandhurst, he returned to his own regiment. He then spent 3 years as chief umpire to the second division under General Philip Chetwode which greatly progressed his professional development. Next he took command of his regiment's first battalion and spent three years on the North-West Frontier. Here he spent time cultivating the tribesmen as well indulging his enjoyment of field sports.
Returning in the 1930s to be an instructor at Camberley, he had some periods on half pay. He was involved with the development of motorised infantry working with armoured forces, which led to the concept of the motor battalion. He was appointed Commander 6th Infantry Brigade in 1934 and General Officer Commanding 2nd Division in 1937.
Second World War
In June 1939, Wilson was appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC) British Troops in Egypt, and he was also responsible for giving military advice for a range of countries from Abyssinia to the Persian Gulf. He made his HQ in Cairo and undertook successful negotiations with the Egyptian government at their summer quarters in Alexandria. The Treaty of 1936 called for the Egyptian army to fight under British command in the event of war and to supplement the limited force then at his disposal — an armoured division then being formed (later to be the 7th Armoured Division) and eight British battalions. He concentrated his defensive forces at Mersa Matruh some 100 miles from the border with Libya.
Early in August, General Archibald Wavell was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command, and he sent reinforcements which had been sought by Wilson, initially the Indian 4th Infantry Division and advanced elements of 6th Australian Division and, as the build up at Mersa Matruh continued, Richard O'Connor and his staff at 7th Infantry Division in Palestine were moved to Egypt to reinforce Wilson's command structure there. O'Connor's HQ, initially designated British 6th Infantry Division, was activated in November and became responsible for the troops at Mersa Matruh. It was redesignated Western Desert Force in June 1940.
When the war started, both Egypt and Italy unexpectedly declared non-belligerency. With fierce radio propaganda in the winter of 1939 the Germans sought to turn the Egyptians against the British. Wilson was responsible for securing the continued cooperation of the Egyptian leaders with his defensive build-up as he concentrated on building roads to supply his forward positions.
On 10 June 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war. Immediately Wilson's forces invaded Libya. However, their advance was reversed when on 17 June France sought an armistice and the Italians where able to move their forces from the Tunisian border in the West and reinforce with 4 divisions those that opposed Wilson in the East. The Italian forces invaded Egypt in September 1940, and advanced some 60 miles (97 km) to occupy Sidi Barrani. Wilson was facing very superior forces. He had 31,000 troops to the Italians' 80,000, 120 tanks against 275, and 120 artillery pieces against 250. He realised that the situation was one where the traditional text books would not provide a solution. As with other 1940s commanders he had been well-schooled in the strategy of the campaigns of Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Virginia, and with his field commanders, in particular O'Connor, and in thorough secrecy, he planned to disrupt the advance of the superior forces by attacking their extended lines at the right spots. After a conference with Eden and Wavell in October and rejecting Wavell's suggestion for a two-pronged attack, Wilson launched Operation Compass on 7 December 1940. The strategy was outstandingly successful and very quickly the Italian forces were cut in half.
Wilson oversaw the first stages of the campaign during which the British Army secured its first field victories of the war and advanced to the border with Libya. Wilson was able to deploy highly mobile motorised infantry in conjunction with armour which he had helped develop in the 1930s. This first land success was used by Churchill to boost home morale, and Wilson was awarded the K.C.B.
After the capture of Tobruk, Wilson was recalled to Cairo where he was offered and accepted the position of Military Governor of Cyrenaica. On 22 February 1941 within a few days of taking up this duty, he met with Wavell, Eden and Dill who were seeking a senior commander to lead reinforcements to Greece.
While Operation Compass continued successfully in 1941 and resulted in the complete defeat of the Italian Army in North Africa, Wilson, who was already highly regarded by his World War I regimental colleague and now Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, had also won the confidence of Churchill himself. In a broadcast Churchill said, "General Wilson, who commands the Army of the Nile, was reputed to be one of our finest tacticians, and few will now deny him that quality."
Greece (April 1941)
Wilson was appointed to lead a Commonwealth expeditionary force of two infantry divisions and an armoured brigade to help Greece resist Italy and the subsequent German invasion in April 1941. Although the Allied forces were hopelessly inadequate Churchill's War Cabinet had thought it important to provide support for the only country outside the Commonwealth which was resisting the Axis advance. Unsurprisingly, Wilson was forced to make a tactical withdrawal to Crete.
Syria, Iraq and Palestine (1941–1943)
In May 1941, on his return from Greece, Wilson was appointed GOC Palestine and Trans Jordan and oversaw the successful Syria-Lebanon campaign, in which predominantly Australian, British, Indian, and Free French forces overcame Vichy French forces in fierce fighting. He was made a GBE in March and promoted to full General in May. In October 1941 he took over command of the Ninth Army in Syria and Palestine and was appointed to the honorary title of Aide-de-Camp General to the King.
As a solid, reliable and popular veteran officer, Wilson was Winston Churchill's choice to succeed General Sir Claude Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army in August 1942. However, at the urging of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, General Sir Bernard Montgomery was appointed instead (following Strafer Gott's death). Instead, Wilson was appointed to command the newly created independent Persia and Iraq Command, which included the Tenth Army under Quinan. This command, which had been part of Middle East Command was created when it appeared that Germany, following successes in southern Russia, might invade Persia (Iran).
C-in-C Middle East (1943)
In February 1943, after Montgomery's success at Alamein and the expulsion of Axis forces from North Africa, Wilson was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East. The Middle East was by this time comparatively removed from the main centres of fighting. However, on orders from London to create a diversion during the fighting in Italy, in September 1943 he organised an unsuccessful attempt to occupy the small Greek islands of Kos, Leros and Samos. The British forces suffered large losses to German air attacks and subsequent landings, and the campaign was greatly criticised in Britain.
Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean (1944)
Wilson succeeded Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower at Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) as the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean on 8 January 1944. As such he exercised strategic control over the campaign in Italy. He strongly advocated the invasion of Germany via the Danube plain, but this did not take place when the armies in Italy were weakened to support other theatres of war.
A first person account of this period can be found in To War With Whitacker, the Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly, who served as Wilson's personal secretary for two and a half years. ISBN 0 7493 1954 2
Washington Mission (1945–1947)
In December 1944, following the death of Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Wilson was relieved as Supreme Commander, promoted field marshal and sent to Washington to be Chief of the British Joint Staff Mission, a post he took up in January 1945. He was succeeded in the Mediterranean by Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander. Wilson continued to serve as head of the British Joint Staff Mission until 1947, to the satisfaction of Britain and the United States. President Truman awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal in November 1945.
One of Wilson's most secret duties was as the British military representative on the Combined Policy Committee which dealt with the development, production and testing of the atom bomb. In Wilson's mind it was clear that the use of the bomb to bring the war in Japan to an end, would avoid the loss of large numbers of both allied and Japanese lives by avoiding a drawn-out conflict on the Japanese mainland.
When Wilson departed Washington on 22 April 1947, his old friend Eisenhower came to see him off at the station. In September 1948 Eisenhower wrote the foreword to Wilson's book of wartime memoirs.
In January 1946 he was appointed aide-de-camp to George VI of the United Kingdom and was then created Baron Wilson, of Libya and of Stowlangtoft in the County of Suffolk. From 1955 to 1960 he was Constable of the Tower of London. Wilson had married Hester Wykeham in 1914 and had one son and a daughter. The son, Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Maitland Wilson, accompanied his father in the Middle East during World War II, as an intelligence officer. The son's memoirs, Where the Nazis Came, provide anecdotes and descriptions of important events in his father's World War II service. Never a wealthy man, when Field Marshal Lord Wilson died in 1964, his estate was probated at 2,952 pounds sterling (roughly ₤100,000 today). His only son Patrick succeeded him in the barony.
Honours and awards
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath 1944, (KCB 1940, CB 1937)
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire 4 March 1941
Distinguished Service Order 1917
Mentioned in Despatches 1 April 1941, 24 June 1943
Commander, Legion of Merit (United States) 4 April 1946
War Cross 1st class (Greece) 10 April 1942
Virtuti Militari V Class (Poland) 7 December 1944