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.
Promoted captain in 1908 he served in Ireland, and in 1911 became Adjutant of the Oxford OTC. He was sent to France in 1914 as brigade major in the 16th Irish division. From 1915 his capabilities as a staff officer led to him being moved from regimental duties, firstly 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.
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 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 WWI 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."
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).
Wilson succeeded Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower as the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean in 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.
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.