THE DISTINGUISHED and REMARKABLE CAREER OF
SIR HENRY MAITLAND WILSON GCB, GBE, DSO 1881-1964
1st BARON of LIBYA and STOWLANGTOFT
General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, The Supreme Allied
Commander WW11 of the Mediterranean Theatre, April 1944
Early Life and Military Service
Henry Maitland Wilson, born in 1881, was the eldest son of Arthur Maitland Wilson who was Lord Manors and Patron Livings, Stowlangtoft and Langham and who lived at Stowlangtoft Hall, Suffolk from 1857 until 1934.
Henry, sometime later to be nicknamed ‘Jumbo’ on account of his considerable bulk, married Hester Wykeham in 1914 and had one son and a daughter.
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. He was posted with his battalion to Egypt and then in 1907 to India Promoted to captain on 2nd April 1908 he served with the 3rd Battalion at Bordon in Hampshire and then in Tipperary in Ireland, and in 1911 became Adjutant of the Oxford OTC.
Henry Maitland Wilson served in the Great War, being appointed Brigade Major of 48th Brigade on 15 October 1914; having been promoted to the rank of acting major in December 1914 and then to the substantive rank of major on 15 September 1915, he was sent to France to serve on the Western Front 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 Passchendale. In October 1917 he was appointed GSO 1 of the New Zealand Division with promotion to temporary lieutenant on 28 October 1917. For his war service he was awarded the DSO in 1917 and was thrice mentioned in dispatches.
After being promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel on 1 January 1919 and being hand-picked for the first post-war staff course at Camberley, Wilson was given command of a company of cadets at Sandhurst. He then became second-in-command of the 2nd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade at Aldershot in August 1923. Next, he took command of his regiment's 1st Battalion on the North-West Frontier in January 1927, receiving promotion to the substantive rank of lieutenant colonel on 15 June 1927.
Returning to be an instructor at Camberley in June 1930, Wilson spent 9 months on half pay in 1933. Promoted to temporary brigadier, he became Commander of 6th Infantry Brigade in 1934 and, having been promoted to major-general on 30 April 1935, he became General Officer Commanding 2nd Division in August 1937.
Second World War 1939-1945
In September 1939 Wilson was a lieutenant-general in command of British troops in Egypt. Early successes against the Italians were followed by a brief spell as military governor of Cyrenaica. He was then given command of Allied troops in the Balkan campaign and handled the hasty retreat from Greece with skill. On his return to the Middle East Wavell appointed him to command British troops in Palestine and Transjordan which Wilson used to quell Rashid Ali's revolt in Iraq in May 1941 and then in the Syrian campaign the following month.
Although he was a very competent commander in the field, circumstances now conspired to keep Maitland Wilson at posts which required his considerable political and diplomatic skills. Churchill lobbied strongly for him to command the Eighth Army, but the new C-in-C, Auchinleck, preferred Cunningham. In December 1941, by which time he had been promoted general, his command became Ninth Army which covered the Levan, (Syria and Lebanon), as well as Palestine and Transjordan; in August 1942 he took command of the new Persia–Iraq command; and he then succeeded Alexander as C-in-C Middle East where his only operational involvement was against the Dodecanese Islands. He was strongly criticized for the British failure there, but he later made it clear that it had been mounted against his better judgement on direct orders from London. During his time as Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean he oversaw the Italian campaign as well as the last two large amphibious operations there, Anzio and the landings on the French Riviera.
Gen. Henry Maitland Wilson in Italy
Britain contributed to the Manhattan Project by helping initiate the effort to build the first atomic bombs in the United States during World War II, and helped carry it through to completion in August 1945 by supplying crucial expertise. Following the discovery of nuclear fission in uranium by scientists at the University of Birmingham they calculated, in March 1940, that the critical mass of a metallic sphere of pure uranium 235 was as little as 1 to 10 kilograms (2.2 to 22.0 lb), and would explode with the power of thousands of tons of dynamite. The memorandum prompted Britain to create an atomic bomb project, known as Tube Alloys. An Australian physicist working in Britain, was instrumental in making the results of the British Maud Report known in the United States in 1941 by a visit in person. Initially the British project was larger and more advanced, but after the United States entered the war, the American project soon outstripped and dwarfed its British counterpart. The British government then decided to shelve its own nuclear ambitions, and participate in the American project.
General Henry Maitland Wilson served as a member of the target committee to select Japanese cities for atomic bombing, and on Tinian with Project Alberta as a special consultant. Along with Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, sent by Wilson as a British representative, he watched the bombing of Nagasaki from the observation plane “Big Stink.”
In December 1944 Henry Maitland Wilson handed over to Alexander, was promoted field marshal the next month, and became British representative to the Combined Chiefs of Staff Atomic committee in Washington, a post he held until it was abolished in 1947. He was knighted in 1940.
Wilson succeeded Dwight D. Eisenhower at Allied Forces Headquarters as the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean on 8th 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.
December 1944, following the death of Field Marshall Sir John Dill, Wilson was relieved as Supreme Commander. He was promoted to field marshal on 29th December 1944.
(Front L-R) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Sir Winston
Churchill, and British General Sir Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson
Post Second World War
Sent to Washington to be Chief of the British Joint Staff Mission a post he took up in January 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. 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. When Wilson departed Washington on 22 April 1947, his old friend President Eisenhower, who, apparently, enjoyed Henry’s company, came to see him off at the station. In September 1948.
Dwight Eisenhower also wrote the foreword to Wilson's book of wartime memoirs.
In January 1946 Henry 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.
Field Marshal Lord Wilson died on 31 December 1964. Never a rich man he left an estate valued at £2,952 to his only son Patrick who succeeded him in the barony.
Mike Keeper, Re-issue A January 2023
The son of Henry Maitland Wilson, Lord Patrick Maitland Wilson, accompanied his father in the Middle East during the Second World War as an intelligence officer. The son's memoirs, ‘Where the Nazis Came,’ provide anecdotes and descriptions of important events in his father's war service.