29 December 2008

RIP: Lt Col Eric Wilson VC

Pte J G Beharry VC and Lt Col E C T Wilson VC

Lt Col Eric Charles Twelves Wilson VC
2 Oct 1912 - 23 Dec 2008

ZUI this article from The Telegraph:
Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Wilson, who died on December 23 aged 96, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his gallant defence against a large Italian force during the East African campaign in August 1940; the award was originally posthumous since Wilson was thought to have been killed in action.

When the Italians, with 350,000 troops in Abyssinia and Eritrea, invaded British Somaliland, which was defended by 1,500 men, they threatened control of the entrance to the Red Sea and British positions from Aden to Suez. As they headed for Berbera, on the coast, a meagre Allied force began to search for a defensive position. Most of the terrain was flat, but parallel to the sea lay the rugged Golis hills, with an 8,000ft pass, where the Allies chose to make their stand.

Wilson, an acting captain with the Somaliland Camel Corps, was given the vital task of siting the corps' machine guns on four small hills of the Tug Argan Pass – named Black, Knobbly, Mill and Observation – though they were too widely separated to cover their entire vista.


On recovering consciousness he emerged from the crevasse which had sheltered the gun to find dead bodies all around, including that of his terrier. On walking down he met a white NCO, with whom he was then captured by the Italians.

When news of the action reached London, Wilson was believed to have been killed in the final assault, and his VC was gazetted two months later. But after medical treatment, he was put in a prison camp at Adi Ugri in Eritrea. Four months later a captured RAF officer was surprised to meet the "late" Captain Wilson, and informed him of his award. A few weeks later preparations were almost complete for a mass escape by tunnel when the prisoners woke up to find all their captors but the commandant gone before the arrival of British troops.


Eric Charles Twelves Wilson, the son of the rector of Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, was born on October 2 1912 at Sandown on the Isle of Wight. His interest in East Africa was kindled by his grandfather, who had founded the Church Missionary Society in Buganda.

At Marlborough, where Eric was a fine athlete, he discovered a statue of Richard Corfield, who had perished fighting with Somalis against the Mad Mullah in 1913. He decided on a military life and, despite wearing spectacles, passed the Sandhurst entrance exam while still at school.

In 1933 he was commissioned into the East Surrey Regiment. Four years later he volunteered for the King's African Rifles, supporting the colonial administration upcountry in Tanganyika and became a Nyassa speaker.

In 1939 he was delighted to be ordered to form 75 Somali conscripts into a company of machine-gunners with the Somaliland Camel Corps; the Somalis considered camels too precious to ride, keeping them for their milk and for transporting the Vickers machine guns.


After recovering from his wounds at Tug Argan, Wilson served in North Africa as adjutant of the Long Range Desert Group, demonstrating a knowledge of the desert which greatly aided its work behind German lines.

He then served in Burma as second-in-command of the 11th King's African Rifles in the advance down the Kabaw Valley to the Chindwin. But after contracting scrub typhus he spent the rest of the war commanding an infantry training centre in Uganda.

Wilson retired from the Army in 1949 and became a colonial officer in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where he became fluent in four Bantu languages before retiring with the granting of independence in 1961.


He married first, in 1943 (dissolved 1953), Ann Pleydell-Bouverie; they had two sons. He married secondly, in 1953, Angela Gordon, with whom he another son.

In retirement Wilson found himself increasingly sought after as the oldest VC. He told Private Johnson Beharry, of the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales's regiment, who won a VC in Iraq in 2005: "It will not make a difference to your life. You might get a few drinks, though."

There are now nine surviving VC holders:
WO Tul Bahadur Pun VC, 6th Gurkha Rifles - Burma, 1944
Flt Lt John A Cruickshank VC, RAFVR - North Atlantic, 1944
Hav Lachhiman Gurung VC, 8th Gurkha Rifles - Burma, 1945
Pte Edward Kenna VC, Australian Imperial Force - New Guinea, 1945
Sgt William Speakman VC, The Black Watch - Korea, 1951
Capt Ram Bahadur Limbu VC MVO, 10th Gurkha Rifles - Borneo, 1965
WO Keith Payne VC OAM, Australian Army - Vietnam, 1969
Pte Johnson G Beharry VC, Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment - Iraq, 2004
Cpl Bill H Apiata VC, New Zealand SAS - Afghanistan, 2004

******* *** *******


Lieutenant (Acting Captain), The East Surrey Regiment; attached Somaliland Camel Corps

Born: 2 October 1912, Sandown, Isle of Wight
Died: 23 December 2008

Citation: For most conspicuous gallantry on active service in Somaliland. Captain Wilson was in command of machine-gun posts manned by Somali soldiers in the key position of Observation Hill, a defended post in the defensive organisation of the Tug Argan Gap in British Somaliland.
The enemy attacked Observation Hill on August 11th, 1940. Captain Wilson and Somali gunners under his command beat off the attack and opened fire on the enemy troops attacking Mill Hill, another post within his range. He inflicted such heavy casualties that the enemy, determined to put his guns out of action, brought up a pack battery to within seven hundred yards, and scored two direct hits through the loopholes of his defences, which, bursting within the post, wounded Captain Wilson severely in the right shoulder and in the left eye, several of his team being also wounded. His guns were blown off their stands but he repaired and replaced them and, regardless of his wounds, carried on, whilst his Somali sergeant was killed beside him.
On August 12th and 14th the enemy again concentrated field artillery fire on Captain Wilson's guns, but he continued, with his wounds untended, to man them.
On August 15th two of his machine-gun posts were blown to pieces, yet Captain Wilson, now suffering from malaria in addition to wounds, still kept his own post in action.
The enemy finally over-ran the post at 5 p.m. on the 15th August when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed.

[London Gazette issue 34968 dated 14 Oct 1940, published 11 Oct 1940.]

Ministtry of Defence photograph © Crown Copyright/MOD 2005.

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