b. 02/10/1912 Sandown, Isle of Wight. d. 23/12/2008 Stowell, Somerset.
Eric Charles Twelves Wilson (1912-2008) was born on October 2nd 1912 at Sandown on the Isle of Wight. His father, Cyril Charles Clissold Wilson was a curate. His mother’s maiden name was Twelves. His grandfather Charles Thomas Wilson was the first missionary from the Church Mission Society to visit Buganda in 1877. He was educated at Marlborough College, where fees were reduced for the sons of clergymen, and he became a house captain. 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. He formed the deepest admiration for his three NCOs, particularly Sergeant Omaar Kujoog, who was to be killed beside him.
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 the Italians headed for Berbera on the coast, a small Allied force decided to set up a defensive position on the Golis hills, which contained an 8,000 foot pass. Captain Eric Wilson was given the task of siting the Somaliland Camel Corps’ machine-guns on four small hills of the Tug Argan Pass, though they were too widely seperated to cover their entire vista. Therefore, Wilson placed himself on Observation, which commanded the widest arc of fire, but was perilously exposed and well known to Italian truck drivers who had driven past it daily before the declaration of war.
The enemy attacked Observation Hill on 11th August 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 12th and 14th August 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.
The citation killed off Eric Wilson prematurely. He survived not only his wounds but the acute maleria from which he was suffering at the time. The Italians took him prisoner but he was freed later when British forces captured Eritrea from them. He returned to England and received his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in July 1942. With his captain’s rank made permanent in 1941, and with the rank of temporary major, he served as adjutant of the Long Range Desert Group and then as second in command of the 11th (Kenyan) King’s African Rifles, part of the 25th East African Brigade in 11th East African Division, in the Burma Campaign.
Having contracted scrub typhus he was hospitalised for two months and then returned to East Africa to command an infantry training establishment at Jinja in Uganda. He was promoted to acting lieutenant-colonel in June 1945 and was seconded to The Northern Rhodesia Regiment in 1946. He retired from the Army in 1949 and although at this time his permanent rank was major, he was granted the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel.
Wilson married Ann Pleydell-Bouverie in 1943. They had two sons. After they were divorced in 1953, Wilson married Angela Joy Gordon, and they had one son. After Wilson left the Army in 1949, he joined the Overseas Civil Service in Tanganyika. He learned several African languages, and served in Tanganyika until independence of the British East African countries which led to his retirement in 1961.
In 1962 Wilson was appointed Deputy Warden of London House, a residence at Goodenough Square in the Bloomsbury district of London. This residence is for university graduates from the Commonwealth of Nations pursuing graduate studies in the United Kingdom. In 1966 Wilson was promoted to Warden of London House, holding the position until retirement in 1977. During his tenure the patron of the residence was HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
He was honorary secretary of the Anglo-Somali Society from 1972 to 1977 and organised relief for the famine that struck Somalia in 1975. He remained greatly attached to the Somali people, whom he would “back against all comers for cheerful toughness, natural aptitude and fieldcraft and the ability to stand up to a bad climate”.
His youngest son, the photographer Hamish Wilson, maintained the family link with the Somalis, fighting in 1991 in the war to establish a separate state of Somaliland in the north of the country. He was the only European present at the liberation of its capital, Hargeysa. He made a television programme about it, visiting and fighting at the same places as his father, and fighting alongside the children of men his father had known and fought with.
A keen countryman, Eric Wilson retired to Dorset, where he published Stowell in the Blackmore Vale in 1986. 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 was awarded a VC in Iraq in 2005: “It will not make a difference to your life. You might get a few drinks, though.”
Eric Wilson kept a manila envelope containing his cuttings which ranged from a sober obituary in The Times to a lurid tale in the Daily Sketch with three headlines “Another Rorke’s Drift”, “First Africa VC Dies” and “Last Stand in the Desert”. There was also a dramatic eyewitness account of the action in The Daily Telegraph. Until his death, he was one of only ten Victoria Cross recipients alive. He was the last surviving British Army recipient of the Second World War, as well as being the earliest and oldest recipient. He suffered from prostate cancer in later life, and died after a stroke just before Christmas 2008 (23rd December), aged 96. He was laid to rest in St Mary Magdalene Churchyard, Stowell.
Eric’s impressive medal group including the VC, 1939 – 45 Star, Africa Star, Burma Star, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953, Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal 1977, and Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal 2002 were purchased privately by Michael Ashcroft in 2005 and are now on display in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ST MARY MAGDALENE CHURCHYARD, STOWELL, SOMERSET.
Kevin Brazier – Wilson VC Grave.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Image of Wilson VC on the Marlborough College Memorial.