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. Placing himself on Observation, which commanded the widest arc of fire, he was tremendously exposed on a position well-known to Italian truck drivers who had driven past it daily before the declaration of war.
As two battalions of Blackshirts, with three brigades of colonial troops and artillery, appeared on all sides on the morning of August 11, Wilson’s machine gun received a hit which knocked it off its mounting – though he and his three Somali gunners soon had it back in action. Then another shell came straight into the embrasure of their post, killing the Somali sergeant standing next to Wilson, and severely wounding Wilson himself in the right shoulder and left eye; his spectacles were broken, and the fragments could be seen under his skin ever afterwards.
Repairing and remounting the gun, he poured down fire on enemy troops advancing on Mill Hill in the afternoon. This inflicted such heavy casualties that the Italians brought up a pack battery to within 700 yards which fired back over open sights until it was hit in turn by the defenders’ only artillery, the 1st East Africa Light Battery.
A heavy downpour of rain brought a respite. But next morning the Italians began to work their way in small parties up through the scrub, concentrating their field artillery on Wilson’s position. On August 13 the enemy overran the artillery position on Mill Hill. An order to withdraw was sent to Wilson’s company but never arrived. Next day, two of the other machine-gun posts were destroyed, yet Wilson, now suffering from malaria as well, kept his own post in action until finally overrun at 5pm.
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.
A tall, shy, nervous man whose mother described him as “such a dear boy and so timid”, Wilson received his medal from King George VI at Buckingham Palace; he said he did so on behalf of the men with him at the Tug Argan Gap.
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. He formed the deepest admiration for his three NCOs, particularly Sergeant Omaar Kujoog, who was to be killed beside him.
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. The following year he was appointed deputy warden of London House, the foreign students’ residence, of which he was later warden (1966-77).
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.
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.”
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
Source/The Daily Telegraph.