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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 6 July 2023

Eight Years Overseas 1939-1947

 I was in the Lake District two weeks ago on our annual family holiday there. There is little historical interest, but I visit a few second-hand bookshops. I was delighted to find a copy of Jumbo Wilson's WW2 memoirs in one at a reasonable price. I had only dipped into this in the British Library for my book, Chasing the Soft Underbelly, because Wilson was a key figure in British aid to Turkey during WW2.

Henry Maitland (Jumbo) Wilson started WW2 as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief British Troops in Egypt, launching Operation Compass in December 1940, which destroyed the Italian army. He had less success with the ill-fated expeditionary force to Greece in April 1941 and returned to be General Officer Commanding British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan in May 1941, which included the Iraq and Syria operations. He became GOC Persia and Iraq Command in August 1942 when it looked like the Germans would break through the Caucasus. After that threat went away he became GOC Middle East Command in February 1943 and then Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean from January 1944. He ended the war as Chief of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington D. C. from January 1945 until 1947.

It is obvious from the above that Wilson was a central player in the Middle East and Mediterranean campaigns of WW2. However, he is a far less familiar public figure than say Montgomery or Alexander. This is probably because he was primarily the organiser of victory, ensuring that troops and equipment were there for the fighting armies. In this regard, he had to have the political skills a coalition commander needs, so it is no surprise that Eisenhower wrote the forward to this book, paying fulsome tribute to his wartime comrade.

This book is primarily a narrative history of his wartime service. It was written in 1948, arguably too soon for a more candid memoir. For example, there are few revelations of the sort we read in Alan Brooke's diaries. Wilson remained a careful political operator even in his memoirs. I was particularly disappointed that he offered no new insights into relations with Turkey in WW2, although there is a lovely story about British and German missions being housed in the same Ankara hotel. I suspect because he wrote this book when Turkey was being considered for membership of NATO, a sensitive negotiation that the British supported, so candid references to the challenges in equipping the Turkish armed forces would have been unhelpful.

Churchill did not make Wilson's job easy during WW2. The apparent tensions are the Greek campaign, support for Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and the Dodecanese campaign. However, Wilson is again diplomatic about his disagreements with Churchill, who in fairness rarely criticised Wilson when things went wrong, and obviously rated him highly. The only time they fell out seriously was when Churchill felt Wilson wasn't supporting his position over Operation Anvil. Wilson explains that his credibility as a coalition commander would have been destroyed if he took Churchill's line.

There are several interesting what-if campaigns arising from Wilson's comments in the book. He describes the possibility that the Turks might have given in to German pressure during the Syrian campaign and allowed the passage of German troops along the railroad that was in fact built by the Germans before WW1. He explains that he would have had to withdraw from northern Syria to the mountains of Lebanon if that happened. 

Another is the Iran (the British still called it Persia, wrongly) campaign. I hadn't appreciated how seriously the Allies took the risk of the Germans coming at Iran, with its crucial oil, through the Caucasus. Wilson commanded two whole army corps and prepared detailed defence plans to defend the country. This would also have resulted in Soviet troops fighting alongside the British and Commonwealth divisions. I am itching to do this on the tabletop!

Wilson was also closely involved in establishing the Allied base on Vis as a base for raiding the Adriatic coast. He kept it under his responsibility, establishing a command at Bari, as Alexander was too busy with the Italian campaign. He confirms the intelligence assessments of Mihajlovic's inactivity, hence the shift in support to Tito.

This book probably won't be on many folk's reading lists as copies are not cheap. But if you can get one in the library, it is worth a read and has some wartime photos I had yet to see.

Some WW2 Australians in 28mm. Wilson speaks highly of them.


  1. Family holidays are ALWAYS an excuse to visit as many second hand bookshops as possible. I often do it the other way round - find a bookshop (or, ideally, multiple bookshops) to visit and then see what else is in the area to justify a holiday.