Sir(Alexander) James Wilson, KBE, MC,
Chief Excecutive of the Tobacco Advisory Council,
The Times Obituary
Lieutenant-General Sir James Wilson
Rifleman who served in Africa, Italy, India and Cyprus, and wrote about football for The Sunday Times
JIM WILSON was heart and soul a Rifleman, and his ambition was to go down in history as a latter-day Sir John Moore. He was, however, better known as a football writer for more than 30 years from the late 1950s for The Sunday Times. In his military career, he craved startling originality and was no respecter of any form of red tape or regulations which he thought cramped initiative or reduced versatility. Indeed, the extremes to which he would go to improve the fighting efficiency and welfare of his men made him something of an enfant terrible in the eyes of the military establishment, whereas his outspoken comments on professional football endeared him to his readers and everyone associated with the game. He himself used to delight in recalling that he was one of the few officers to incur the Army Boards displeasure and yet reach the rank of general officer.
Alexander James Wilson was the son of a distinguished sapper, Major-General B. T. Wilson, an equally original thinker, who commanded 53rd (Welsh) Division in the Second World War. He was educated at Winchester, where he was an exhibitioner and played cricket and football for the school, and at New College, Oxford, where he read law, and played cricket for the university and the Nottinghamshire 2nd XI. He joined the Army in September 1940, serving in the ranks of The Kings Own Shropshire Light Infantry until he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade in May 1941 after the short wartime course at Sandhurst.
He won the MC in Italy for, as the citation says, outstanding qualities of leadership, initiative, planning and an intense desire to engage the enemy whenever possible, which sums up his abilities as a young officer succinctly.
After the war he was posted to the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, where he had two politically difficult years as its last British adjutant. After the partition of India in 1947, he was appointed private secretary to the C-in-C of the Pakistan Army, General Sir Douglas Gracey, to whom Wilsons legal training, mental agility and riflemans proverbial charm, which he possessed in good measure, were great assets.
On his return from India in 1950, he went to the Staff College, to which he was to return in 1955 as an instructor. In the meantime he had commanded a company in the 1st Battalion in the British Army of the Rhine, been brigade major of 91st Lorried Infantry Brigade in 11th Armoured Division, and served with the 1st Battalion again, this time in Kenya at the height of the Mau Mau campaign, being mentioned in dispatches. He was a stimulating teacher at Camberley, ridiculing the handbook Staff Duties in the Field and demanding quick and original thought, especially of any cavalry or infantry student he considered unprofessional or pedantic. Ironically, in view of his contempt for the niceties of administration, he was sent to the Administrative Staff College at Henley in 1959, and then had his nose rubbed more firmly in the subject as second-in-command of the 3rd Battalion for a year in the British Army of the Rhine. Promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel, he won his release back into the training field as GSO 1 at Sandhurst in 1960.
Much to his regret, he was never to command a Rifle Brigade battalion. The Green Jackets have always been exporters of talent to other regiments: Wilson was exported to command the 1st Battalion of the XXth Lancashire Fusiliers, a regiment that he made very much his own. He emulated Sir John Moore in the originality of its training, welcoming new ideas and never standing on his dignity.
However, it is said, perhaps maliciously, that it received the worst administrative reports of any unit in the Army while he was in command. What is more certain, however, is that he became an avid supporter of Manchester United from then on.
Unorthodox though his command of The Lancashire Fusiliers may have been, he was promoted brigadier in 1965 and sent out to Cyprus as chief of staff to the Commander of the United Nations Force, Cyprus, General Thimayya of the Indian Army, with whom he established an immediate rapport.
Sadly Thimyyas premature death ended their partnership, and Wilson acted as UN Force Commander until a new one was appointed. He proved himself ideally suited to the international environment, with just the right lightness of touch, coupled with undoubted professionalism, which made him popular with all the different national contingents.
He came home from Cyprus in 1966 to command 147th (TA) Infantry Brigade and a year later was appointed director of army recruiting, a job that benefited enormously from his originality and enthusiasm. Always prepared to try out new ideas, he was far from popular with Ministry of Defence civil servants and Treasury officials because of his constant flouting of the rules and demands for more resources to keep the Army in the public eye and so improve recruiting. His proposals became known disparagingly as Jim Wilsons gimmicks.
He went back to Lancashire in 1970 as a major-general to be GOC North-West District with his headquarters at Preston. There, he became a well-known and well-loved public figure west of the Pennines, not least for his loyal support of Manchester United, but also because he entered into the life of the northern counties and fought the running battles for them over the Territorial Army reorganisations of the early 1970s with his old opponents in Whitehall. The North was sorry to see him go when he was recalled to Whitehall as Vice-Adjutant-General in 1972.
Promoted lieutenant-general at the end of 1973, he had his last appointment in the Army as GOC South East District the largest army district at that time and the one with the greatest number of field force units with his headquarters at Aldershot.
The Heath Government was in its death throes, with the miners strike and the three-day week bringing frequent demands for military assistance from central and local government. Wilson was again in his element and did his utmost to provide what was needed as far as his limited resources would allow, without bothering overmuch about the rules for getting help to the civil power.
After he retired from the Army in 1977, he joined
the Tobacco Advisory Council as its chairman, and in 1983 became its
chief executive. He was also a director of the Standard Commercial Corporation
and of Standard Wool. He was delighted to have more time to devote to
reporting on football, and serving on the Sports Council as Services
Lieutenant-General Sir James Wilson, KBE, MC, GOC
SE District, 1974-77, chief executive Tobacco Advisory Council, 1983-85,
and football writer, was born on April 13, 1921. He died on December
17, 2004, aged 83.