Sir Arnold Wilson, Feltwell, 1940


Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, by Howard Coster (1930’s).
© National Portrait Gallery, London

From Chris – thanks as always!

75 (NZ) Squadron (as it officially became in April) moved to RAF Feltwell in February 1940. Between April and November that year, the squadron shared the airfield with 37 Squadron RAF, also flying Wellingtons. The two squadrons shared facilities, including the Officers Mess.

In his autobiography, “The Restless Sky”, 75 (NZ) Squadron (Squadron Leader at the time, later Wing Commander) Cyrus Kay talks about some of the memorable personalities that he encountered in that Officers Mess, including Popeye Lucas and some of his legendary exploits (the famous footsteps on the ceiling).

He then goes on to talk about surely one of the most extraordinary individuals of the War.

“Another personality of those now somewhat shadowy days – at one perhaps with his more youthful colleagues in an inflexible determination, yet cast in a very different mould – was he who bore the honoured name of Sir Arnold Wilson.

Wearing but the one thin stripe on his uniform sleeve and the air-gunner’s brevet on the tunic breast, the tall, erect, angular figure looked strangely at odds with the noisy mess surroundings, as well he might, for at some sixty years of age he already had behind him a career as distinguished and brilliant as it was indeed remarkable.

The slightly sallowed complexion common to many who have lived long in tropical climates was evidence of his extensive foreign service; and as was Lawrence with Arabia, so, too, will the name of Wilson be always associated with Persia.

Soldier, explorer, civil administrator, author, and politician, Sir Arnold as a young man had won the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst and then joined his regiment in India, leaving shortly afterwards for service in Persia. At this time the Burmah Oil Company, financed by British capital, had in the face of stern Russian influence succeeded in gaining a promising oil concession from the Shah. This was particularly important for British interests, as, with the swing from coal- to oil-burning, the finding of this elusive commodity was fast becoming a desperate necessity, particularly for the far-ranging vessels of the Royal Navy.

So it was that Lieutenant Wilson was detailed to lead a small detachment of the 18th Bengal Lancers, ostensibly to guard the Consulate, but in reality to provide protection for the oil-drillers against the turbulent and hostile tribesmen; and it was his good fortune to be a witness of the very first oil to gush from that arid land on that memorable morning of May 26, 1908.

Resigning from the Service, he stayed on in Persia, exploring and surveying the little-known hinterland, travelling through hostile territory in native dress—frequently attacked and many times captured, but invariably escaping alive owing entirely to his own unfailing tact and unbounded courage, until in 1918 his long political and war service in the area culminated in his appointment as British Minister in Persia.

Much later, as a roving Member of Parliament, he had interviewed and had discussions with both Hitler and Mussolini, and now here he was at Feltwell, the recipient of his country’s highest honours and one of the most distinguished citizens of the land, fighting this latest war from the uncomfortable confines of a Wellington bomber’s rear turret.

In resigning his Parliamentary seat he announced to his constituents that “I have no desire to shelter myself and live in safety behind the ramparts of the bodies of millions of our young men”,  and his words were truly prophetic, for on the night of May 31, 1940, his plane was shot down over enemy territory, and he died as he would have wished—in the service of his country.”

Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, KCIE, CSI, CMG, DSO (18 July 1884 – 31 May 1940) was 56 years old when his Wellington L7791 (37 Squadron) was shot down over Northern France, near Dunkirk. The target that night was Nieuport, and 75 (NZ) Sqdn sent 9 Wellingtons on the same op’ – Cyrus Kay was one of the pilots that night.

Three of the Gray crew, including Wilson, were killed, and two survived, badly injured. Sir Arnold was the oldest and most decorated member of Bomber Command to be killed on operations during the war.

He must have been unique amongst politicians of that era in following his principles into battle.

He is buried at Eringhem churchyard, half-way between Dunkirk and Saint-Omer.

– Reference: “The Restless Sky: The autobiography of an airman”, by Cyril Eyton Kay. Harrap (1964).

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