John Wilsey (g 57)
Sherborne School Governor 1994-2001
Old Shirburnian Society President 1998
Nicknamed “Gregory Peck” for his dark good looks and commanding presence on Colonel John Blashford-Snell’s Blue Nile (Great Abbai) expedition of 1968, John Wilsey encountered more than his fair share of tense moments in a career during which he distinguished himself in Northern Ireland and ended as a four-star general. Perhaps none more frustrating was when he was obliged at Addis Ababa airport to open and check contents of 199 packs of compo rations, urgently needed by the expedition waiting hungrily in the Nile gorge. When the over-zealous Ethiopian customs official discovered that the pack contents varied, having been assured they were identical, he insisted that the sheets of Bronco toilet tissue were counted. Wilsey snapped, “Total of 28,855 sheets,” having mentally multiplied 145 by 200 and subtracted the number in one pack. It was a long night demanding patience and diplomacy, but he air-dropped the rations on time.
He had taken leave of absence for the expedition from teaching at Sandhurst, from where, years earlier, he had absented himself as a 19-year-old cadet to pilot a 1930s de Havilland Rapide twin-engined eight-seat aircraft in the Daily Mail-sponsored Paris to London air race to mark the 50th anniversary of Blériot’s first flight over the Channel in 1909. The National Aerospace Library entry is laconic: “Cadet Wilsey flew from Paris to London in two hours and 39 minutes.” The journey back to Sandhurst was by motorbike.
Quietly spoken, he cared deeply for those for whom he was responsible and little for what anyone thought of him. Wilsey saw active service in Cyprus in 1959, the final year of the EOKA (union with Greece) terrorist campaign on the island. It was a vicious offensive where the enemy lived among the people and the murder of service civilians, including women, was used in attempts to incite ill-disciplined retaliation by the security forces, an ugly precursor of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where Wilsey was to become deeply involved.
After staff college he was appointed staff officer to the assistant chief of defence staff (policy) in the MoD and then posted to Northern Ireland as a rifle company commander in the “bandit territory” of south Armagh.
Wilsey assimilated the complex pressures of intercommunity problems through a sequence of command and staff responsibilities. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and appointed OBE for command of his battalion during intense counter-terrorist operations. His grasp of the intricate nature of the sub-structure of the province was acknowledged by promotion to colonel to be chief of staff at HQ Northern Ireland in 1982. This post required an interface with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) — with its own internal competing currents of prejudice — as well as with the UK police Special Branch and security services. His appointment marked a policy change in that previous chiefs of staff had been, under some arcane reasoning, brigadiers fresh to the complexities of Northern Ireland and seldom infantrymen with experience on the streets.
His appointment coincided with the first stage of the policy of reasserting “police primacy” in the province, a theory agreed on jointly by the chief constable and the General Officer Commanding (GOC) from 1976 under the title of “Ulsterisation”. Since taking over responsibility for the streets in Belfast and Londonderry in 1969, the British Army had acted as the primary security force, with a consequent decline in the self-confidence and operational effectiveness of the RUC. Wilsey understood the political desire for the return of something approaching normality, but, fresh from the streets as a battalion commander, he knew the practical difficulties on the ground. The RUC was naturally hesitant to venture into the former “no-go” areas and many soldiers, including some brigade commanders, questioned the policy’s credibility. Wilsey’s patience, humour and diplomatic skill helped to smooth out this conflict, albeit without being able to eliminate it entirely.
The political scene had undergone further change when he returned to Belfast as GOC in 1990. The government had recognised that while the Provisional IRA could be contained, it could not be defeated militarily and the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, was talking about a “non-armed political movement” towards self-determination. Despite political pronouncements about “not talking to terrorists”, intelligence service contacts with progressively minded IRA leaders were already established. In contrast, the extremist faction of the IRA refused to accept its leader’s political approach and intensified terrorist atrocities. While exasperated by the duplicitous sectarian conflict he faced, Wilsey benefited from his experiences of dealing with failed promises on the ground and the propensity of politicians to clutch at straws as he steered the army through the complex political and operational situation.
His sensitivity for what to support and what to avoid became invaluable again when Wilsey became the de facto joint force commander of British units and some of other nations struggling with the violent internecine fighting in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lieutenant-General (later General) Sir Michael Rose, commander of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wrote of him in his 1998 book Fighting for Peace: “He was someone who cared about the predicament of human beings whether soldiers or civilians. He was a soldier with a conscience, something that did not always make him a comfortable bedfellow to his more politically-minded colleagues on the armed service boards in London,” the latter being those who dealt directly with ministers.
The international command and control arrangements for Yugoslavia were a cat’s cradle vulnerable to incessant meddling. Wilsey had to contend with the capitals of the contributing nations applying pressure on UN headquarters in New York and, separately, Washington relentlessly pushing for airstrikes by aircraft under Nato Command South in Italy. When Nato-controlled RAF Jaguars had been sent to attack a target not approved by the UN, Wilsey was fortunately just in time to be able to abort the mission using RAF communications. In the lull of a temporary ceasefire, when Rose had arranged a football match in Sarajevo to stimulate an atmosphere of peace and raise spirits, the French unaccountably withdrew their military band from playing at half-time. Wilsey flew out the band of the Coldstream Guards as a replacement.
John Finlay Willasey Wilsey was born in 1939, the son of Major-General JHO Wilsey and his wife, Beatrice. He was educated at Sherborne in Dorset and Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Berkshire, from where he was commissioned into the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment in 1959. As part of his training, he attended the US Ranger course at Fort Benning in Georgia, receiving an “honor” grading. He later took to challenging his soldiers with, “Give me a growl, Ranger,” to which they took with amused enthusiasm.
In 1975 he married Elizabeth Patricia Nottingham and they had a son, James, who is a chef and owns a gastropub in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, and a daughter, Alexandra, who runs a travel business in Jersey. All survive him.
Between his Northern Ireland tours, Wilsey commanded the (Nato first reinforcement) 1st Brigade in the UK in 1984-86, attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in 1987 and was Chief of Staff HQ UK Land Forces, at Wilton, Wiltshire, in 1988-90. He was advanced to CBE in 1985 and knighted as KCB, and his final assignment on promotion to four-star general was commander-in-chief UK Land Forces, from where he exercised his responsibilities in the Balkans. He also served as an ADC general to the Queen from 1994-96.
Wilsey was advanced to GCB, and he retired from the army in 1996, aged 57. The post of chief of the general staff (head of the army) was not vacant at the time, but it is doubtful whether Whitehall would have welcomed such a frankly spoken opponent of generally accepted wisdom.
Wilsey was chairman of the Western Provident Fund from 1996 to 2009, a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and gave his time to a wide range of charitable causes.
He wrote and published H Jones, VC, the Life and Death of an Unusual Hero in 2002 in memory of the close regimental friend and colleague killed in the Falkland Islands conflict of 1982. He died from the effects of progressive supranuclear palsy from which he had suffered stoically for several years.
The Wilsey way was straightforward: “Go about your business in a calm, measured manner, walk slowly, smile a lot, but paddle like f*** underneath.”
General Sir John Wilsey, GCB, CBE, C-in-C UK Land Forces 1993-96, was born on February 18, 1939. He died on September 25, 2019, aged 80.
Courtesy of The Times, 30 September 2019.