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Wilton, Sir John Gordon Noel (1910–1981)

by David Horner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir John Gordon Noel Wilton (1910-1981), army officer, was born on 22 November 1910 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, younger son of English-born parents Noel Valentine Selby Wilton, electrical engineer, and his wife Muriel Amy, née Bingham. Noel moved to Hobart in 1915 to work for the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Department. In 1923 he was appointed chief engineer and manager of the Nymboida hydro-electric undertaking, near Grafton, New South Wales.

John was educated at Leslie House School, Hobart, Grafton High School and the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, which he entered in February 1927. By the time he graduated in December 1930 Australia was in the grip of the Depression and the Permanent Military Forces could accept only four graduates, so Wilton took up a commission in the British Army as a second lieutenant. After artillery training in England he accompanied his field regiment to India, arriving there in December 1931. He gained valuable experience as commander of a section of two guns, mainly in the Lucknow area.

In February 1935 Wilton transferred to the Indian Mountain Artillery and served with the 10th Mountain Battery at Maymyo (Pyin-U-Lwin) in central Burma (Myanmar). Between November 1935 and May 1936 he was part of a small force escorting a team from the Sino-British boundary commission that was determining the Burmese-Chinese border. During the expedition he reluctantly fired his guns at a group of tribesmen who attacked the British column. In April 1938 he transferred to the Indian Army Ordnance Corps and served at Ferozepore (Firozpur) in north-west India. While on leave, on 9 July 1938 at St Andrew’s Church of England, Summer Hill, Sydney, he married Helen Thelma May Diana Marshall, a nurse.

Back in India, he rejoined the artillery and served with the 13th Heavy Battery (coast artillery) at Karachi (Pakistan). In May 1939 he returned home to transfer to the Australian Staff Corps. He had been promoted to captain in December 1938 and had had more regimental service with regular troops than any other officer of comparable seniority in the Australian army. Additionally, he had learned to speak Urdu.

Early in World War II Wilton served with the coast artillery at North Head, Sydney, and later at Port Kembla until May 1940 when, as a major, he was posted to the 2/4th Field Regiment, Australian Imperial Force. By November he and his unit were in Palestine. In February 1941 he became brigade major of the 7th Division Artillery, under Brigadier (Sir) Frank Berryman, and together they took part in the Syrian campaign. For his work in June during the bitter fighting at Merdjayoun (Marjayoun, Lebanon) he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order; he did not receive it but was mentioned in despatches. After the campaign he moved to the Australian Corps Headquarters, became a temporary lieutenant colonel in November 1941 (substantive, 1950), attended the Middle East Staff School, and arrived back in Australia in July 1942.

Between August 1942 and August 1943 Wilton was general staff officer, grade 1, of the 3rd Division, commanded by Major General (Sir) Stanley Savige. In southern Queensland he helped Savige train the division, and then in February 1943 travelled to Wau, New Guinea, to plan the formation’s forthcoming operations in the advance to Salamaua. Savige and elements of the division joined him later. It was a complicated offensive with difficult terrain, a determined enemy and co-ordination problems. Savige relied heavily on Wilton, noting that ‘few staff officers in my experience have rendered such complete devotion to duty and loyalty to his [sic] commander’. Wilton was awarded the DSO (1944) for outstanding staff work, personal reconnaissances in the forward area and his influence over the ‘sound tactical layout’ of the division.

In September 1943 Wilton joined the Australian Military Mission to Washington, and then returned to operations in May 1945, with the rank of temporary colonel, as a key member of General Sir Thomas Blamey’s headquarters on Morotai, and, for a while, in Manila. After the war he helped direct the re-occupation of Japanese-held areas in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), and finally arrived back in Australia in February 1946. His immediate superior, Lieutenant General Berryman, reported that he was an ‘outstanding officer. Excellent in a crisis . . . tact and temper admirable’. In 1947 he was appointed OBE.

Wilton became deputy director of military operations and soon director of military operations and plans at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, and he chaired the influential Joint Planning Committee. With the onset of the Cold War it was a busy time of strategic planning. In July 1950 he visited Malaya (Malaysia) as part of a mission reporting on the British Commonwealth campaign against communist terrorists in that country. The chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell, described Wilton as ‘an officer of great ability [with] high personal qualities [and] one of the best logical brains in the services’, and recommended him ‘equally well for command and staff work’, but noted that ‘he can be quite ruthless in the performance of his duties’. Wilton spent 1952 at the Imperial Defence College, London. In March 1953 he was promoted to temporary brigadier (substantive, 1954), shortly before taking command of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade in Korea.

The brigade was part of the 1st Commonwealth Division and consisted of two Australian and two British battalions. It occupied a key defensive area, covering Seoul, along the battle-line that stretched across the Korean peninsula. The battalions patrolled no man’s land and were often shelled by Chinese artillery. Towards the end of July the Chinese mounted a major attack against Wilton’s brigade, hoping to gain a more advantageous position before the expected armistice came into effect. Wilton coolly deployed his battalions and directed artillery against the attackers. In the battle of the Hook the most exposed Australian battalion lost 17 killed and 31 wounded. Estimates of Chinese casualties range from several hundred to about two thousand men killed. Wilton returned to Australia in February 1954. He was elevated to CBE (1954) and was appointed to the United States of America’s Legion of Merit (1956) for his ‘outstanding leadership and initiative in the direction of the brigade’s combat operations and training phases’.

After a term as brigadier-in-charge of administration at Headquarters, Eastern Command, Sydney, in November 1955 Wilton resumed strategic planning as brigadier, General Staff, at Army Headquarters, concentrating on the defence of South-East Asia, including issues surrounding the Malayan Emergency, Vietnam and the South-East Asia Treaty Organization. Promoted to major general, in March 1957 he was appointed commandant of the RMC; he worked hard—through advocacy within the army and negotiation with universities—to lay the groundwork for making the college a degree-granting institution (ultimately achieved in 1968).

In June 1960 Wilton became chief of the Military Planning Office in SEATO headquarters, Bangkok, where he dealt with the alliance’s strategic problems in the region, especially the conflicts in Laos and Vietnam, and met the key senior military officers in all the SEATO countries (including Britain and the USA). Syed Ahsan, a Pakistani admiral, who had acted as Wilton’s deputy and then succeeded him at the MPO, later wrote of him: ‘I never came across a chief who combined in such just proportion, the many different elements of military virtue’. Wilton was appointed CB in 1962.

On 21 January 1963 Wilton was promoted to lieutenant general and appointed chief of the General Staff. Few heads of the army have faced such a range of challenges as Wilton did in his three-year tenure. A major concern was the deteriorating strategic situation in South-East Asia. Indonesia began its confrontation with the new state of Malaysia, and sent ‘volunteers’ to fight in Sabah, Sarawak and even mainland Malaysia. Australian troops were based in Malaysia and the government decided to deploy army engineers to Sabah. An army training team had been sent to Vietnam in 1962 and in 1964 the government approved the employment of team members as advisers in the field.

As the pressure for more deployments mounted, Wilton advised the government that the army was too small to meet the commitments. Eventually, in November 1964 the government announced a huge expansion of the army, to be achieved by the introduction of a selective national service scheme. The increased manpower was matched by the purchase of new weapons and equipment, and the construction of additional accommodation. Wilton changed the army from the Pentropic organisation, with five large battalions and no brigade structure, to a ‘Tropical’ organisation, with a division consisting of nine smaller infantry battalions and intermediate task force headquarters. This, and the national service scheme, allowed the army to grow from four battalions in 1964 to nine in 1967.

In March 1965 an infantry battalion and a Special Air Service squadron were sent to Borneo, and in June an infantry battalion arrived in South Vietnam. Wilton visited both areas and set the parameters for the Australian operations. On another visit to Vietnam, in March 1966, he directed that the two-battalion task force (previously announced by the government) would be deployed to Phuoc Tuy Province. He also approved the establishment of a task force base at Nui Dat in the centre of the province. These important decisions set the shape of Australia’s military operations for the next five years. He had aimed to maximise the force’s threat to the enemy while ensuring its relative independence and safety. Some historians later argued, however, that the base was badly sited for tactical and logistic reasons. Wilton was now heading an army that was more heavily committed to combat operations than at any time since World War II.

Wilton had been appointed KBE in 1964. In May 1966 he took office as chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, the government’s top military adviser and co-ordinator of the three services. He faced many problems, including the war in Vietnam. With forces from the three services deployed, responsibility for the war now rested with the chairman rather than the CGS, as had been the case earlier. Wilton believed in the war, but resisted efforts to widen Australia’s involvement. Historians and retired officers have criticised the construction of a barrier minefield and fence in Phuoc Tuy Province, as the Viet Cong stole the mines and used them against the Australians, and Wilton must bear a share of the blame for the decision, although he was not directly involved in it.

Wilton worked vigorously to turn the three Australian services into one ‘joint force’. Building on the initiatives of his predecessor, Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Scherger, he played a pivotal role in setting up the Joint Intelligence Organisation, the Joint Staff, and the Joint Services Staff College. He was a strong advocate of a joint cadet college, but could not engender enough political support for it; the Australian Defence Force Academy was to be formally established in 1984. He advocated the formation of a single Department of Defence, to be headed jointly by the secretary and a military officer known as the chief of defence staff. His efforts were opposed, but a similar organisation came into existence in 1974-76.

Promoted to full general in September 1968—the first Australian to reach that rank since Blamey in 1941—Wilton retired from the army in November 1970. In 1971-73 he was a member of a committee, chaired by (Sir) John Kerr, whose report was the most significant regarding military financial conditions of service in several decades. Between September 1973 and November 1975 he was Australian consul general in New York. Retiring in Canberra, he became an original sponsor of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee. He died of prostate cancer on 10 May 1981 in his home at Forrest and was cremated. His wife and their daughter and two sons survived him.

Wilton was the most important and influential Australian army officer in the second half of the twentieth century. Slim, of medium height, with a neat military moustache, he was reserved, self-disciplined and tactful. Known as ‘Smiling Jack’ and later as ‘Sir Jovial’, because of his lack of small talk, he never tried to sell an image; essentially a shy man, he always eschewed any hint of flamboyance. Yet for those who knew him well, he sometimes revealed a more human side. He was a man of compassion, sensitivity and tolerance. While never wavering in his belief in the rightness of the Vietnam War, he remained on good terms with his children who all opposed it actively.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Horner, Strategic Command: Sir John Wilton and Australia’s Asian Wars (2005)
  • I. McNeill, To Long Tan (1993)
  • Wilton papers (ADFA Library)
  • I. G. McNeill papers (held by author)
  • family information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Horner, 'Wilton, Sir John Gordon Noel (1910–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilton-sir-john-gordon-noel-15765/text26953, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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