Obituary in The Age, Melbourne, May 11 1981

Wilton, quiet, courageous leader of men

From ROBERT O'NEILL, in Canberra

With the death of General Sir John Wilton on Sunday, Australia has lost one of its most distinguished service leaders of the post second world war era.

Born on 22 November 1910 in Sydney, John Gordon Noel Wilton was educated principally at Grafton High School.

He chose a military career, despite severe reductions in the strength of the Australian military forces earlier in the 1920s, and entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1927.

After graduating in second place academically on 9 December 1930, Lieutenant Wilton began service the next day with the British army as an artillery officer. Of the twelve who graduated from Duntroon in 1930, four were accepted by the British army, four entered the Royal Australian Air Force and only four remained in the Australian military forces.

During the 1930s, Wilton gained wide experience in the British army, being stationed in the United Kingdom, India and Burma, where he became familiar with the problems of jungle operations in South-East Asia which be was to face repeatedly over the following 30 years.
Despite eight years of successful service with the British army, Wilton was glad to return to Australia and join the Second Australian Imperial Force, with which he served in the Middle East in 1940 and 1941.

In mid June 1941, during the 7th Division's advance into Syria, he played a significant role in helping to stem a strong French counter attack at Merdjayoun which threatened the communications of the advancing Australians. Wilton's quick and cool orders for the attack which drove the French out of Merdjayoun were a model of clarity and tactical soundness.

Wilton later served in New Guinea in 1942 and 1943. As senior operations staff officer to Major General (later Lieutenant General Sir Stanley) Savige, general officer commanding the 3rd Division, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilton played a major role in planning and directing the advance on Salamaua in mid-1943.

This campaign was marked by difficult relations between American and Australian forces and Wilton, on several occasions, had to arbitrate disputes over who was responsible to whom.

He completed the 3rd division's part in what Savige described as the "toughest operation problem I ever faced" with high praise for his skill and courage.

Wilton was then selected for the Australian military mission, Washington, gaining insights into the complexities of wartime diplomacy, strategic coordination and logistic planning.

He returned to the headquarters, Australian military forces, South-West Pacific area, as colonel general staff in 1945. Aged 35, he had ma0e his mark and was recognised as a contender for the most senior ranks in the Australian army.

The severe reduction of the army after the second world war did not leave much opportunity to mid-ranking regulars to show their mettle, but Wilton was appointed to two of the best positions available in his rank: first, in 1946, he became deputy director of military operations at army heiquarters; second, in 1947 he became director of military operations and plans for the following four years.

In July 1950, he was the second senior member of the Bridgeford mission which investigated ways in which Australia might assist Britain in controlling the Malayan emergency.

Wilton led another mission to Malaya in February 1951. He warned the British that if they did not maintain sufficient forces in Malaya for dealing with internal security problems, Australia would be unlikely to assist with defence against external attack.

After attending the Imperial Defence College, London in 1951 and 1952 Wilton was selected for the army's key operational command, the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade in Korea. In March 1953, he relieved brigadier (later Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas) Daly, reversing a situation of 10 years earlier when Daly had relieved Wilton at Tambu Bay, and took command of a composite brigade of Australian, British, Indian and New Zealand units.

His divisional commander, Major General West, regarded Wilton as an outstandingly good brigade commander. In the four months of operations after Wilton's arrival, the brigade restored a potentially disastrous situation created by an American force which had relieved it for some two months on the Jamestown line. A determined and skilful patrol policy drove the Chinese back from the allied front line and re-established Commonwealth control over no-man's land.

Fearing for the stability of the Commonwealth division's left flank during Chinese sledgehammer' attacks in June and July 1953, West ordered Wilton to take. over the defence of The Hook, a vital ridge between the Samichon and Imjin rivers. The line was held.

On his return from Korea, Wilton rose steadily through senior positions in army headquarters and, as a Major General, was commandant of Duntroon, from 1957 to 1960, and chief of SEATO military planning office in Bangkok from 1960 to 1963. He was appointed Chief of the General Staff in 1963 and assumed the responsibilities which accompanied Indonesia's confrontation of Malaysia, the development of Papua-New Guinea's defences, the introduction of conscription and the undertaking of a major commitment to the Vietnam war.

He discharged these tasks with such skill that in 1966 he was appointed the most senior service position of that time as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

In 1968, he became the fourth Australian army officer, after Chauvel, Monash and Blamey to attain the rank of full general. Hretired in 1970 and in 1973 was appointed by the Whitlam Government as Australian Consul General in New York for two years.

At the height of his career from 1963 to 1970, he had to face some extremely difficult problems, principally concerned with the war in Vietnam. He fought hard to obtain a separate area of operations in Vietnam for Australia, out of concern that the Americans did not know how to fight insurgency in South-East Asia.

He had to give leadership to forces, which, after the 1968 Tet offensive, were inclined increasingly to question the worth of their efforts. His family was split by the generational conflict which the Vietnam war caused throughout the West.

General Wilton was quiet, undemonstrative and even a little shy. But he had a first class brain, he wrote well, he argued clearly and when he spoke he commanded ready attention for the worth of what he said, rather than the way in which he said it.

One of the most remarkable aspects of his career was that he rose so far through a highly competitive profession without ever playing to the gallery.

His death at the age of 70 robs us of his wise counsel and his unique historical knowledge of vital aspects of our recent history.

Dr O'Neill is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, and Australian official historian for the Korean war.