Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, Third Baronet (1842-1921)

British admiral. Born on 4 March 1842 in Swaffham, Norfolk, Arthur Wilson entered the navy in 1855. He served as a midshipman on board the ship of the line Algiers in the Black Sea during the 1853-1856 Crimean War and again during the 1856-1860 Second Opium War with China. This early baptism of fire had a marked effect on his later style as a leader.

In 1870 Wilson was appointed to the committee set up to investigate the new torpedo invented by Robert Whitehead. This began a lifelong interest in underwater warfare. When a torpedo training school was established on board the HMS Vernon at Portsmouth in 1876, Wilson was put in charge of the instructors; he returned to command the school in 1889. In between these appointments, he commanded the experimental torpedo-boat carrier Hecla in the Mediterranean and participated in the 11 July 1882 bombardment of Alexandria. He fought ashore in the 1884-1885 campaign in the Sudan. At the 29 February 1884 Battle of El Teb, he rallied the troops when the British square broke under a determined attack. Subsequently he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Wilson’s interest in underwater warfare was practical as well as theoretical. He was responsible for a number of inventions, including a system for aiming torpedoes accurately and the submerged torpedo tube, a key element in the future design of the submarine. He also designed the first armored train, employed during the 1882 Egyptian campaign.

In 1901, by then a vice admiral, Wilson took command of the Channel Squadron, and was so successful that his tour of duty was extended until 1907. During this remarkable six-year period he raised the fighting efficiency of the fleet to an unprecedented level, with regular and realistic training, even in the most adverse conditions. He was a superb seaman, renowned for his physical and moral toughness-the sailors called him “Old `Ard `Art”-who drove his ships and men hard.

In 1907 Wilson was promoted to admiral of the fleet and appointed first sea lord. But it was not a happy time. Ill-suited to a desk job, he soon found himself at odds with the energetic young First Lord Winston S. Churchill and left after only two years. However, he returned to the Admiralty in 1914 and remained there throughout World War I, refusing any official post or even a salary. He finally retired in 1918 and died at his home in Swaffham on 25 May 1921.

A reserved, undemonstrative man, Wilson has been overshadowed by the more glamorous and self-publicizing Admiral Sir John Fisher. Certainly, in terms of matériel, the Grand Fleet of 1914-1918 was Fisher’s creation; but in terms of seamanship, tactics, and morale, it was Wilson’s baby.


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