Obituary: General Sir William Jackson

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The Independent Culture
IN APRIL 1940, during the "Phoney War", William Jackson was one of the first British officers to engage the enemy in battle. He went on to fight with distinction in North Africa and Italy, and after the war reached the highest echelons of the British Army, later becoming Governor of Gibraltar, in 1978-82. Few military historians, as he was to become, could claim such a background.

A young subaltern in the Sappers in 1940, he had been sent with his field section to support 15 Infantry Brigade in its advance on Trondheim in Norway. They got as far as Littlehammer before being forced to withdraw by a vastly superior German force and lack of air support. In the fighting retreat to Andalsnes Jackson, by blowing up bridges, often under intense fire, slowed the enemy advance, allowing more time for troops to be evacuated.

For his coolness under fire in this hazardous operation he was awarded an MC. He won a bar to it three years later in the tenacious fight for the heavily fortified monastery at Monte Cassino. In appalling winter conditions and often under fire he organised the maintenance of the road and bridges in order that supplies and reinforcements could get through. In North Africa and again in Italy he was blown up by a landmine, being severely injured in the first explosion.

Bill Jackson was born in 1917 in Blackpool where his father, Colonel Albert Jackson, was in charge of the RAMC depot. His mother, whose family name was Fothergill, also came from a long military tradition. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, a Fothergill commanded his army in the north.

Jackson was educated at Shrewsbury. He decided on a military career early on and went to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where he became King's Medallist for his year. He then went up to King's College, Cambridge to read Mechanical Science. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1937.

After his early introduction to battle in Norway, he returned to England and joined the 6th Armoured Divisional Engineers. He was with them in November 1942 when they went to North Africa for "Operation Torch", to keep the pressure up on Rommel's forces. Just before Christmas he was severely injured by a land mine at Bou Arada in Tunisia.

After four months in hospital, though still not fit for active service, he was posted to the staff of General Dwight Eisenhower at his Allied Headquarters where, with Rommel now almost a spent force, preparations were being made for landings at Sicily and the subsequent invasion of Italy.

Declared fit in the autumn of 1943, Jackson returned to the 6th Armoured Division, this time to command 8 Field Squadron and was in action in the battle for Garigliano and Cassino and the advance past Rome to the Gothic Line. After being wounded by a land mine at Arezzo, he recovered within a few weeks and joined the staff of the newly appointed Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean. Jackson warmed to and respected Alexander, not least for the fact that he had commanded a battalion at Passchendaele in the Great War at the age of just 24; in 1971 he wrote a military biography of him, Alexander of Tunis as Military Commander.

Now a Major, Jackson returned to England to attend Staff College at Camberley and in May 1945 he became GSO1 at HQ Allied Land Forces in South-East Asia where preparations were in hand for the re-occupation of Malaya. However the surrender of the Japanese in August brought an end to the plan. Jackson was to remain in the Far East until 1948. It was during this time that he met and fell in love with a young ATS Junior Commander, Joan Buesden. They married a year later.

Jackson became an instructor at Staff College, Camberley, followed by two years on the staff of the RMA Sandhurst. He gained the Royal United Services Institute Gold Medal for a prize essay and his first book, Attack on the West, about Napoleon's campaigns, was published in 1953. His next book was a history of all the invasions of Russia since the Dark Ages, Seven Roads to Moscow (1957).

After a short spell in Germany with the 7th Armoured Division, in 1956 he was posted to the War Office as Assistant Adjutant and QMG (War Plans) where he was in charge of the logistic planning for the Suez Operation. He delighted in his next posting, in command of the Gurkha Engineers in the Malayan jungle for two years, continuing the work of the Hearts and Minds campaign and seeing off the last remnants of the Communist terrorists.

After two more years at Camberley Jackson returned to the War Office as Deputy Director of Staff Duties, where his role was deployment of the Army world-wide. A year of study at the Imperial Defence College in 1965, was followed by another five at the Ministry of Defence where he finished as Assistant Chief of General Staff.

He next appointment, in 1970, as Commander-in-Chief, Northern Command, in charge of military personnel and locations, appealed to his wry sense of humour in its links with his Fothergill ancestor in 1066. In 1973 he returned south to London and the MOD, as Quarter Master General. In this his last Army appointment, he moved many of his staff and supporting organisations out of London, saving manpower and costs. Few men other than Jackson would have had the courage to implement such a large-scale operation.

Thirty-four years after joining the Royal Engineers he became their Colonel Commandant (1971-81), and of the Gurkhas from 1973 to 1978. He was knighted in 1971, and served as ADC General to the Queen from 1974 to 1979. His books during this period include The Battle for Italy (1967); Battle for Rome (l969); North African Campaigns (1975) and Overlord, Normandy 1944 in 1978.

In that year he became Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar. He was determined to understand and make himself accessible to the people of Gibraltar. He developed a close affinity with them and became known to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for his passionate defence of their interests, and his profound belief in their right to self-determination. His three-year appointment was extended another year.

In 1982 Jackson returned to Britain, but he maintained a resolute defence of Gibraltar. Any movement by the Spanish or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that might have a negatively effect led to a lucid letter to The Telegraph or The Times, or to the desk of whoever sought change. He continued to write. His British Official History of the Mediterranean and Middle East was published in three parts in 1984, 1987, and 1988) and he wrote the definitive history of Gibraltar with the The Rock of the Gibraltarians (1988).

In his books, it was his intimate knowledge of not only the practice of war, but of the men at war at all levels that made him such a fine writer. As the military obituary writer for The Times (1987-93) he brought warmth and colour and an great perception to his obituaries. He had been at the sharp end and seen much of death and this gave him an abiding respect for those who had served their country in time of war and peace.

Bill Jackson was man of considerable presence who stood tall, with a military bearing until late in life. A consummate professional, he was calm in a crisis and despite his considerable intellect he was full of compassion, particularly for the underdog. A profoundly happy marriage underpinned his life and work.

Max Arthur

William Godfrey Fothergill Jackson, soldier and historian: born Blackpool 28 August 1917; MC 1940, and Bar 1943; OBE 1958, GBE 1975; KCB 1971; QMG 1973-76; Military Historian, Cabinet Office 1977-78 and 1982-87; Military Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Gibraltar 1978-82; married 1946 Joan Buesden (one son, one daughter); died Swindon, Wiltshire 12 March 1999.