Obituary: Maj-Gen Ashton Wade

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The Independent Online
Ashton Wade's life and career covered most of the 20th century and tremendous developments in the technology of telecommunications. One of the founder members of Royal Signals in 1921, he went on to become the senior planning engineer to the Independent Television Authority in the years 1954-60, at a time of rapid change.

In 1915, with the Great War in progress, his eyes were opened to the enormous future of electrical communication by his uncle Sir Capel Holden, a Gunner Brigadier and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He came to Royal Signals from the Royal Artillery, which he had joined in 1916 (being seconded to the Royal Engineers from 1918 to 1921). The war extended into 1919 and took the young Wade to Ypres, where he was wounded, Caporetto and the Italian campaign, when he was awarded an MC, and to Russia.

In 1920 he was offered a place at Cambridge. Due to the efforts of Professor F.J.M. Stratton, an outstanding wartime Chief Signal Officer, the War Office had agreed that graduate training be provided to ensure that military engineering advance in step with civil engineering; Wade took a First. He spent the remainder of the Twenties helping to build the reputation of the new corps. He moved to Catterick Camp, which became the home of Royal Signals in 1925, to instruct the Young Officer entry, and lived to see the handing over of the military garden city to the Infantry 70 years later.

After working for what became the Royal Engineer and Signals Board on research and design of equipment, Wade won a vacancy on the 1934 Staff College course at Camberley (fellow entrants included the geologist Ralph Bagnold), followed by staff appointments in India at GHQ in Simla, in Karachi, where much time was spent helping the victims of the great Quetta earthquake, and eventually in Quetta itself. It was always his regret that he did not spend more time in a regiment with Indian soldiers and thereby become more familiar with their language and customs.

Returning to England in early 1940 Wade was soon posted to France, where he took part in operations before being evacuated from Dunkirk. He was then informed that he would get no further Signals appointments; trained staff officers were in short supply.

The 2nd Division, which he joined as senior administrative officer, sailed for Egypt in April 1942. However events in Burma caused the ship to be diverted at Cape Town for Bombay. Wade was ordered to GHQ Delhi and promoted from colonel to major-general - one of the very few major-generals who never held the rank of brigadier. He dealt with all matters relating to British formations and soldiers then pouring into the theatre, and in September 1944 moved to Madras in charge of the immense development of facilities for the invasion of Malaya, when formations freed from the war in Europe would arrive to help defeat the Japanese.

Much has been told of the preparations for D-Day in England, but because of the atom bomb and the enemy surrender similar work in India never receives attention. A further problem related to RAPWI, the returned allied prisoners of war and internees, many thousands of whom were shipped into Madras.

The end of the war brought much political activity directed at the early realisation of self-government in India. The different approach of Congress and the Muslim League flashed warning of internal troubles. Early in 1946 Wade was recalled to Delhi to plan and run an all-India internal defence exercise and I was borrowed from the Indian Airborne Division as his Signals Staff Officer. The task was immense and the time short. If there were any fears of failure they were soon dispelled by discussion with our leader. He was confident, clear- headed and calm, leaving his staff to carry out their own functions. Plainly his reputation remained high at GHQ in New Delhi as he was called up there to serve on the Indian Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee.

In a final year overseas as GOC Malaya, he faced many problems in a country that had suffered seven years of enemy occupation and was witnessing the growth of activities of Chinese Communist guerrillas. The "emergency" which was to last for 12 years had started.

On his return to England in mid-1948 Wade was told that he was to be placed on the retired list. He was 50 years old, prime time for senior management, and he was out of a job. After three dismal months of job- hunting a temporary military appointment as Chairman of the Review of War Crime Sentences (Europe) Board came his way, followed by a second at the trial of the Nazi Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, which gave him work until the end of 1950.

At this point fortune smiled. The Post Office asked the War Office to find a retired Signals officer to fill the appointment of Telecommunications Attache at Washington. Ashton Wade was approached. He worked in the British Embassy for six years at a time of rapid development in telecommunications; he also learned a great deal about independent television organisations. Back home this knowledge led to employment as senior planning engineer of the ITA for six years, followed by his appointment as regional officer with Anglia TV (1960-64) and at the Inter-University Research Unit, Cambridge (1965-69).

Work for the WRVS till he was 77 and then for his wife's family firm took him into his late eighties and gave him time thereafter to write an autobiography, A Life on the Line (1988).

Douglas Ashton Lofft Wade, soldier and engineer: born Saffron Walden 13 March 1898; MC 1918; OBE 1941; CB 1946; Telecommunications Attache, British Embassy, Washington 1954-60; Senior Planning Engineer, ITA 1954- 60; Regional Officer, Anglia, ITA 1960-64; married 1926 Heather Bulmer (died 1968; one daughter), 1972 Cynthia Halliday (nee Allen); died Norwich 14 January 1996.