On This Day -21 April 1874  Birth of tank designer Walter Gordon Wilson

 

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A century ago the Great War was still raging, still deadlocked. Two inventions would play a huge role in the resolution of the conflict, and both were originally designed by Irishmen. John Philip Holland, a Fenian sympathiser from Clare, had invented the submarine in the late nineteenth century as a way of attacking British shipping. Walter Gordon Wilson, on the other hand, developed the tank with a view to assisting the cause of his adoptive country against Germany in World War One.

Wilson was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin in 1874. The son of a barrister, he trained as a British naval cadet, before completing his education at King’s College, Cambridge, where he got a first in mechanical science.

His story includes one of the great ‘what ifs’ of aviation history. In 1897 he formed a partnership with Percy Pilcher, a gliding enthusiast. Their aim was simple, to be the first to achieve controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight, by developing an aero-engine. They nearly made it, and might have done so had Pilcher not been killed in a glider accident in 1899. Shocked at the death of his charismatic partner, Wilson abandoned the project, although he had already designed a prototype engine.  Four years later Orville and Wilbur Wright made aeronautical history with their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

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Wilson next moved into the burgeoning automobile industry, adapting his aeronautic engine for the new ‘horseless carriage’. Although Percy Pilcher was dead, Wilson paid homage to his partner in naming the Wilson-Pilcher motor car in 1900. He continued to develop the design—which included a revolutionary gearbox—until the outbreak of World War One.

Wilson re-joined the Navy in 1914. He was sent to Belgium and France to protect British aircraft using armoured vehicles. He was also expected to build them. He was then taken on by the highly secretive Landships Committee, to develop what would become the tank. The Committee wanted nothing more or less than an armoured vehicle capable of withstanding German machine guns and small arms, sailing through barbed wire, and over trenches. So no pressure there.

But Wilson, and his new partner, fellow engineer, William Tritton, were up to the task. Their first effort was nicknamed—no sniggering at the back, please—‘Little Willie’. It was called after Wilson or the Kaiser—depending on who you believe—and was chronically unstable. So probably the Kaiser then.  A high mid-section meant it had a tendency to keel over when sent into experimental action. Wilson went back to the drawing board and developed an armoured vehicle with a lower centre of gravity, and tracks running around the whole body. It’s official name was ‘The Wilson’. Then it was renamed ‘The Centipede’. But it was better known by its nickname, ‘Big Willie’. I kid you not. It went into production in February 1916, and the first models were ready for action during the second phase of the Somme offensive.

Well, sort of anyway. They just weren’t very good in 1916. They were unbelievably hot, and noisy, and tended to break down long before they got near the enemy trenches. Wilson and Tritton kept at it, and continued to improve the design, until the tank, by 1918, was a vital and integral part of the Allied victory over Germany. Its most successful appearance was probably at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. One of Wilson’s great contributions was something called epicyclic steering, which allowed the tank to turn, a rather useful characteristic in a war.

Wilson transferred from the Navy to the Army in 1916, was promoted to Major, mentioned in dispatches twice, and, in 1917, was appointed Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, or a CMG to you and me.

After the war he continued his career as an innovative engineer, developing and exploiting the Wilson self-changing gearbox, and setting up his own company in Coventry to manufacture it.

Walter Gordon Wilson, the man who designed one of the most lethal and decisive weapons of the Great War, the tank, was born in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 7 April 1926 – Violet Gibson tries to assassinate Mussolini

 

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The former Italian international soccer player, Paolo di Canio, may be a fan, but the modest Irishwoman, the Honorable Violet Albina Gibson, was certainly not. In 1926 she linked Irish nineteenth century land purchase with twentieth century Italian fascism when, around the time he assumed absolute power in Italy, Violet Gibson unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini.

At the time Il Duce was saluting his public in the Piazza del Campodoglio in Rome. He had just addressed the International Congress of Surgeons, so he was probably in a good place had Violet Gibson been a better shot. As he sat in his Duce-mobile, waiting to be whisked away, the car was approached by a petite, bespectacled, and somewhat shabby fifty-year old woman. Instead of smiling and waving at the Italian prime minister, she took out a gun and shot him at almost point blank range.

Gibson, a member of an Irish aristocratic family, was, unfortunately, not a particularly good shot, and pistols are notoriously inaccurate in the hands of a novice. She hit Mussolini in the nose, twice, causing a spectacular nosebleed, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. At least one bullet went right through both nostrils.  A third attempt to fire led to the gun jamming. Had Mussolini not turned his head at the wrong moment—or the right moment if you’re a lover of Fascist dictators—Violet Gibson might not have failed in her one and only attempt at killing someone other than herself. Mussolini’s recorded reaction was one of surprise, that his assailant was a mere woman.

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Gibson was immediately set upon by enthusiastic Fascist spectators, eager to demonstrate their devotion to Il Duce, and was almost lynched. The police intervened, and she was quickly overpowered and arrested. She can probably consider herself fortunate. A few months later a teenager tried to kill Mussolini in Bologna, he was captured by a vengeful mob, strangled, knifed, and then shot.

The middle-aged Irish aristocrat was from a celebrated Anglican and Unionist family, but had converted to nationalism and Christian Science, before eventually becoming a Catholic, in 1902. Her Catholicism, however, did not prevent her from once threatening to shoot the Pope, whom she accused of betraying her beloved Italy. The year before her attempt to end prematurely the illustrious career of Il Duce, she had tried to kill herself with a gunshot to the chest. She missed on that occasion too, her inaccuracy probably explaining her inability to kill the Fascist leader from the much greater range of a couple of feet, the following year.

After the attempt to take her own life she had spent her days living quietly in a convent in Rome, mostly doing jigsaws. She gave no indication of what she had in mind when she stepped out on 7 April 1926. Neither did she tell any of the nuns that she was armed.

Although she claimed to have been ordered to kill Mussolini by God himself, in the case made to the Military court that tried her, the prosecution held that ‘the deed was not attempted in an unconscious frenzy of delirium, terror or hallucination’. However, when she was released on Il Duce’s orders, and deported to Britain, she was committed to the same asylum where James Joyce’s daughter Lucia spent the last thirty years of her life. She died in 1956 at the age of seventy-nine, and is buried in Northampton in England.

Violet’s action would actually not have gone down too well in official circles in Britain in 1926, as the King of England had just awarded Mussolini the Order of the Bath. But his own lynching in 1945 prompted calls for her to be released. By then, however, her mental state had deteriorated, and she suffered from the delusion that her moods were responsible for the weather. With most of us it’s the other way around. On her return to England she had written many letters to Winston Churchill, and much later, to the future Queen Elizabeth. None were ever posted.

Incidentally, the obscure reference in the first paragraph to Irish land purchase was based on the fact that Violet Gibson was the daughter of Edward Gibson, Baron Ashbourne, the Tory Lord Chancellor whose 1885 legislation speeded up the acquisition of the land of Ireland by its tenant farmers, in what became known as the Ashbourne Land Act.

The Honourable Violet Gibson came within inches of changing European history ninety-one years, on this day.

 

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