The History of Lionel Wigram and the Memorial Trust

The Lionel Wigram Memorial Trust was founded in 1988…

in memory of Lionel Wigram who was killed in action aged 36 in 1944 leading Italian Partisan Irregulars on the Adriatic coast near Sangro River Valley. The Memorial Trust has an annual income of approximately £60,000 derived from property investment. For the last 12 years, approximately half the income has been donated to U Can Do IT which is a charity which provides internet training for blind, deaf and disabled people in the United Kingdom using freelance tutors who visit them in their own homes. The remaining funds are donated to small charities providing services for disabled people in the United Kingdom. The usual grant is in the region of £400, but in special circumstances it can be up to £3,000.

Lionel Wigram was a lawyer and a very successful entrepreneural business man. With his partner Francis Winham he established the modern property company and they were responsible for a number of large deals culminating in the purchase of Marquess of Bute’s Cardiff Estate in 1938.

Lionel joined the Territorial army in 1936 and was a Captain when the war started. He was a well known public figure and after Dunkirk was given the job of evacuating the south coast towns. In the process he became acquainted with General Paget. He had got hold of a German training manual called Tactical Warfare at Battalion Level. He realised that no battle training was being given in the British Army, and that square bashing was not an appropriate introduction to modern warfare.

Lionel managed to persuade General Paget to let him set up the first British Army Battle School at Chelwood Gate. This was an enormous success, and over the course of the next 2 years Lionel was permitted to set up the British Battle School at Barnard Castle in Cumberland where he was Chief Instructor with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In 1943 he was sent as an observer to comment on the success of the allied landing in Sicily. As is well know the operation was chaotic and Lionel found himself commanding a brigade. When he got back to Barnard Castle he gave a lecture on his experiences in battle. He said that in battle training when the order was given everyone got up and charged the enemy. In real battle things were different. What happened was that some of the men did not charge at all. When anyone was wounded 2 or 3 men stopped to pick up the wounded man. In the end only a relatively small percentage of the company had reached enemy lines which may in any case by that time been vacated.

This speech was wrongly reported to General Montgomery who immediately sent for Lionel and accused him of accusing his men of cowardice. Lionel was not allowed to say anything in his defence and was demoted to his substantive rank of Major.

The battalion he was posted to was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Denis Forman who had been a great admirer and friend of Lionel at the Battle Schools and an instructor. He gave Lionel a roving brief and having learnt Italian Lionel was given the job of negotiating payments to the Italian farmers for hens, eggs, cattle and other produce. After Italy capitulated in September 1943 there were many Italians who wanted to fight on the Allied side. Lionel persuaded Denis Forman to allow him to arm the Partisans and to take on local engagements.

On February 2nd 1944 the Partisans under Lionel attacked a German observation post situated on a mountain side at Pizzoferrato. The attack went wrong because Lionel was killed early in the assault and later the Italians were pinned down in a small chapel on the top of the hill. They were forced to surrender to the Germans, but they were lined up and shot. The Germans withdrew the following day.

Lionel Wigram is buried at the Canadian Moro River Cemetery at San Donata in the Cummune of Ortona He is a revered figure in the area, and a museum dedicated to the Partisans who lost their lives during that tragic day is named the Major Wigram Museum.

In 1990 Denis Forman published a book about the military career of Lionel Wigram called “To Reason Why”.

Lionel was an active politician and was to have been a candidate for parliamentary election at Pontefract in Yorkshire. He was also a member of the Westminster City Council.