Wilfred Thesiger

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Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS (3 June, 1910 - August 24, 2003) was a British explorer, travel writer and special forces operative, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.[1]

Early Life

Thesiger attended St Aubyn's school, Rottingdean, in Sussex (1919-23), Eton College (1923-28), and read history at Magdalen College, Oxford (1929-33). He 'survived fagging and flogging at Eton'[2], and

During his first summer vacation from the university, he set off alone, working his passage on a tramp steamer to Istanbul and returning third-class by train. So began the travels that he recorded in fine prose and black-and-white photography. On his return, he found both a personal invitation to attend the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia, and a note from the Foreign Office appointing him honorary attaché to the Duke of Gloucester for the event - where he met Evelyn Waugh, a writer of very different sympathies.[3]


An obituary in the Guardian recounted Thesiger's involvement in Sudan and then during the 1939-45 war:

As an assistant district commissioner in the Sudan political service from 1935 onwards, he served in arid Darfur, and later in the steaming swamps of the Sudd, where one of his chief jobs was shooting troublesome lions that attacked local herds... During the war he was a bimbashi - the most junior officer rank - in the Sudan defence force. He won the DSO in 1941 for leadership under fire in fighting the Italians, under the idiosyncratic Orde Wingate in the liberation of Abyssinia. With a masterstroke of bluff, he subsequently forced the surrender of an Italian-held fort, taking 2,500 prisoners. He later fought as a major, as second in command of a Druze legion formed to fight the Vichy French in Syria - which enabled him to visit a deserted Petra. He also served with Colonel David Stirling's Special Air Service (SAS) in north Africa. Following the defeat of the Afrika Korps in 1943, the SAS went to Palestine, and in October of that year Thesiger left the organisation to act as an adviser to Haile Selassie in Abyssinia.[4]

Frank Gardner

BBC journalist Frank Gardner cites a meeting with the Arabian explorer and Sir Wilfred Thesiger in his youth, which led to a life of fascination with the Arab world and a degree in the Arabic language from University of Exeter. 'But there was something about [his] journeys that fascinated me', wrote Gardner. 'I resolved to learn Arabic and study Islam at university,' [5]

Gardner and his mother were on a London bus when they had bumped into Thesiger, an old friend of hers. "They had known each other briefly in the 1950s; in fact my mother even suspected his mother of trying to pair them off at one stage, but Thesiger was not the marrying kind"[6]

They went to have tea with him, and the young man was entranced and resolved to become an Arabist. Thesiger was, though, more than just a writer/explorer. In the war he had fought with Orde Wingate in East Africa and had won a DSO, as had Wingate; worked for the Special Operations Executive in the Middle East; fought with David Stirling’s newly formed SAS regiment; and, after the war, continued to carry out the occasional special operation for the British in the region up to the 1960s... Frank maintained the mentored relationship with Thesiger until the old man’s death.[7]