Service number 191/A1
Born: October 20th 1909
Died: June 16th 1944
He was born at Woolwich to Colonel Frederick Hugh Langston Oldham, D.S.O., D.L., and his wife, Christabel Josephine Burd. Col Oldham was the eldest son of the Archdeacon of Ludlow. From 1919 until 1936 the Oldhams lived at Overley Hall, near Wellington. They moved to Leaton Grange, Wrockwardine.
Wilfrid was educated at Shrewsbury and Matriculated in 1928. He graduated in 1931 and joined the 4th Prince of Wales' Own Gurkha Rifles.
On November 7th 1936, he left England on the Viceroy of India, en route for Bombay. His promotion to Captain was gazetted on January 29th 1939, and to Temporary Major on September 30th 1943.
He married at St James’ Church, Delhi on December 6th 1941, Felicity Marion Gilbert whom he had met when he was serving at the Indian Army Headquarters in Delhi She was a teacher and had spent time in the United States and Canada in the 1930’s and was living with her Uncle Sir Maurice Gwyer, the Chief Justice of India.
In November 1942 Wilfred was posted as second in command of the 1/4th Gurkha Rifles.
By May 1943 he was back as Officer Commanding C Company as they moved to the Chin Hills at Tiddim. On 26th May they deployed to Fort White and on 27th May to ‘Basher Hill’.
Wilfred was awarded the Military Cross for this action in which he was wounded. It was presented personally by Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander, when he visited the 17th Division on February 13th 1944 on the road 4 miles South of Tiddim which lies about 100 miles south of Imphal.
The action at Basher Hill on 27th May 1943 is probably most economically described by Col Eustace in his citation for Wilfrid's Military Cross:
Captain OLDHAM, commanded the left forward company of his Battalion in the attack on number 3 stockade on 27 May 1943. Heavy enemy fire was met, the majority of the leading platoon became casualties, and the attack was consequently halted on the front edge of the enemy position. Captain OLDHAM (himself slightly wounded) rallied the survivors, consisting of 6 men, and led them forward in an assault which cleared the enemy from his positions and inflicted heavy loss on him as he retired. There being no surviving officer in the unit on his left, he then organised the whole area for consolidation and drove back two enemy counter-attacks with heavy enemy loss. Throughout the action Captain OLDHAM exposed himself freely under heavy fire, and his leadership was an inspiring example to all ranks. Signed: N Eustace, Lt Col Commanding 1/4 Gurkha Rifles.
Felicity retrained as a Nurse in order to be closer to Wilfrid and went to Naini Tal with him when he was recovering from his wounds.
In late 1943, the Japanese command in Burma decided to invade India. The Allied forces had a substantial base in Imphal on the Burmese border the airfield there provided vital resupply and support. Wilfred had been promoted and reports of a battle in late November state
“It was Col Oldham's first experience in independent command. His orders reveal the foresight and thoroughness that characterised everything he did. Col Oldham, commanded with skill and decision and the companies responded spiritedly and with resolution, but in spite of this, we were only partially successful.”
In April 1944, the Japanese attacked the Imphal Plain from several directions. The 1/4th Gurkhas were ordered to clear a 5 mile tract of mountainous lines of communication against considerable numbers of Japanese strongly entrenched in numerous tactically advantageous and mutually supporting positions. This was achieved between 26th and 30th April 1944 with great gallantry and heavy losses.
Wilfred was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. It was gazetted on July 27th.
Lieutenant-General Sir Geoffrey Evans and Anthony Brett-James state in “Imphal”
11 April 44.
“For the 2nd attack a full battalion was used, this time 1/4th Gurkha rifles, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrid Oldham, who belonged to 17 division and had just reached the Bishenpur front.
Oldham was a quiet, pleasant man, tall, handsome and debonair. He had a well-trained and wide-ranging mind. Fear had no place in his composition, nor prudence where his own safety was concerned. Always conspicuous by reason of his great height, especially amongst Gurkhas, he would expose himself freely amongst the most forward troops, or sit about on, not in, cover, as though fire and missiles were no more than a shower of rain. With his fine eye for country and a brilliant gift for quick notebook sketches of positions, he was a great one for the personal, close-up reconnaissance, and he sometimes took unwarranted risks by moving about with an escort of only 2 or 3 men.
This first class young commanding officer who exacted, and received, the highest standards, became a legend amongst his devoted Gurkhas. Gallant, gay and highly professional, Wilfrid Oldham would undoubtedly have risen high in the army had he not, after sustaining two wounds, been killed when out on patrol much ahead of his battalion.
14 June 44
“The 1/4th Gurkhas returned to the hills and took over from the 7/10th Baluch on 14 June 1944. The position that they took over, called Baluch Hill, was about a mile to the east of Khoirok. Khoirok was important both because it was on the line of communication to 214 Regiment and because the high ground above it overlooked Baluch Hill. Col Oldham therefore decided that it must be captured. On the 16th, leaving a rear party on Baluch Hill, he moved forward with the battalion. After allotting objectives, Oldham himself, with 2 orderlies, followed D company. This company had to cross a stream to get to their destination, but only one platoon, accompanied by the Colonel and his orderlies, managed to get across the swollen torrent. Shortly afterwards the 2 groups became separated. Col Oldham was never seen alive again.
What actually happened nobody knows. The 2 orderlies returned later and reported that they had met an enemy patrol. They had instantly taken up positions and returned the enemy fire, and after a short time, the patrol withdrew. The Colonel, who had been just behind them, was then nowhere to be seen. They searched for him unsuccessfully and at dusk returned to the battalion. Repeated patrols were sent out over the next few days and on the 19th Col Oldham's body was found, minus boots and socks, but apparently unwounded, wedged between 2 rocks in the bed of the river. To this day, nobody knows what happened to him. It was a tragic end for this gallant leader who had already won a DSO and an MC and whose bravery has become a legend. He was buried on the bank of the stream where he was found.
He is commemorated on Face 61 on the Rangoon Memorial and by two windows and a tablet in St. Peter’s Church, Wrockwardine, Shropshire. Felicity died in 1999.
Papers of Gen Sir Douglas David Gracey, KCB, KCIE, CBE, MC (1894-1964)
Typescript notes on operations against 'Plateau 5151-Pimpi Ridge [Burma]', by 1 Bn, 4 Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles, 63 Indian Infantry Bde, 17 Indian Light Div, 28 Nov 1943, written by Lt Col Wilfrid Henry Burd Oldham, 1 Bn, 4 Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles. 6pp, 2 maps
In 2011, Wilfred’s nephew, John Oldham-Malcolm, was handed back binoculars lost by his grandfather in Italy in 1919, just after the First World War. They were engraved with the words “H L Oldham Royal Artillery” and belonged to Col Hugh Langston Oldham who lived.at Leaton Grange until 1965.
Dr Werner Sorg, an Austrian Surgeon, inherited the binoculars after his father found them in an Italian ditch shortly after the First World War but returned them to the family when he moved house following a newspaper appeal. Dr Sorg had a friend in England who helped him track down the Oldham family via the internet and writing to local papers.
With thanks to John Oldham-Malcolm.