Noel Irwin

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Noel Irwin
Born (1892-12-24)24 December 1892
British India
Died 21 December 1972(1972-12-21) (aged 79)
Holford, Somerset, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1911–1948
Rank Lieutenant General
Unit Essex Regiment
Border Regiment
Commands held West Africa Command
Eastern Army, India
IV Corps
XI Corps
38th (Welsh) Infantry Division
2nd Infantry Division
6th Infantry Brigade
2nd Battalion, Border Regiment
8th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment
2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment
1st Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Companion of the Order of the Bath
Distinguished Service Order & Two Bars
Military Cross
Mentioned in dispatches (4)
Croix de guerre (France)

Lieutenant General Noel Mackintosh Stuart Irwin CB, DSO & Two Bars, MC (24 December 1892 – 21 December 1972) was a senior British Army officer, who played a prominent role in the British Army after the Dunkirk evacuation, and in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War. He was also instrumental in some reforms to the training and equipment of British soldiers after the defeat in France in 1940, intended to meet the demands of modern warfare.

Early life and family[edit]

Noel Irwin was the eldest son of William Stuart Irwin of Motihari, Bihar and Orissa, India. He was educated at Marlborough College, before entry into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.[1][2]

He was married twice; first in 1918 to Margaret Maud Bavin who died in 1963, and in 1966 to Mrs Elizabeth Collier (née Fröhlich). He had one son by his first wife.[1]

First World War[edit]

Irwin graduated from Sandhurst in 1912 and was appointed as a second lieutenant in the Essex Regiment.[3] During the later years of the First World War, Irwin saw action in France, serving as the commanding officer of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Lincolnshire Regiment and the 8th Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.[4][2]

Between the wars[edit]

Following the end of the war, Irwin attended the Staff College, Camberley as a student from 1924 to 1925, his fellow students including Reade Godwin-Austen, Ivor Thomas, Douglas Graham, Noel Beresford-Pierse, Archibald Nye and Willoughby Norrie, Vyvyan Pope and Otto Lund. Following this, he served on the staff of the British Army of the Rhine . Between 1920 and 1932, he served in regimental and depot duties. In 1933, he was appointed as Chief Instructor at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst serving for three years.[4]

In 1937, he served briefly as General Staff Officer, Grade 1 (GSO1) for British troops stationed in China.[4]

Second World War[edit]

At the start of the Second World War, Irwin headed the 6th Infantry Brigade,[4] part of the 2nd Division. On 20 May 1940, he took command of the division during the retreat to Dunkirk in the Battle of France.[4]

Following the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, Irwin commanded the 38th (Welsh) Infantry Division in Britain. From November 1941 he commanded the XI Corps, which was based in East Anglia and had substantial responsibilities for the defence of Britain in the event of a German invasion.[5]

He was transferred to the Middle East in 1942, to command of the IV Corps in Iraq.[4] The Corps HQ was subsequently transferred to India after the Japanese conquest of Burma. Irwin became General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Army in India in July 1942. Eastern Army had wide responsibilities for defending eastern frontier of India against the Japanese, and maintaining security in large areas of India.[4]

For the minor attack in Arakan late in 1942, Irwin and Eastern Army HQ bypassed XV Corps HQ after disagreements with the local commander, Bill Slim, and took command of the operation.[4] The attack failed, with severe effects on Allied morale and prestige. On 6 April 1943, Irwin gave a press conference in which he criticised the equipment, training and motivation of the Allied armies in India.[6] Although his observations were admitted to be largely correct, Irwin's refusal to admit that any blame attached to himself and his staff was resented. He was relieved of his appointment and returned to Britain on sick leave.

In 1944, he was appointed the General Officer Commanding East Scotland District in his substantive rank of major general (a significant step-down from his previous three jobs),[7] and remained in this post until the end of the war. After three years as Commander-in-Chief of British forces of the West Africa Command,[4] during which time he was promoted to the permanent rank of lieutenant general, he retired to private life in 1948.[4]

Honours and awards[edit]

During his military career, Irwin was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order with two Bars. He was Mentioned in Despatches four times but significantly, he never received the knighthood which would normally be expected to accrue to an officer of substantive lieutenant general rank.[7]

  • Companion of the Order of the Bath (11 July 1940)
  • Distinguished Service Order (1 January 1918, 24 September 1918 For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When the whole of his battalion front was heavily attacked and all communications with his forward companies were cut, this officer personally organised his headquarters and stragglers, and formed a defensive flank so as to obtain touch with the brigade on the right. This flank he held for eight hours against all attacks, organising two counter-attacks against the enemy during this period, thus averting a critical situation. It was greatly due to his able conduct that the holding of their battle position by his brigade was possible throughout the day. His courage, energy and quick decision inspired the greatest confidence in his men, 1919)
  • Military Cross (3 July 1915: On 2 May 1915, east of Ypres, when in reserve trenches with his company, seeing that the men in the front trenches were overcome by gas and were retiring, with great initiative and courage and under heavy fire, he at once advanced with his company and seized the front trenches before the Germans could occupy them, and drove back the enemy's attack. On 13 May in the counter-attack he handled his company with great skill and determination.)
  • Mention in Despatches (1 January 1916, 22 May 1917, 21 December 1917, 28 December 1918
  • Croix de guerre (France)


  1. ^ a b "British Army officer histories". Unit Histories. Retrieved 2017-09-06. 
  2. ^ a b Smart, p. 169
  3. ^ London Gazette 28641
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives
  5. ^ Army Commands Archived 5 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Christoper Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies, Penguin Books (2005), ISBN 0-14-029331-0, pp.274–275
  7. ^ a b Mead, p. 222.


  • Latimer, Jon, Burma: The Forgotten War, London: John Murray, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7195-6576-2
  • Liddell Hart, Basil, and Constance Kritzberg, Henry, A History of the Second World War. New York: Putnam, 1971. ISBN 0-306-80912-5
  • Malkasian, Carter. A History of Modern Wars of Attrition. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. ISBN 0-275-97379-4
  • Mead, Richard (2007). Churchill's Lions: a biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II. Stroud (UK): Spellmount. ISBN 978-1-86227-431-0. 
  • Smart, Nick (2005). Biographical Dictionary of British Generals of the Second World War. Barnesley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 1844150496. 

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Charles Loyd
GOC 2nd Infantry Division
May–August 1940
Succeeded by
Daril Watson
Preceded by
Aubrey Williams
GOC 38th (Welsh) Infantry Division
Succeeded by
Arthur Dowler
Preceded by
Hugh Massy
GOC XI Corps
Succeeded by
John Crocker
Preceded by
Thomas Corbett
GOC IV Corps
April–July 1942
Succeeded by
Geoffrey Scoones
Preceded by
Sir Charles Broad
GOC-in-C Eastern Army, India
Succeeded by
Sir George Giffard
Preceded by
Brocas Burrows
GOC West Africa Command
Succeeded by
Sir Cameron Nicholson