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News > Deaths & Obituaries > WILKS, Brigadier John Barford, CBE

WILKS, Brigadier John Barford, CBE

You are warmly welcomed to leave a message below, share your memories and celebrate the life of John Wilks, who we sadly lost in 2019.

WILKS, Brigadier John Barford, CBE
Died on 18 April 2019, aged 87.

John Barford Wilks was born on 30 October 1931 in Old Road West in Gravesend to Thomas, formerly of the Royal Flying Corp, and latterly Barclays Bank, and his devoted mother, Irene. Perhaps a legacy of the First World War, his Aunts and Uncles never married and John and his elder sister Mary were the only children in the extended family.

With the financial support of his extended family John attended the Prep School of Kings School in Rochester. In 1944, with a scholarship from Barclays Bank, John joined Tonbridge School and was in Park House. His love of history was fostered, his hockey skills tested on the playing fields weekly and lifelong friends made. His years at Tonbridge were immensely happy ones and he remained a great advocate of the school throughout his life.

After school, John joined the army and at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst he was awarded the Armstrong Medal and the Alan Izalt prize. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers on 8th February 1952. Unfortunately, George VI had died the day before John's passing out parade and, as the country mourned their King, the parade was cancelled. The cadets dressed in their No.1 uniforms were handed their certificates and dismissed for the rest of the day.

On completing 8 Young Officer Course, John joined 55 Field Squadron and was sent to join the British Forces fighting the war in Korea where his troop rebuilt roads and maintained mine fields. His command of the Korean language still in evidence 60 years later, as he explained battle tactics to his grandsons. He returned from Korea, via Hong Kong, on HMT Empire ‘Halladale’, a journey that took 28 days. On his return from Korea in 1953 John went up to Queen’s College Cambridge to study Engineering.

After, Cambridge, John was posted abroad as Troop Commander of 75 Malayan Field Squadron working on the Kedah Roads, Nami bridge and bringing Humes decking beams by train from Singapore. During these 4 years, John had many adventures involving bandits from the jungle, snakes sleeping on car engines to keep warm, seemingly everlasting orchids, parties and learnt Malay.

Returning to the UK, John attended Staff College, before becoming Adjutant of 36 Engineer Regiment in Maidstone in 1963. His CO commented that the leadership of boisterous young officers during this posting as Adjutant stood John in good stead to manage his lively large family.

It was about this time that the Wilkogram was invented. John, always ahead of his time, became well known for his one-line letters and notes. This could be feedback on a task, comment on an event or an enquiry. Wilkograms were short, to the point but always constructive. The Wilkogram continued throughout his life, in paper form as a comment on a postcard, and then in the age of the iPad - a one line email asking children and grandchildren for ‘Any news on the job front” and with replies such as ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Expected’.

As OC of 73 Field Squadron he travelled on operational tours to Belize, and the Gulf, installing Bloodhound air defence systems at Akrotiri. As Commander of 30 Engineer Brigade he had operational responsibility for the Rear Combat Zone from the Channel Ports to Germany in the event of conflict in Europe and the threat of invasion of the UK.

In 1983, as Commander HQ Engineer Support, and working with Michael Heseltine, Defense Secretary, he planned and co-ordinated the operation to erect seven and a half miles of fencing around RAF Molesworth, one of only two British bases to house cruise missiles. The operation was planned in complete secrecy to avoid exposure in the media and had to be completed overnight. For the ‘outstanding ingenuity, staff work of the very highest calibre and his personal leadership, determination and skilful control’ John was awarded a CBE by the Queen in 1985. The citation described this operation as the largest concentration of military engineering effort on a single operation since the Second World War.

After leaving the army, John worked for the Northern Ireland Office under Tom King as Northern Ireland Secretary, rebuilding police stations and army barracks. Living in Stormont for 5 years during that time, and commuting weekly was not an easy life but he made many strong friendships and engendered a love of Ireland.

In retirement John served as Chairman of SSAFA (Kent) for many years, as a Trustee of the RE Widows and Orphans Society, and as a Trustee of the War Pensions Committee. An avid writer who wrote many articles for military history journals. His study walls were lined with books on history and politics and he loved nothing more than a lively debate on the issues of the day.

John had a long and happy life, experiencing and achieving many things. His legacy to the military will be remembered for years to come and his kindness, quiet encouragement and Wilkograms touched the lives of many people.

He is survived by Sue, to whom he was married for 63 years, his 6 children, and 14 grandchildren.

(PH 44-50)

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