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Brigadier John Barford Wilks CBE

The Corps of Royal Engineers

Known as John

30 Oct 1931 - 18 Apr 2019

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Remembered by: Mr K M Kirk

Date added: 6 Jun 2019

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. They had a simple and devote upbringing in the house his parents lived in their entire lives. With the financial support of his extended family John attended Tonbridge School from 1944-1950 and was in Park House. His love of history was fostered, his hockey skills tested on the playing fields weekly and he joined the CCF. His years at Tonbridge were immensely happy ones and he remained a great advocate of the school, trying to persuade each grandchild that they should also attend. After school, John joined the army and, in 1951, joined Dettingen Company at RMA Sandhurst. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers on 8th February 1952 and awarded the Armstrong Medal and Alan Izalt prize. 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 YO Course, John joined 55 Field Squadron and was sent to Korea, where his troop rebuilt roads and maintained mine fields. His shorts and putties remain in his wardrobe today. His command of the Korean language still in evidence 60 years later, as he explained battle tactics to his grandsons. On returning from Korea in 1953 John went up to Queen’s College Cambridge to study Engineering and it was during this time that, due to the introductions of his fellow officer, Richard Burleigh, that he met Richard’s cousin, a young paediatric nurse, Sue, to whom he was to be married for 63 years. Special permission was required from his CO for the marriage as John was under the required age limit of 24. Permission was duly given. John and Sue travelled to Malaya to begin their married life together. John was TP Commander in 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 and Sue had many adventures involving bandits, parties, snakes and orchids and he became a Papa twice - to Patrick and Zoe. The bungalow where they lived remained in existence when Patrick returned for a visit in 2017. 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, but always constructive. The Wilkogram continued throughout his life, in paper form as a comment on a postcard sent to his children and 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 CO of 3 Training Regiment Royal Engineers in Minley the family goats were put on parade, the steam engine rebuilt, the gardens of Minley Manor scrutinised for weeds and John's giant pumpkin (entered into the agricultural show) was featured in the local paper being admired by Princess Anne. It was at Minley that all John and Sue’s children learnt (or were taught!) the words to ‘Hurrah for the CRE'. Moving to Stafford as Commander of 30 Engineer Brigade with operational responsibility for the Rear Combat Zone from the Channel Ports to Germany. His corporals from Stafford have said he was easy to work with, known for looking after his teamand was regarded as a true gentleman and great officer. John always cared deeply for the welfare of others - he was a wise guide to his junior colleagues, generously sharing his knowledge around leadership throughout his career. He especially took great pains to encourage individuals to achieve all they could. He gently guided, discussed goals, and developed both his colleagues and his family to ensure they could be the best they could be. Always taking a no nonsense approach, when Commander HQ Engineer Support, John told Sue he was going on Exercise but couldn’t tell her where to or for how long. Two days later he was pictured on the front page of the daily newspapers shaking Michael Heseltine’s hand following the successful fencing of Molesworth Air Base. At the time this was the largest single peace time operation undertaken by the Royal Engineers, for which John made CBE. An avid writer John wrote many articles for the RE Journal and chapters on the Corps history. His study walls are lined with books on military history and politics and he loved nothing more than a lively debate. After leaving the army, John worked for the Northern Ireland Office, under Tom King as Northern Ireland Secretary, rebuilding police stations and army barracks that the IRA continually tried to blow up. In fact he took great delight in watching the news bulletins and being able to point out how his newly build blast walls had survived an explosion, or debating the difficulties of obtaining supplies of top grade steel girders. Living in Stormont for 5 years during that time, and commuting weekly was not an easy life but he made many strong friendships and a love of Ireland. Notes in his Service Record simply say ‘if the Irish ever stop revolting I may be able to tell you a little more about this’. We are not sure that John ever truly retired. He volunteered with SSAFA, with the RE Widows and Orphans Society, as treasurer of St Margaret’s Church in Rochester. His love of reading and history grew his encyclopaedic knowledge and he remained the font of all knowledge for not only his children but also his grandchildren. There were many phone calls to Priestfields as 'Papa would always know the answer'. John also loved going out with Sue to meet up with friends for lunch and to keep up with the latest news. No words about John would be complete without gardening. His love of gardening, pruning of roses, and taking cuttings from any plant or garden (even Buckingham Palace's shrubbery were not safe!) with the cuttings usually placed in a jacket pocket. Gardens were meticulously planned (fortuitously the army provided a new garden with every posting), family gardening days organised and a never ending supply of Parker Bulbs Catalogues available. John had a long and happy life, experiencing and achieving so many things. He leaves behind Sue, his six children, their husbands, wives, 14 grandchildren (and Ben, Papa always included you as a grandchild!). His legacy is to the military and all his achievements. His love, nurturing, quiet encouragement and Wilkograms have reached so many more. We will miss you but understand that it was your time to go with God.
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