General Sir Michael Wilkes: SAS chief who went on to serve as valued right-hand man to General Peter de la Billière in the first Gulf War
Thursday 23 January 2014
From the first troop deployments to the giving of the top-secret message "Zulu 711000" that signalled battle, General Sir Michael Wilkes, Commander of the UK Field Army, was a tower of strength to the Joint Forces Commander Sir Peter de la Billière in the first Gulf War of 1990-91. That gradual assembly from September 1990 of a huge coalition force from a dozen nations, led by General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, and the campaign from 17 January 1991 that expelled Saddam Hussein's invading Iraqi army from Kuwait in six weeks, was a test of resilience that Wilkes – a former chief, as was de la Billière, of the SAS – passed with flying colours.
"Thank God for Mike Wilkes", de la Billière wrote in his account of the war, Storm Command. "He and I are of one mind and work hand in glove... The bigger the Army deployment became, the more I valued his help. I knew him well enough to bounce ideas off him and discuss problems without ceremony... I can accept comment and criticism from him which I would never take from anyone else."
Out in the featureless desert of Saudi Arabia, Wilkes and de la Billière had a huge cultural challenge, with personalities and international pressures as shifting as the sands. While they hastily transferred to the Middle East men and materiel from former Cold War positions in Germany, even the British Government broke and re-formed, with the resignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on 22 November 1990 and the accession in December of her replacement, John Major.
The British military chiefs had to liaise both with the Saudi royal family, with King Fahd at its head, and his nephew Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz as its general, who gave feasts of whole roasted lambs, and the Americans – whose chief, Schwarzkopf, fed on pot noodles and hot dogs. Compensation would have to be paid for camels, if any were shot while the British 7th "Desert Rat" Armoured Brigade Challenger tanks were on preparatory exercise with live ammunition before going forward with the US 1st Marine Division. Wilkes's efficiency in having kept his own copy of plans mitigated Schwarzkopf's scorn of the British when a staff officer in London had secret papers and a laptop stolen, and did much to ensure nothing vital had been compromised.
The war, launched during darkness early on 17 January, on the expiry of a United Nations ultimatum to Iraq, liberated Kuwait, and after a brief and speedy Coalition advance into Iraq at the end of February a ceasefire was announced.
For Wilkes there was further glory: he became Middle East Advisor to the Ministry of Defence, and in 1993 Adjutant General to the Forces, a post giving him a seat with the Defence Secretary and Chief of the General Staff on the Army Board. The crowning accolade to a brilliant career was his appointment, after he retired in 1995, to represent the Queen as Lieutenant-Governor of Jersey.
Jersey was a coming-home from a worldwide Special Forces and regular army career in more ways than one. Here it was, at the turn of the 1960s, that the young Wilkes, not long out of King's School, Rochester, in Kent, and now over on the Channel island playing rugby for the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst against a Jersey team, met his wife. He and Anne Huelin, a Jersey girl, were to marry in 1966, and have two sons.
From Sandhurst Wilkes was commissioned in 1960 into the Royal Artillery, then in 1961 joined the 7th Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery. Between 1964 and 1967 he was with the SAS on undercover deployments to fight rebels in the barren Radfan mountains and in the alleyways of Aden, now Yemen, as Britain withdrew from colonial power. In the same years he took part in secret jungle "shoot-and-scoot" warfare on Borneo defending the new state of Malaysia, which became independent in 1963, against Indonesia.
A man of powerful build, the charismatic Wilkes knew all about expeditions by canoe, the use of the American Armalite rifle instead of British regulation equipment, the disguising of footprints to confuse the enemy and abseiling in places where it was too risky for helicopters to land. He attended Staff College in 1971-72, and in 1973 became Brigade Major with RA HQ3 Armoured Division.
A long stint with the British Army of the Rhine followed, punctuated with other postings. He commanded 22 SAS Regiment between 1977 and 1980, and was Military Assistant to the Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Lord Edwin Bramall, from 1980-81. He integrated the SAS and Special Boat Service when, from 1986 until 1988, he was Director, Special Forces.
Michael John Wilkes, soldier: born 11 June 1940; OBE 1980, CBE 1988, KCB 1991; married 1966 Anne Huelin (two sons); died London 27 October 2013.
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