OBITUARY: AIR MARSHAL SIR PETER WYKEHAM
Tuesday 28 February 1995
He joined the Royal Air Force as an aircraft apprentice in 1932 and three years later took a cadetship to the RAF college at Cranwell, graduating in 1937 to No 80 Fighter Squadron. Until a change by deed poll in 1955 his surname was Wykeham-Barnes - the name under which his wartime reputation was gained.
On posting again to fighters in the Western Desert, he was the first pilot of his squadron to engage the enemy and the first to be shot down and to return on foot. This time he insisted on being included immediately in the squadron's next operation, although suffering from a bullet lodged in a most awkward part of his anatomy. He was awarded the DFC in November 1940 and a bar to it in 1941 when leading 73 Squadron in defence of Tobruk from within the boundaries of that fortress.
A DSO followed in 1943 for leading offensive operations in the Italian theatre and later he took command of No 140 (Mosquito) Wing in No 2 group. As such he led the legendary 24-Mosquito raid on the Gestapo headquarters at Aarhus in Denmark for which was awarded a bar to his DSO.
During these years he was also awarded a number of high foreign decorations and was three times mentioned in dispatches. Nor was this to be the sum of his flying achievements. After taking the RAF Staff College course in 1945 he was sent to the Experimental Establishment at Farnborough where as a test pilot he played a vital part in flying and evaluating the early and often dangerous generations of jet-engined aircraft. For this he was awarded the Air Force Cross. Shortly afterwards an approach came from the United States Air Force in Korea which was experiencing difficulty in developing Fighter Intruder attacks, particularly at night.
Wykeham's leadership and development of low-level tactics in aircraft not ideally suited to the job were perhaps best illustrated by the comment of one of his American air crew: "Damned if I am going to fly with that crazy English commander again - he's gonna kill us all." Wykeham was among the first Britons to be decorated in the Korean war.
He then progressed through various command and staff appointments and promotions during which his reputation as a military thinker, particularly on joint service operations, developed steadily.
Wykeham generated both loyalty and affection among those with whom he worked. An army colonel at the time said: "How can you help giving your best to a man who opens his daily conferences with the words `Good morning dear friends'."
At this stage Wykeham's capacity as an author was emerging. He was commissioned to write the highly successful history of Fighter Command in 1960 and followed this in 1962 with a private venture on Santos-Dumont, the pioneer balloonist, a subject which always fascinated him.
In 1949 he married Barbara, daughter of J.B. Priestley, and they had a large and most happy family. Like her father, Barbara holds strong and individual and socialist views and Wykeham shared them.
In many ways he was a nonconformist. During the days of the Aldermaston Marches Barbara was often to be seen wheeling one or more of her offspring on the final lap to Trafalgar Square, where she would often be joined by her husband, then an Air Vice-Marshal.
In 1964 he took command of the Far East Air Force, a command which coincided with the minor war or "confrontation" against the Indonesians. He was able to put into practice his theories of the use of air power and the importance of inter-service co-operation, thus contributing critically to a victory which was not only comprehensive but very cheap on casualties. In 1967 he returned home to be deputy chief of the Air Staff; but in 1969 retired prematurely from the Royal Air Force.
The circumstances of that retirement are known to few people. Suffice it to say that they reflected no discredit at all on Peter Wykeham himself; that the political bureaucracy responsible had much to be ashamed of; and that his departure was a very real blow to the defence of the country and to the Service to which he was devoted.
His later life was dedicated largely to his close-knit and supportive family and to interests in the civil aviation industry. He remained an active and expert pilot almost to the end, an end accelerated by a cruel and painful illness which he bore with his usual courage and cheerfulness.
Peter Wykeham-Barnes (Wykeham), air force officer: born 1 September 1915; served with fighter squadrons 1937-43; DFC 1940, Bar 1941; DSO 1943, Bar 1944; commanded fighter sectors and wings 1943-45; Air Ministry 1946-48; Test Pilot 1948-51; OBE 1949; AFC 1951; seconded to US Air Force, Korea 1950; commanded fighter stations 1951-53; Nato 1953-56; staff appointments 1956-59; AOC No 38 Gp, RAF 1960-62; CB 1961; Director, Joint Warfare Staff, Ministry of Defence 1962-64; Commander, Far East Air Force 1964-66; KCB 1965; Deputy Chief of Air Staff 1967-69; married 1949 Barbara Priestley (two sons, one daughter); died Stockbridge, Hampshire 23 February 1995.
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