Tributes as one of Churchill’s final Few is laid to rest
Town stops for Battle of Britain pilot’s funeral
IT was a fitting tribute to a hero. A lone Spitfire thrice flew low over a coffin draped with the Union Jack.
The guttural growl of the famous fighter plane pierced the silence as Ken Wilkinson was laid to rest.
Hundreds of people had gathered to pay their respects to one of the last remaining Battle Of Britain fighter pilots – one of the final Few.
Mr Wilkinson, they said, was “a hero who laid his life on the line so we could all be free”.
The former pilot from Solihull died on July 31 at the grand age of 99. Last Thursday roads were closed around St Alphege Church in the town centre as the funeral cortege of this rare hero passed through.
Scores of people lined the streets while hundreds more gathered inside.
Those attending the service included Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, representing The Prince Of Wales. Other top brass from the RAF and Royal British Legion were also in attendance. Mr Wilkinson’s grandson Piers Cooper read a moving eulogy, revealing that this humble hero had a passion for cricket and red wine.
“He was my hero,” said Piers. “He was a very special man who was very humble but as a family we were all so proud of him.
“He used to say ‘ once a fighter pilot always a fighter pilot.’
“He had a twinkle in his eye, a taste for red wine and blue jokes to the end.”
In fact, said Mr Cooper, Mr Wilkinson once shared a risqué joke with the Duke of Cambridge – telling him off for “flying choppers”.
In 2015 he had met the Duke during celebrations for the centenary of 29 ( Reserve) Squadron at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Mr Wilkinson said he was “under instruction not to tell dirty stories”, prompting William to request just such a tale.
RAF Group Captain Patrick Tootal added: “Ken was very special.
“He had tremendous skill as a Spitfire pilot and later went on to instruct other pilots during the war. He was the salt of the earth, a charming man who had time for everyone no matter how old you were and what background you were from. I will miss our chats so much.”
Mr Wilkinson had been a former captain of Olton Golf Club, and was a key figure in the Birmingham and Edgbaston Debating Society and a leading light in the Society of Freemasons.
In a 2015 interview he said: “I didn’t carry any lucky charms... but I did wear a pair of my wife’s knickers around my neck.
“And I was one of the lucky ones. I saw friends fall out of the sky, aircraft go up in flames... terrible things.” Mr Wilkinson was the son of an aircraft manufacturer in Barrow- in- Furness, Cumbria.
The young Mr Wilkinson found his love for flying while watching aircraft tests at Farnborough and at the outbreak of war in 1939 was selected by the RAF to fly a Spitfire.
He went on to see action with 616 and 19 Squadrons, on missions protecting industrial sites in the Midlands during Britain’s darkest hour.
It was his incredible bravery and skill which led Winston Churchill to dub him and his fellow pilots during those fraught months “The Few.”
After the war he became a quantity surveyor and played a crucial role in the design of many buildings in Birmingham, including the 1960s New Street Station redevelopment.
As his funeral drew to a close, The Last Post was played and, as the red, white and blue coffin was carried out, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire soared overhead. The legendary fighter flew over the church three times as the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
Mr Wilkinson, said friends and family, would have loved it.
Ken Wilkinson during the Battle of Britain in October 1940 at RAF Fowlmere, in Cambridgeshire. Below: His funeral which was held in Solihull last week
Ken Wilkinson pictured in 2015