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Dennis Wilkins: Fleet Air Arm and England Rugby

December 26 1924 - January 30 2012

Dennis 'Squire' Wilkins, who has died aged 87, was a Fleet Air Arm pilot, a mainstay of the England rugby XV for three seasons, and a successful businessman in the paper trade. (6:12PM GMT 20 Mar 2012).

Dennis 'Squire' Wilkins

Wilkins had played football at school, and did not take rugby seriously until he was 21 and found himself at a loose end at weekends. A ruddy-cheeked, pipe-smoking heavyweight with a penchant for checked jackets, he was nicknamed “Squire” by his fellow players. Having joined Roundhay RFC, Leeds, in 1948, he was quickly promoted to captain and was soon playing for Yorkshire.

Wilkins also turned out for Combined Services, and one Saturday in the 1949-50 season after a morning match he and his team-mates decided to watch England play Wales at Twickenham in the afternoon. The tickets had sold out by the time they arrived at the ground, and while his companions managed to squeeze through a gap in the railings, Wilkins was too large and was arrested as he tried to climb over the top. The next season he would go into the ground through the players’ entrance.

Wilkins was selected for England in every match in the 1951, 1952 and 1953 seasons. He was the first player capped for England direct from Roundhegians (in January 1951, when England lost 23-5 at Swansea against a renascent Wales). In 1952 he was an outstanding member of the pack when England lost 8-3 to the all-conquering Springboks . His last appearance was at Twickenham, when England won the Championship (now the Five Nations’) Cup and the Calcutta Cup by beating Scotland 26-8. In all Wilkins was capped 13 times.

He also played for the Barbarians, and in 1953 captained Yorkshire to its first County Championship for 25 years .

Described by one sports commentator as “a huge and humorous chunk of a Yorkshireman”, Wilkins was an outstanding leader and dominated in the scrum. He inspired the team with his boundless enthusiasm and, as one of the best second-row forwards in rugby union, was tipped to captain England in 1953-54, only for the Korean War to intervene.

Dennis Thomas Wilkins was born in Leeds on Boxing Day 1924 and educated at Roundhay, at Chelsea Polytechnic and, as a mature student, at INSEAD.

His rugby achievements were all the more remarkable because he combined them with a career as a naval airman — or, as one contemporary put it, “he flew for the Fleet Air Arm when he could”.

He had joined the FAA in 1943 as an observer (navigator) in the Swordfish “Stringbag” torpedo-bomber. But the back seat was not Wilkins’s natural position in any sphere of activity, and he transferred to the role of pilot, going solo on June 4 1946 after 11 hours in a de Havilland Tiger Moth. He made his first deck-landing on the carrier Implacable on December 1 1947. Wilkins flew Fireflies with 812 Naval Air Squadron from the carrier Ocean in the Mediterranean in 1948-49, and in March 1950 survived a forced landing when his Seafire XV suffered an engine failure at 5,000ft and he made a wheels-up landing in a Scottish field.

In 1953, during the Korean War, Wilkins was lent to the Royal Australian Navy, with which he flew from the carriers Vengeance and Sydney.

Wilkins had captained the Royal Navy XV in the 1952-53 season, and he played again for the Navy in 1956, when the team came from behind to beat the RAF 11-9 and win the Inter-Services Championship. Aged 32 he decided to quit the amateur game.

His last flight as pilot was on July 5 1957; he had made 129 deck-landings and flown more than 1,000 hours on all types of aircraft, from biplanes to the twin-engined Meteor jet. His last appointment in the Navy was as battery commander at the Field Gun competition at the Royal Tournament in 1958.

Wilkins then joined Kimberley-Clark, selling the company’s products, mainly Kleenex, to stores in the East End of London. Within eight years he was on the board and responsible for sales and marketing worldwide. The parent company, Reed International, put Wilkins in charge of its subsidiaries and within a few years he was running its papermaking activities, in charge of some 8,000 employees.

Next he took over Reed’s ailing wing in South Africa, where his rugby contacts helped him restore the company’s business interests to health.

He returned to England to head Reed’s European operations, running a £600 million pound operation from more than 50 sites. He was a director of Reed International.

Wilkins married, in 1955, Faye Nicholson of Otahuhu, New Zealand , who survives him with their son and daughter.

Dennis 'Squire' Wilkins, born December 26 1924, died January 30 2012

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 14 July 2019, 11:23