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THE life of Major General John Brooker Willis CB, who died on February 1, 2010, was celebrated by family and friends in a memorial service on April 7 at The Minster in Ilminster.
Born on July 28 1926, John Willis lived a full and varied life with great enthusiasm and verve. He was respected for being firm, but fair, and loved for his charm, sense of fun and caring attitude towards others.
John Willis was born to be a soldier - however, his army career was preceded by an earlier one as a pilot and, indeed, flying remained a great passion until the day he died.
In 1944, at the age of 18, having been turned down by the Royal Navy as an apprentice engineer (for lack of teeth), he was accepted by the Fleet Air Arm, eventually becoming an acting leading naval airman. Unfortunately, before flying training had been completed, the war ended and there were no jobs for half trained pilots other than as sick berth attendants or cooks. So John enlisted in the Indian Armoured Corps and returned to India, where he was commissioned in April 1947 and awarded the last Sword of Honour before Partition took place. However, after Partition British officers were not required and he joined the 10th Hussars, stationed in Germany.
John Willis was an outstanding soldier, rising from a highly efficient troop leader, to adjutant and squadron leader. Affectionately nicknamed Energy Ernie by his soldiers, he provided a much respected role model for those under his command.
He was the youngest and last brevet Lieutenant Colonel in the army and took command of the 10th Hussars from 1965 to 1968. In 1977 he was promoted to Major General and became Director General of Fighting Vehicles and Engineer Equipment.
John was an excellent all-round sportsman and a natural horseman with a great love of horses and dogs. His sporting abilities proved useful to the army for whom he played hockey, trained and led the shooting team that won the Royal Cambridge Shield in 1954, captained the polo team that won the Captain's and Subaltern's competition in 1958, as well as competing at swimming, boxing, skiing, athletics and rugby for his regiment.
He retired from army life in 1981 having been made a CB and went to work as a defence advisor.
When finally fully retired in West Sussex, John became Chairman of Midhurst Royal British Legion for whom he collected memories of World War II from people in the Midhurst area, which were published in a book, They Also Served. He also organised fundraising for his local village hall, took up amateur dramatics, sang in a church choir and became a West Sussex woodturner.
A final move, in 2003, was made to Clayhanger, near Wadeford, where he took great pleasure in making his vegetable garden and woodturning. He particularly enjoyed the countryside and was never happier than when out walking his whippets, chatting to anyone he came across. Following deterioration in his health, the last year of his life was spent in the excellent care of Vaughan Lee House in Ilminster. Where, nonetheless, he was still able to take charge of the resident goldfish.
A Willis family friend wrote about John: "Such a kind and warm man with such a big heart, full of humour and the joy of living - one felt better immediately on seeing him, his enthusiasm and energy was infectious. He was a special sort of man."
John Willis is survived by his wife Belinda and children Guy, Richenda, Abigail and Hugo.