Ken Perkins

Soldier, pilot and media adviser

Born: 15 August, 1926, in Newhaven, East Sussex.

Died: 23 October, 2009, in Marlborough, Wiltshire, aged 83.

MAJOR-GENERAL Ken Perkins rose from the ranks to become the most decorated soldier of his generation, serving in combat during the Korean war and the Malayan emergency before leading SAS and other British troops against the so-called Dhofar rebellion in the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman.

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A "soldier's soldier", his fellow officers called him, "with an inclination to question the official line". He would later gain a degree of celebrity as husband of Celia Sandys, Sir Winston Churchill's granddaughter, but he became best-known in his later years as "military adviser" to the Sun newspaper, where he was a columnist and staunch supporter of "our boys" from the Gulf to Bosnia and Kosovo.

Perkins continued in that role during his retirement. He gave up the job only a few years ago to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest after his son Alexander graduated from Sandhurst and joined up with the Scots Guards.

The son of a gardener, Kenneth Perkins was born in Newhaven, on the south coast of England, on 15 August, 1926 and attended Lewes County School for Boys. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he gained his first military experience by guiding Canadian troops around the local countryside as part of the Home Guard, in which he finished as a second lieutenant aged only 17. He said years later that it was working in the Home Guard – "Dad's Army" – with veterans of the First World War that taught him how to be a leader of men.

After a brief spell at New College, Oxford, he enrolled in the army aged 18 in 1944 but – frustratingly, he later said – missed out on active service during the war before he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1946.

He married Anne Barry in 1949 and they would eventually have three daughters. He qualified as a pilot in 1952 and volunteered for the Korean war, where, in 1952-53, he put in 400 hours of flying as an army pilot, directing allied artillery fire and carrying out dangerous low-level photographic missions behind Chinese lines, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

From 1953-55, he flew similar operations against communist insurgents in Malaya, where he became the first British serviceman to receive the local Selangor Distinguished Conduct Medal. Back home after his tour, he was awarded an MBE.

Over the following years, Perkins served at the Pakistani army's command and staff college in Quetta, as an instructor at Mons Officer Cadet Training Unit in Aldershot, as commanding officer of 1st Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery and as a brigade major in Malta.

It was in 1975, now as a Major-General, that he was sent to the Gulf to try to end a communist uprising against the Sultan of Muscat and Oman that had been going on for more than a decade and threatened international oil tanker traffic through the vital Straits of Hormuz.

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Perkins' job put him in charge not only of British forces but also of the Omani army and allied forces sent by the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. He spent much of his time on the front lines alongside SAS men, once carrying his wounded aide-de-camp to safety after he had been shot by the insurgents.

His personal decision to bomb rebel bases in South Yemen, initially questioned by Whitehall, was later seen as a key factor in ending the uprising, which was largely over within a year of his arrival, and led to his being made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).

Returning to London in 1977, he became assistant chief of defence staff (operations) and later director of the Military Assistance Office within the Ministry of Defence. In the latter job, he argued successfully for increased military assistance to developing nations despite the general shrinking in overall military expenditure.

On retirement, Perkins became military adviser to British Aerospace (1982-86) and was snapped up in a similar role by the Sun after Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and British forces were sent to Saudi Arabia to prepare to liberate its neighbour. He accepted, according to the newspaper, "because the Sun is the papers our boys read."

In the run-up to the allied thrust into Kuwait, Perkins would dispense what might now, with hindsight, seem very obvious advice to the British press corps, many of whom showed up with WW2-vintage combat gear. "I wouldn't recommend the green camouflage this time, boys. You'll be the only green within 1,000 miles. Get yourself some sand-coloured clothes." He later helped Sun reporters to cover Bosnia and Kosovo.

A year after he and his wife Anne divorced in 1984, Perkins married Celia Sandys, daughter of Lord Duncan-Sandys and Diana Churchill, Sir Winston's eldest daughter. With Perkins already in his sixties, he and Celia would go on to have a son and a daughter.

During his younger years in the army, Perkins was a boxing champion and a useful sprinter. He was still playing army rugby into his forties, took up skiing at 60 and could frequently be seen zooming around near his Wiltshire home on his racing bicycle.

Perkins appeared in one of Sacha Baron Cohen's first interviews as Ali G in the series Ali G Innit, when the comedian put him on the spot with: "What about gays in de armed forces?" "There have always been gays in the armed forces," the Major-General replied. "If you want to make a problem of it, there's going to be a problem. If you don't, it'll be fine."

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Perkins, who died of a heart attack, published his autobiography, A Fortunate Soldier, in 1988. He is survived by his first and second wives, son Alexander and daughters Mo, Jane, Nicola and Sophie.