by Padre Michael Peterson
Russell (Rusty) Oliver Wilkes (1905 – 1997) was one of a distinguished group of decorated combat padres of World War Two that included Laurence Wilmot, Robert Seaborn, and John Weir Foote. He deserves to be better known by Anglican chaplains, and particularly by those posted to the Royal Canadian Regiment.
Rusty Wilkes was born and raised in Hamilton,Ontario, the son of a printer. In the 1920s he studied theology at Wycliffe and Emmauel St.Chad, and was ordained a deacon in 1930 and a priest in 1930 in Keewatin Diocese. A true frontier priest, he served small parishes in Manitoba and western Ontario. Besides his parish duties, Wilkes was a band leader, a school board chairman, a volunteer firefighter, a baseball pitcher, and a fill-in newspaper editor. He experienced the hardships of the 1930s drought and depression, and with his wife Ethel endured frigid and substandard housing and pauper’s wages. It was all good training for war.
Wilkes wanted to join the army as a chaplain when war broke out in September 1939, but was not accepted until May 1940. In those days chaplains did not require special training or accreditation. On the authority of a letter from the Army’s Principal Chaplain, Wilkes enlisted in Winnipeg on 31 May and by mid June was embarking on a troopship in Montreal, bound for England. He would not see Canada and family again for five years.
Shortly after arrival in England, he was assigned to serve the Royal Canadian Regiment, at the time a single battalion. His sense of fairness and his suspicion of tradition impressed the Permanent Force Royals, to the point where he persuaded his CO to end compulsory church parades, which Wilkes saw as “a docile and sullen parody of worship”. As in his parishes, Wilkes threw himself into the life of the regiment, organizing sports, canteen life (including obtaining condoms for his “red-blooded young Canadians”), and assisting soldiers with education by correspondence. The RCR became fiercely possessive of him.
Wilkes landed with the RCR at Pachino in Sicily on 10 July, 1943, and served with them as they fought their way up through Italy. The Italian campaign was a series of difficult and costly attacks against a skilled enemy in excellent positions. In each action, Wilkes was up forward with his flock to “plant my bedroll with the RAP [Regimental Aid Post]”. As the RCR official history put it, “Padre Wilkes as usual was in the firing line and accompanied by the stretcher bearers evacuated many wounded under intense close-range fire; his leadership was an inspiration”.
It was at one such action in Sicily, two weeks after the landings, that Wilkes was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing wounded men with “no regard for his personal safety” while being “intensely mortared”, and providing “an inspiration to all the men who took part in the battle”. Years later, Wilkes modestly explained his courage as mere curiosity, saying that “I’m a nosy individual, so I spent as much time as I could at the front until the commanding officer ordered me not to go ahead of his tactical vehicles”.
Between actions, Wilkes participated in the frontline chaplain’s duty of recording the identity and grave locations of Allied and German dead, a grisly and unpleasant business which he glosses over in his memoirs. Several highlights of his time in Italy include commemorating the regimental birthday, 21 December, which fell during the Ortona campaign in 1943. Every RCR padre should know the story of the Ortona Toast and has a right to be present when it is celebrated. In August of 1944, during the Gothic Line campaign, Wilkes had a brush with fame when the RCR tactical HQ was visited by no less than Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and the theatre commander, General Alexander. At the time Wilkes was the only officer present, and was dirty, bloodstained and tired, but he shook these great men’s hands, and was then asked to report the tactical situation. “I’m only the padre”, I managed, “but I’ll get someone”. For weeks thereafter, Wilkes was asked by his men if they could shake the hand that had shaken Churchill’s.
In late 1944 Wilkes was ordered to an administrative post in England, where he finished the war. Years later he recalled that “It nearly broke my heart to leave [my men]”. In peacetime he remained in the army, holding senior chaplain positions and retiring as a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1960. Settling in Victoria, he resumed parish ministry, but maintained an honoured place in the RCR association, and was invited to Wolseley Barracks in London to preach at the regimental centennial service in 1983. In his later years he was active in church life. Rusty Wilkes died in Vancouver on 24 May 1997. At his funeral at St. Michael and All Angels, in Victoria, the Colonel of the Regiment, Col. Dick Dillon, spoke of “the courage, dedication and great sense of humour of this remarkable padre whose presence in action was such an inspiration to the Regiment.
Wilkes deserves to be remembered for his courage and dedication to those he served. He was practical in his churchmanship and theology, deeply pastoral, but could be fierce and fearless in defending ordinary soldiers against what he saw as a sometimes hidebound and stupid military culture. He had the virtue of not being easily intimidated, and the good fortune to be supported by discerning commanders who allowed him to do his ministry. Wilkes’ story is told most fully in a memoir, God’s Dodger, ghost-written by G.W. Stephen Brodsky (Elysium 1993) and now sadly out of print. Rusty Wilkes is truly one of the remarkable figures in the history of our Ordinariate.
Padre Michael Peterson is Chaplain at CFB Suffield. He gives thanks for Capt. Mike O’Leary of the RCR Association for his kind assistance in the compilation of this article.