Recognising a life and legacy of service in Free Wills Month

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21 March 2024

As part of Free Wills Month, SSAFA would like to recognise the extraordinary life and legacy of service of Derek Tilford.

Squadron Leader Derek Tilford was born in 1937. As a young man, he developed a keen interest in flying, obtaining a student pilot’s licence and a Gliding B certificate while a cadet at Chiswick County Grammar School. This interest continued through his time at Nottingham University, where he was a part of the University Air Squadron before leaving to join the RAF.

Not long after, in April 1960, Derek married his wife, Barbara. His career in the RAF took the family all over, including to Geilenkirchen, Germany and Tengah, Singapore as well as the UK.

Alongside his military service, Derek remained committed to volunteering for a variety of causes. In 1978, he was awarded an MBE for services to the community. Though servicemembers are not told why they are receiving their awards, Barbara believes it must have been for his voluntary work.

During the Falklands War, Derek's interest and skills in computers melded with his military service.

"While he was at RAF Bawtry, he had built his own computer," explains Barbara. In applying some of his news skills in the office, Derek’s talents were recognised and appreciated, leading to him playing a critical effort in planning. As Barbara describes, "He went underground somewhere," - these activities are highly secretive - "Derek was responsible for planning how the Victors were going to get the bombers out to Port Stanley."

The Falklands were nearly 4,000 miles (6,500 km) from RAF Wideawake on Ascension Island, a 16-hour trip for the bombers, which required several mid-air refuelings. Derek’s contributions to Operation BLACK BUCK ensured that the long-ranged bombing raids were a success.

After retiring from the RAF and transitioning to a career in computer work at British Gas, Derek became a caseworker for SSAFA Solihull in 1992. His expertise in casework provided comfort and guidance to those in need for over 30 years. In 2014, he was recognised by the RAF Benevolent Fund, who named him 'Welfare Caseworker of the Year'.

Speaking in video for the award, Derek described, "As SSAFA caseworkers, we deal with anybody who has served in the military. When we do this casework, we don't look for accolades. We get pleasure from seeing the results close hand. I'm very thankful for it."

Realising that his commitment to his community and the armed forces could extend beyond his physical life, Derek chose to leave a gift to SSAFA Solihull in his will. In 2022, he was awarded the SSAFA Long Service Award for 30 years of volunteering as a caseworker, chairman, and vice-president of his Branch. He passed away later that year.

Derek’s story reflects a life and legacy of service. His generous gift ensures that the tireless work of the organisation, to which he dedicated so many hours, continues long into the future.

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