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Wills, Sir Kenneth Agnew (1896–1977)

by David Palmer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Kenneth Agnew Wills (1896-1977), by unknown photographer, 1941

Kenneth Agnew Wills (1896-1977), by unknown photographer, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 022922

Sir Kenneth Agnew Wills (1896-1977), army officer and businessman, was born on 3 March 1896 at Kent Town, Adelaide, youngest of four children of Richard John Henry Wills, a South Australian-born merchant, and his wife Caroline Agnew, née Fedden, who came from Scotland. A year after her husband's death in 1901, Caroline Wills took the family back to Britain. Ken was educated at University College School, London. He hoped to become a doctor, but at the start of World War I volunteered for military service. Commissioned on 26 August 1914 in the Prince of Wales's Own Civil Service Rifles, he saw action on the Western Front (1916 and 1918) and in Greece (1916-17) and Palestine (1917-18), and rose to temporary captain. In 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross and, suffering from the effects of mustard gas, invalided to England.

After the war Wills was employed in London by his family's company, George Wills & Sons Ltd, shipping and forwarding agents. He worked at the Baltic Mercantile & Shipping Exchange Ltd, canvassing for cargoes between London and Australia. On 1 September 1920 at All Saints Church of England, Fulham, he married Viola Ethel Crossland (d.1956). Next year the firm sent him to South Australia. Appointed a director (1924) and managing director (1928), he restructured the company and set up headquarters in Adelaide. Under his management it flourished as a wholesale distributor of clothing, textiles and fancy goods. He guided the firm through the Depression, acquiring substantial holdings in cement, hardware and other manufacturing companies; by 1936 the company was again making a profit.

On 3 September 1939 Wills was mobilized for full-time service in the Citizen Military Forces and on 1 June 1940 was appointed major, Australian Imperial Force. In September he joined the headquarters of I Corps in the Middle East. He took part in the campaigns in Libya (January-February 1941), Greece (April-May) and Syria (June-July), and for his work was appointed O.B.E. (1941). Promoted lieutenant colonel in June, he returned to Australia in March 1942. Next month he was made temporary colonel (substantive October 1944) and posted as general staff officer, grade one (intelligence), at First Army headquarters. He was deputy-director of military intelligence at Advanced Land Headquarters, Brisbane (January-August 1943 and March-October 1944), and at headquarters, New Guinea Force (September 1943-March 1944). His clerk Sid Jordan described him as a good soldier, sharp, tough and fair, a man who 'took the shortest route to an object'. Wills was mentioned in dispatches for his services in New Guinea.

Made temporary brigadier, on 17 October 1944 he was appointed controller, Allied Intelligence Bureau, responsible to Douglas MacArthur's General Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. The A.I.B. was located in Brisbane then Hollandia, Netherlands New Guinea. It directed and co-ordinated all espionage, sabotage, information-gathering, guerrilla-warfare and propaganda operations in the region. The controller had to reconcile the interests of five allied powers: the United States of America, Australia, Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Wills clarified the A.I.B.'s chain of command and asserted his authority over its affiliated organizations, especially the Services Reconnaissance Department. He arranged for aircraft to be provided specifically for A.I.B. activities. Additionally, he persuaded MacArthur's chief of staff, Lieutenant General R. K. Sutherland, to streamline procedures for approving the bureau's operations; proposals for future projects were to be submitted directly to Sutherland, via Major General C. A. Willoughby, the chief of intelligence. Once projects moved from the realm of the strategic to that of the tactical, operational control was to pass to the local task force commander. Wills dealt diplomatically with both Sutherland and Willoughby and, in contrast to his predecessor, C. G. Roberts, earned high praise from them. His practical and firm leadership has been credited with reducing casualties among A.I.B. operatives and with contributing to the success of the Borneo campaign which was spearheaded by the S.R.D. Transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 23 October 1945, he was elevated to C.B.E. (1947).

Back in Adelaide, Wills resumed work with G. & R. Wills & Co. He floated it as a public company in 1946, and saw its five-shilling shares trading at over a pound within six months. Chairman of the company until 1976, he was also a board-member (1950-71) and chairman (1968-71) of Advertiser Newspapers Ltd. He sat on the University of Adelaide council (1945-68), chaired the university's finance committee (1954-60), and served as deputy-chancellor (1961-65) and chancellor (1966-68). Years later it was revealed that he was the 'anonymous benefactor' who had made possible the opening of the staff club in 1950. He persuaded his sister Kathleen Lumley to fund a new college for postgraduate students. His successful fund-raising allowed, among other things, the construction in 1958 of a new university union and the purchase of land for staff housing and a gymnasium. He supported the vice-chancellor A. P. Rowe in his reforms: defined salary scales, annual review for promotions and study leave for staff.

On 14 January 1959 at St Peter's Church of England, Glenelg, Wills married Mavis Catherine Gilfillan, née Marsh, a widow. He served on the Australian Universities Commission in 1959-65. Knighted in 1960, he was elected deputy-chairman of the local council of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and appointed K.St.J. in 1963. Sir Kenneth had been a member of the Adelaide Club since 1924. Survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 13 May 1977 in Adelaide and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $399,918. The Wills building and the Wills refectory at the University of Adelaide were named after him; the university holds two portraits of him by (Sir) Ivor Hele, painted in 1953 and 1968.

Select Bibliography

  • H. N. Huffadine, These Hundred Years (Adel, 1949)
  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • A. Powell, War by Stealth (Melb, 1996)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 May 1977
  • private information.

Citation details

David Palmer, 'Wills, Sir Kenneth Agnew (1896–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wills-sir-kenneth-agnew-12042/text21603, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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