27/02/2024
Norwich, GB 4 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

CAPTAIN VYVYAN HOWARD, aged 102

THE LAST OF THE GREAT ESCAPERS

Born Charles Vyvyan Howard in Hartlepool in 1919, he was always known by his middle name.

His father was Headmaster at Greatham Primary School in County Durham.

Vyvyan won a scholarship to the Henry Smith Grammar School when he was eleven years old. He had seven enjoyable years there, leaving when he was eighteen. By now, he was fluent in German.

He got a job working in the chemical industry, as a lab technician at ICI.

His father recommended he join the Royal Navy. Vyvyan listened to the advice and signed up for pilot training. It was just before the Second World War started.

He was trained at Elmdon near Birmingham and was taught to fly in a Tiger Moth.

Tiger Moth (courtesy Eaglesscott Airfield, Devon)

On a weekend ‘jolly’ to Blackpool, Vyvyan met his future wife, Bernadette Taylor.

He got his pilot’s wings in May 1940 and immediately joined the Fleet Air Arm. There, Vyvyan learned the skill of low-level torpedo dropping, flying a Fairey Swordfish plane.

In September 1940, he joined the newly formed 828 Naval Air Squadron, based at Lee-On-Solent and he was selected to fly Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers.

In 1941, the squadron was sent to the Orkney Islands and was assigned to anti-aircraft and convoy escort duties. Vyvyan was on the aircraft carrier Victorious. Another aircraft carrier, the HMS Furious, sailed with them.

On the 30th June 1941,  a day of bright Arctic sunshine, the 828 Squadron attacked German shipping at Kirkenes in Norway, close to the Russian border. Simultaneously,  an attack was launched at Petsamo, which was nearby.

They met very heavy defences, both through flak and enemy planes. Vyvyan remembered, “We launched our torpedo at a German ship in the harbour. As we turned to make our escape, I heard a roar of cannon fire from below us; we were hit, and the aircraft broke up around us. The next thing I knew, we were in the fjord and swimming to the shore – and captivity.”

In the raids on Kirkenes and Petsamo, the British lost sixteen aircraft, with twelve of the Fleet Air Arm killed and another twenty five men captured.

Vyvyan went to two small prisoner of war camps before being transferred to Stalag Luft 3 in Lower Silesia in Poland. This camp was for airman only and was used for serial escapees. At its height, it housed 10,000 prisoners.

As he was fluent in German, Vyvyan was immediately used as a translator in meetings between the Camp Commandant, Oberst Friedrich von Lindeiner and senior Allied officers.

As there were many Poles in the camp, Vyvyan started conversing with them and they taught him Polish, something that would stand him in good stead in later life.

Escapes were planned from the camp. Vyvyan spent hours vaulting over a wooden horse whilst prisoners dug a tunnel underneath. This was later portrayed in the film ‘The Wooden Horse’ (1950).

Then a more audacious plan of escape was planned. Three tunnels were dug simultaneously. They were nicknamed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’.

Vyvyan would spend hours chatting to German guards, providing a distraction whilst others dug.

There was a setback when the entrance to ‘Tom’ was discovered by the guards, right in the hut where Vyvyan was quartered. However, ‘Dick’ ran right beneath the hut – and was never discovered.

600 prisoners were involved in the digging of the tunnels, but not all of them could escape.

When the tunnels were completed, lots were drawn as to who would escape. Vyvyan was disappointed not to be selected.

On the night of the 24th / 25th of March 1944, 76 POWs escaped through the tunnels. It has become known as ‘The Great Escape’.

73 of the escapees were recaptured, so only three made it to freedom.

Of the recaptured men, the Gestapo executed 50 of them, on the express orders of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler (courtesy Wikipedia)

The escapade was made into a famous film in 1963, starring, amongst others, Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and Charles Bronson.

In January 1945, Soviet forces drew close to Stalag Luft 3. Vyvyan, with the other remaining prisoners, was forced on the ‘Long March’, back towards Germany.

A Polish prisoner gave him a piece of advice, something he considered he owed his life to. “Don’t ever take your boots off, only loosen them, or you will never get them on again because your feet will swell.”

After a three-month march in the harshest of winters and after being strafed by the RAF, the prisoners arrived at Wulmenau, a village just south of Lubeck. There, they were liberated by British forces. It was the 2nd May 1945. Vyvyan had been a prisoner of war for three and a half years.

Vyvyan managed to send a message to his fiancée, Bernadette. “A couple of British tanks caught us today at 11:40 hours and the infantry should be here this afternoon. Oh ye Gods, what a day of joy and rejoicing, cheers and wild waving – all of us, English, American, Polish, Russian, Dutch, French – everybody shouting to the stormy sky.”

One week later, Vyvyan telegrammed Bernadette. “Home today. Be seeing you soon.”

They were married on the 2nd June 1945. They would have three children, a son called Vyvyan and two daughters, Sarah and Sue.

After the war, Vyvyan was given a permanent commission with the Royal Navy. He was based at RNAS Culrose, flying Seafires, Sea Furies and in the jet age, Sea Vampires and Meteors.

Then, Vyvyan was given command of 830 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Ford in Sussex. There, he flew the Westland Wyvern, the biggest single-seater propellor driven British plane flying from an aircraft carrier.

Western Wyvern (courtesy Wikipedia)

His squadron were deployed to Egypt in the Suez Crisis in 1956.

There, Vyvyan saw combat. He led the attack on an Egyptian airfield close to the Suez Canal. He flew two or three sorties a day until the end of the crisis. “It was a very small area to operate in, and after a few days we were competing for the same targets with other aircraft from the British and French carriers. It was like Piccadilly Circus. We often went against the Egyptian Air Force with their MIG jets. It was an exciting time.”

Two British aircraft were lost during the conflict.

For his part in the action, Vyvyan was awarded the DSC – “for distinguished services in the Near East, from October to December 1956.”

In 1960, he learned to fly helicopters.

Then, Vyvyan became aviation advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the Far East Fleet, based in Singapore.

He went on to spend two years in the Defence Policy Staff based in Whitehall, before becoming the British Naval Attache in Bonn, West Germany, between 1973 and 1976.

He always acted as a translator for the Royal Navy when German or Polish was needed.

Upon leaving the Royal Navy, he spent ten years working for Halcrow Engineering.

When Vyvyan retired properly, the Howards moved to Oxfordshire.

His wife, Bernadette, predeceased him, dying in 2009.

On his 100th birthday, Vyvyan was asked about his wartime experiences. “It was bloody awful, but you were in it and that was it – you couldn’t just walk out of the door.”

Vyvyan died in a nursing home in Banbury.

His son Vyvyan, said, “In common with a lot of that generation, a lot of the war experiences only came out later in life. He had a quiet wisdom – family came first. He was a wonderful man.”

Vyvyan was the last surviving wartime pilot who flew a Fairey Swordfish.

He was also the last person alive who was involved with the Great Escape.

RIP – Remained Inside Prison

 

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