British soldier who founded IDF parachute school dies at 97
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British soldier who founded IDF parachute school dies at 97

WWII veteran and ‘Machal’ volunteer Tom Derek Bowden was wounded in the same battle in which Moshe Dayan lost his eye

Tom Derek Bowden at Arnhem, Netherlands. (via UK Jewish News)
Tom Derek Bowden at Arnhem, Netherlands. (via UK Jewish News)

Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom paid tribute Monday to a British army veteran who volunteered in Israel’s War of Independence and was buried in England.

London-born Tom Derek Bowden, who died at the age of 97, had fought in Palestine during World War II alongside Jewish soldiers before being captured in Europe by the Germans and forced to clear bodies at a concentration camp — an experience that helped drive him to return after the war to fight for Israel.

“Today I attended the funeral of Tom Bowden in Norfolk. He bravely fought to defeat the Nazis and ensure the rebirth of the Jewish state. Israel will always cherish his memory,” Ambassador Mark Regev tweeted.

Bowden, an Anglican, had enlisted in the British Army in 1938 at age 17. He fought in battles in Palestine before being transferred to the European theater where as a POW he witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust firsthand at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“When good men who did great things pass into the next life, they leave an example for this one,” columnist Stephen Daisley wrote in The Spectator.

“Bowden understood that if the modern Jewish state was strangled at birth it would indeed mean another ‘annihilation’ of the Jews,” Daisley said. “Bowden fought for Israel for the same reason anti-Semites fight against it: Israel is the home of Jewish strength and Jewish security.”

As a British solider, Bowden participated in military campaigns in Palestine, fighting in the same unit as Israel’s famed Moshe Dayan, who went on to become the Israel Defense Forces commander and then defense minister. Bowden was seriously injured in the same battle in which Dayan lost his eye, but recovered and returned to action.

When Bowden was captured by the Germans in 1944 after parachuting into Arnhem, he was found with diaries and letters from Jewish friends and girlfriends in Palestine, the Diss Mercury news site reported. Bowden later admitted he knew he shouldn’t have taken them with him, because when his SS interrogator saw the papers he told Bowden he “would show me how the Germans treated Jews, and I was sent for a month to Bergen-Belsen.”

Bowden was not Jewish, but the combination of fighting alongside Jews in Palestine and the anti-Semitism of the Nazis was seared into his psyche. He returned to Palestine in 1948 to join thousands of other volunteers when Arab armies attacked following the UN declaration of the State of Israel

“I was going to make sure they didn’t get stamped on,” Bowden has told the Jewish Chronicle. “They were going to kill the whole sodding lot of them. I’d seen enough annihilation.”

Bowden’s widow Irene, 82, agreed that her husband was moved to do something about what he saw in the Holocaust.

“He was only there [Bergen-Belsen] a month, but that was quite long enough,” she told Diss Mercury. “He felt that these people [the Jews] deserve a place of their own.”

Bowden fought with the nascent IDF using the pseudonym David Appel, adopting the name of the Tel Aviv family that hosted him during his recuperation from war wounds. He joined thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers from abroad who were known as the Machal, the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz La’Aretz, or volunteers from abroad.

After Israel won the war Bowden stayed in Israel, where he founded the IDF parachute school and helped lead the IDF paratroop brigade, The Jewish News reported. He married his Israeli girlfriend Eva and eventually moved back to England in 1955, settling in the town of South Lopham, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of London.

Tom Derek Bowden is survived by his fifth wife, Irene, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was buried beside Eva, his second wife, with whom he had four children.

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