A British hero of the ‘Bridge Too Far’ escaped from the Nazis after his capture. But it was just too late for him to make it back to Arnhem 75 years later.23 September 2019
Paratrooper Tom Derek Bowden had slipped out of a German military hospital in Hanover after had been injured in the heroic but failed effort to secure a bridge for Allied forces to cross the Rhine in 1944.
When he was recaptured he was imprisoned in the notorious Nazi camp Bergen-Belsen for a month. There he saw the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, and had to pile corpses into a pit.
Two years earlier, Bowden had also fought and been injured against the Nazi-backed French Vichy forces in Syria.
After World War Two he chose to fight another battle: for the newly-created Israeli army in its ‘War of Independence’ against Arab military forces. He later said what he had seen and had been forced to do at Bergen-Belsen played a role in his decision, in 1948, to fight for the new Jewish state.
He planned to return to Arnhem in October 2019 with fellow-paratroopers to mark 75 years since that epic battle. But he did not quite make it.
He died in late June this year. Most unusually, as a mark of the huge esteem he was held in, the burial ceremony, at St Andrews Church, a 17th-century Norman tower in the rural east England county of Norfolk, was attended by the former Chief of the British General Staff Lord Richard Dannatt.
“It was a real privilege to attend Tom Bowden’s funeral,” Lord Dannatt said. “What a remarkable man and what a remarkable career in the service of his country and of Israel. He was an inspiration to all.”
During World War II Bowden had been injured in a British cavalry charge in Syria alongside Moshe Dayan, Israel’s future military leader, who lost an eye in the same battle.
Despite not being Jewish or religious, Bowden went to fight for the new State of Israel in 1948 as one of 5,000 foreign fighters known by the Hebrew acronym ‘Machal.’ He later commanded Israel’s first paratrooper regiment.
Church of England vicar Canon Tony Billett, who officiated at Bowden’s funeral, said: “ Most people around here had no idea what he had done.
“Tom fought for the Jewish people because he believed in their cause. That is both highly commendable and hugely courageous. His contribution was extraordinary but he was very modest.”
Bowden came from a wealthy family whose business products included Ribena, but he was not interested in commerce and left school at 15. He enlisted with the British Army in 1938, aged 17.
He developed an affinity for the local much poorer Jewish community, enjoying their music, dancing and traditions, he later said.
He was greatly influenced by the pro-Zionist British officer Orde Wingate, who taught Jewish soldiers in British-mandated Palestine (later Israel) how to use guerrilla warfare against their enemies, said historian Stan Kaye, who also attended the funeral.
Bowden had fought some of the most ferocious battles of the Second World War, mainly in British Mandate Palestine. In 1942, he led his men in a cavalry charge in Syria against the Vichy French. His men, wearing red cloaks, were armed with First World War rifles and sabres.
His leg was badly injured but six months later he was back on the battlefield, volunteering for a British parachute brigade being recruited near the Suez Canal.
His job was to drop flares ahead of parachute landings along the North African coast and in occupied Europe.
In 1944, parachuting into Arnhem, his leg was injured again and he was captured and taken to a prison camp hospital near Hanover. He escaped.
When recaptured his life was again at severe risk when the Nazis discovered he had diaries and letters from Jewish friends and a girlfriend in Palestine.
Respects paid in the church at Tom Bowden’s funeral alongside his later-life image (Credit: Stan Kaye)
“I knew I shouldn’t have [had them], but I didn’t want to part with them,” he later said.
The SS officer who questioned him had until then treated him well, offering him drinks and cigarettes, but “when he saw the papers, he told me he would show me how the Germans treated Jews, and I was sent for a month to Bergen-Belsen”.
He said he spent the month piling corpses onto carts and tipping them into pits during a typhus outbreak. It was in that camp that the young Dutch diarist Anne Frank also died of typhus and starvation.
Bowden recalled “the smell and emptiness”. The camp was liberated in April 1945 when Nazi SS units handed the typhus-ridden camp to British forces, who found thousands of bodies lying there unburied. The Nazi prison commander was later executed.
The experience in Bergen-Belsen influenced Bowden’s decision to go to Haifa in 1948 to enlist with the Israeli force known as the Haganah. There he was known as Captain David Appel, because one of the only Hebrew words he knew was the word for ‘apple’.
After the War of Independence he founded the army’s Parachute School, wrote the manual of operations and helped lead the Israeli paratrooper brigade – which was crucial to Israel’s military victories in 1956 and 1967.
He met his wife Eva in Israel and in 1952 they returned to England, where he became a pig farmer in Norfolk. Though the two later divorced, Bowden now lies buried alongside Eva.