The amazing life of Norfolk soldier who fought for Israel after seeing Holocaust horrors
PUBLISHED: 14:48 25 June 2019 | UPDATED: 08:18 27 June 2019
The remarkable life of a former soldier who was moved to fight for Israel after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand and is to be marked by veterans and Norfolk’s Jewish community.
Tom Derek Bowden, from South Lopham, near Diss, who has died aged 97, was one of 5,000 foreigners who volunteered to fight for the nascent State of Israel in the 1948 War of Independence.
Unlike most volunteers, he was not Jewish but fought following his experiences of being captured by the Nazis as a young British soldier and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to dispose of corpses.
His widow Irene Bowden, 82, said it was a profound experience that changed his life. "He was only there a month but that was quite long enough," she said. "He felt that these people deserve a place of their own. I think a lot of people felt that after the war."
Born in 1921, Mr Bowden, one of seven brothers, came from a well-to-do south London family whose business products included Ribena, but he left school at 15 and enlisted with the British Army in 1938 aged 17.
His connection to Israel began during the Second World War when he fought in ferocious battles in British Mandate Palestine.
In 1942 he was wounded in a cavalry charge in Syria alongside Moshe Dayan, later Israel's top soldier, who lost his eye in the battle.
Mr Bowden spent months in a Jerusalem hospital where he fell in love with a nurse. "I fell in love with this Jewish girl and the Jewish state," he once told the Jewish Chronicle.
After recovering in 1944 he parachuted into Arnhem but was captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen after an SS officer discovered letters from his Jewish girlfriend.
"I knew I shouldn't have [had them], but I didn't want to part with them," he later said. "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."
This experience prompted him to return to Palestine in 1948 to enlist to fight as a volunteer under the name David Appel.
He met his wife Eva in Israel but came back to England in 1955 becoming first a farmer and smallholder at South Lopham before later working in insurance. He also had a period living in Kenya where he help set up the national lottery.
Mr Bowden married five times to four wives and was father to children David, Robert, Judith, Kenneth and Anthony, as well as having five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
He had been married to Irene Bowden since 2004. "He had a very eventful life and achieved a lot of things," she said. "He did tell me a lot more about his war experiences that he didn't want to talk about with other people. But he became more willing to talk about it at the end."
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Military veterans and standard bearers and representatives from the Jewish community are to attend a memorial service at St Andrew's Church in South Lopham on July 1 after his story was highlighted.
Jewish military researcher Stan Kaye said: "I felt that this man needed to be recognised for what he did. There has been a phenomenal response. The Jewish community from Norwich are going to be in attendance as well as military standard bearers."
- The funeral service for Tom Bowden will take place at South Lopham Church on Monday, July 1 at noon followed by burial at Diss Cemetery (approx 1.15pm). Family flowers only but donations in memory of Tom for Help for Heroes may be sent c/o Rosedale Funeral Home, 63 Victoria Road, Diss, Norfolk, IP22 4JE or via the Much Loved online memorial site at rosedalefuneralhome.co.uk
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