Tom Derek Bowden, who died last month aged 98, would have raised an eyebrow if he had seen who attended his funeral in the sleepy village of South Lopham in Norfolk, which has a population of 370.
Mingling with locals, who for the large part had no idea about Bowden’s exploits, was the Israeli ambassador, the Israeli defence attaché, the Senior Jewish Chaplain to the British Armed Forces, and the former Chief of the General Staff Lord Dannatt, for several years Britain’s most senior soldier.
They all came to doff their hats to dear Tom.
Words like ‘hero’ and ‘extraordinary’ are over-used, but more than appropriate here. By his early 20s, Tom had shunned the luxuries his wealthy family’s business bestowed, signed up to the British Army, led cavalry charges in Syria alongside Moshe Dayan, fought running battles in Palestine and volunteered to be parachuted into Germany, where he was captured, interrogated and sent to Bergen-Belsen to help clear corpses during a typhus outbreak.
Bowden was not Jewish, but after the Second World War he went to Haifa to help Jews form and defend their nascent State of Israel, because – as he said – Arabs “were going to kill the whole sodding lot of them! I’d seen enough annihilation.”
He fought for the IDF in the War of Independence in 1948, commanded Israel’s first paratrooper regiment and wrote the IDF’s first operations manual.
He married a Jewish woman, Eva, who had fled Germany after Kristallnacht, and returned to England where the couple established a pig farm. He never shouted about his wartime or post-war exploits, but was always proud of them.
That Israel and Britain’s most senior diplomatic and military figures should head out to a surprised South Lopham to pay their respects is testament to how much his efforts were appreciated.
Like everyone said: they don’t make ‘em like that any more.