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Hundreds set to pay tribute to life of a remarkable soldier

Tom Bowden. Pictures: The Bowden family
Tom Bowden. Pictures: The Bowden family

The remarkable life of a former soldier who, after witnessing firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust was moved to fight for Israel, is to be celebrated in South Lopham and Diss today.

Tom Derek Bowden, who lived in South Lopham, was one of 5,000 foreigners who volunteered to fight for the State of Israel in the country’s War of Independence. More than 6,000 Israelis were killed and 15,000 wounded.

Unlike most volunteers, Mr Bowden, who died this month, aged 97, was not Jewish but decided to take up the cause following his experiences of being captured by the Nazis as a young British soldier.

While at the Fallingbostel prison camp, Mr Bowden was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to dispose of corpses.

His widow Irene Bowden, 82, said: “Though he was only at the camp for a month, the horrors affected him deeply. He wanted to do something.”

Mr Bowden was one of seven brothers and came from an affluent London family. One of his family’s businesses was Ribena.

After leaving school at 15, he enlisted with the British Army in 1938, aged 17, after lying about his age. His first visit to Israel was during the Second World War when he joined the Cheshire Yoemanry in British Mandate Palestine.

In 1942, he was wounded in a cavalry charge in Syria alongside Moshe Dayan, later Israel’s top soldier. Mr Bowden spent months in a Jerusalem hospital where he met and courted a nurse.

After recovering, in 1944 he parachuted into Arnhem but was captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen after an SS officer discovered letters from his new Jewish girlfriend.

“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 later.

What he saw persuaded him to return to Palestine in 1948 to enlist to fight as a volunteer under the name David Appel, and fight for Israel’s independence.

Tom Bowden (back centre) with the 7th brigade of the Israeli Army in 1948
Tom Bowden (back centre) with the 7th brigade of the Israeli Army in 1948

While there, he also met wife Eva before returning to England in 1955, first becoming a farmer and smallholder at South Lopham. He also had a period living in Kenya where he helped to set up the national sweepstake.

Mr Bowden married five times to four wives, (twice to his second wife,) and was father to children David, Robert, Judith, Kenneth and Anthony, as well as having five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He married Irene Bowden in 2004. “My daughter had rented his cottage and that his how we met,” said Irene.

“He certainly lived life to the full, and it was definitely a life well-lived.”

Military veterans, standard bearers and representatives from the Jewish community will attend a memorial service at St Andrew’s Church in South Lopham on today (July 1).

Mr Bowden will be buried in Diss Cemetery alongside second wife, Eva, with whom he had four children. The Rev Canon Tony Billett will lead the service, which will also be attended by Armed Forces chaplain, Rabbi Reuben Livingstone.

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