One of the last living links with the legendary Great Escape has been cut with the death of naval aviator Captain Vyvyan Howard aged 102.
In the spring of 1944 the then sub lieutenant used his knowledge of German to distract and disorientate the guards as Stalag Luft III camp for captured airmen – allowing many of his fellow inmates to break out.
He didn’t escape – and thus was spared the bitter fate of many PoWs who did… and were subsequently murdered by the German authorities.
Even among those of the greatest generation, Vyvyan Howard’s career and life are remarkable.
After working as a research assistant in the chemical industry, he volunteered to join the Royal Navy as a pilot aged 19 when war broke out in 1939.
Two years later, a then Sub Lieutenant Howard was taken prisoner following a carrier raid on the Arctic strongpoint of Kirkenes at the end of July 1941 when aircraft from HMS Furious and Victorious struck at the Norwegian port.
Occupied by the Germans in 1940, Kirkenes was a key base sustaining their advance on the Russian naval base at Murmansk the following summer.
Vyvyan Howard’s Albacore released its torpedo… only to be shot up by flak and disintegrating on the run home. The pilot was plucked out of a fjord by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in captivity.
He survived the ‘death marches’ towards the war’s end, when prison camps in eastern Germany were emptied as the Red Army advanced and their inmates marched west in the depths of winter with minimal provisions and unforgiving treatment from guards.
He ended up in a camp in Germany where he was liberated a few days before war in Europe ended.
Rather than return to civilian life, the young aviator was offered a full-time commission in the post-war Royal Navy.
After several years at the new air station at Culdrose, he was given command of 830 NAS and its Westland Wyvern propeller-driven strike aircraft which saw action at Suez.
The skies over the canal zone were, he remembered, “like Piccadilly Circus” while the presence of Egyptian Russian-built MiG jets made for “an exciting time”. His actions during the 1956 operation earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.
After another stint at Culdrose and as the Fleet Aviation Officer in Singapore, his naval career ended as Naval Attaché in West Germany.
He spent his final years in a retirement home in Banbury, Oxfordshire.