Remembering Tom Derek Bowden, the Englishman Who Fought for Israel

Married five times, including to the secretary who helped him translate a parachute manual into Hebrew, the 98-year-old was a ‘complex man who always saw good in people,’ his daughter recalls

Friends and family of Derek Tom Bowden attending his burial in Diss, England, July 1, 2019.
Stan Kaye

In life, Tom Derek Bowden dedicated himself to helping the nascent State of Israel. At his funeral in eastern England on Monday, Israeli dignitaries joined over 100 friends and family to pay their last respects to the man who founded the Israel Defense Forces’ parachute school as a foreign volunteer.

Bowden died at age 98 on June 10.

“The church was packed,” his daughter Judi Ingram told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “It was something much bigger than we had envisaged. He got huge accolades.”

Among the attendees at the ceremony in Diss, Norfolk, were Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom Mark Regev; Lt. Com. Rony Moscovitz, the Israeli defense attaché in London; Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, the U.K. Armed Forces chaplain; and Lord Richard Dannatt, the local representative for Queen Elizabeth II.

Tom Derek Bowden. "He saw so much horror and destruction. He never honored war," said his daughter, Judi Ingram.
Bowden Family

“What a remarkable man — and what a remarkable career in the service of his country and of Israel,” eulogized Lord Dannatt.

Bowden, who fought with the British cavalry division in Syria and parachuted into the Netherlands, where he was captured at Arnhem during World War II, also received military honors. In 1942, he was forced to spend three months recovering in a Jerusalem hospital after his leg was badly wounded in Syria.

His son David Bowden recounted his father’s decorated military career, which took him from the Middle East to Europe. He then headed to Israel with Machal, the force of overseas volunteer fighters. He spoke of the month Tom spent in Bergen-Belsen “moving corpses onto carts and tipping them in pits following a typhus outbreak,” after which he was returned to his own prisoner-of-war camp in Hannover.

“Dad recalled that the smell and emptiness could not be forgotten,” David Bowden said.

Members of the British Legion and Britain’s Parachute Regiment both attended. There was also a special flyby in honor of Bowden. “My dad was very keen on flying,” Ingram said. “He had a private pilot license, that was his passion.” In fact, the flyby was performed by the person who now owns his old plane, she added.

A plane once owned by Derek Tom Bowden making a flyby in his memory at his funeral in Diss, England, July 1, 2019.
Stan Kaye

That plane also featured in his dedication to the memory of his fallen comrades, Ingram noted. “He flew his plane to Arnhem once to attend the remembrance ceremony with his latest wife,” she said. “He was a really complex man, but one who always saw good in people and always saw good in life. He saw so much horror and destruction. He never honored war. Never celebrated; just saw the loss and pain that war causes. He was always hugely respectful and would attend these ceremony events.”

Bowden, whose nom de guerre was David Appel, stayed in Israel after the War of Independence ended in 1949 to help develop its military prowess. He also maintained his connection to the country for decades. He met his second wife, Eva Heilbronner, after she was allocated to him as his secretary to help set up the parachute school.

“She helped him translate the parachute training manual, and they fell in love,” said Ingram, one of Tom and Eva’s four children. As commander and chief instructor of Israel’s first parachute regiment, Bowden brought army surplus parachutes from England and made four jumps ”before breakfast every day,” according to Elana Overs, a family friend.

He took up a post in Aden (then a British protectorate) in 1949. Heilbronner joined him shortly after, and they married and had their oldest child there. Ingram said her mother got out of Aden via Operation Flying Carpet, which spirited Jews from Yemen to Israel.

Oded Heilbronner, a nephew of Eva, said they visited Israel once or twice a year through the 1960s. “Afterward, he came every year or every few years for Independence Day to meet Ezer Weizman and all his friends,” said Heilbronner, referring to the head of the Israel Air Force and future president.

Heilbronner told Haaretz that Bowden was “very generous, always in a good mood.” He added that he had a “very militaristic worldview, but we got along very, very well.” He noted that Bowden thought that both the Oslo Accords and the Gaza disengagement in 2005 were both mistakes, and that he “didn’t like [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat.”

That worldview was no doubt shaped by Bowden’s formative years. “When these people returned from the war, they had no knowledge of civilian life or civilian ways,” Ingram said. “He joined when he was 16-17, and lived like that the rest of my life.” She added that her father was a man of very few words.

Growing up in a small village, Ingram said her father was very resourceful. “My dad was a ‘make-do’ man,” she recalled. “He could make things out of things you can’t believe. He had to replace a chimney once: He used an upturned frying pan, and it was up there for so many years it’s ridiculous.” On another occasion, “he made me a gerbil cage out of an old television casing.

“My siblings are civil engineers, so they were horrified — yet always gobsmacked — at what he could do,” she added.

The funeral service of Derek Tom Bowden in Diss, England, on July 1, 2019.
Stan Kaye

His relationships were also part of his colorful life. Bowden was married five times, twice to the same woman. While Eva died in 2003, all the surviving women attended the funeral: His widow, Irene; Mannette Baillee, his first and fourth wife (with whom he had his late son Anthony); and Janet Chadwick, his third wife.

He asked that he be buried closest to Eva. Thus, he was laid to rest, beloved by many and appreciated by even more for his contributions and dedication to Israel.

Tom is survived by Irene; David, Robert, Judi and Ken from his second marriage, and eight grandchildren and great grandchildren.