Out of the 5,000 foreign volunteers from 60 countries who fought with the IDF in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, one of the stories that stands out in particular is that of Tom Derek Bowden. For most Israelis, the name means nothing today, but those who knew him remember him by his nom de guerre “Captain David Appel.” He passed away in June in London at age 98.
“I fell in love with this Jewish girl and the Jewish state,” he once said when asked to explain how he found himself, the son of a prosperous South London family, fighting in a war far from home and risking his life for another people, one he had no connection with.
But the truth is he had another reason to enlist on behalf of the Jews. One of the important chapters in his eventful life came during a month in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. As a captured British officer, he was sent there as a prisoner of war during World War II. When he saw what the Germans were doing to the Jews in the camp, he decided to help the Jews. Later he said he feared the Arabs would slaughter the Jews in Palestine and decided to come to their aid. The Arabs “were going to kill the whole sodding lot of them! I’d seen enough annihilation,” he said.
Bowden was born in Surrey, just south of London, in 1921. At 15 he dropped out of school. In 1938, when he was 17, he enlisted in the British army. This was when his romance with the Jews began.
He was sent to British Mandate Palestine in the operation to put down the Arab Revolt against the British that broke out in 1936. He also served under Orde Wingate, who established the Special Night Squads with the pre-state Haganah force. He admired the Jews he met in Israel, saying they were like the people in the Wild West, and he loved their history and the land.
In 1941, Bowden was linked to another legendary figure, Moshe Dayan. They fought in an operation in Syria against the French Vichy forces, the same campaign in which Dayan lost his eye from a sniper’s bullet. Bowden was seriously wounded too and needed a few months to recover.
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After he got well, Bowden volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, fought in Sicily, Italy and in Normandy on D-Day. He was taken prisoner by the Germans when he parachuted into the Battle of Arnheim in Holland. He was wounded again and was taken to a German hospital, but managed to escape – and then was recaptured. When his gear was searched, the Germans found letters he had received from his Jewish fiancée on a kibbutz, Hannah Appel, whom he had met during his tour of duty and recovery.
A German SS officer who interrogated him told him that he would show him what they are doing to the Jews, and sent him to work for a month at Bergen-Belsen, where he transported the bodies of dead Jews from the gas chambers to the disposal pits. Bowden said he remembered the “smell and emptiness.”
After the war he went to Yugoslavia to work as a paratroop trainer, but he returned to Israel, this time to fight in the War of Independence. “The Israeli thing was starting up and I thought to myself, I’d better get there – we don’t want another Belsen.” He wanted to help the Jews to be part of what “God started” and participate in the revival of the Jewish state.
Bowden was assigned to the IDF’s 7th Brigade and fought at Latrun and in Galilee. After the war, he started the IDF’s parachute school at Tel Nof base,and from August 1949 began training the first of Israel’s paratroopers.
In “The Paratroopers Book,” Michael Bar Zohar wrote about Bowden that he was an “English goy” who deserted from His Majesty’s army and decided to remain in Israel. He didn’t marry his fiancée from the kibbutz in the end; instead he married Eva Heilbronner, who made aliyah from Germany after Kristallnacht and became his secretary at Tel Nof. In 1952 Bowden returned to England with Eva, where he built a pig farm. They divorced and Eva died in 2003. He left behind four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.