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Farewell to a Navigator

October 30, 2021

Howard Brown was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. The same could be said about many of his generation who took part in World War 2. Their obituaries have filled countless newspaper column inches over the past couple of decades.

Howard, who died last month at 98, didn’t make the obituary pages of a national newspaper, yet was no less deserving of a mention than those who did.

My wife and I went to his funeral yesterday. The ceremony was in a handsome church in a quiet town – “somewhere in the south of England”, as the war reports used to say.

I looked around the church before the service began. Inscriptions on the walls remembered both local notables and less celebrated parishioners. A Speaker of the House of Commons. A young naval officer who died of a fever in Calcutta at 22. Another man of similar age who died of septicaemia in Pretoria in 1900, perhaps a casualty of the Boer War. And a tribute to the people who died in a bombing raid on the town in 1943, and after a V1 flying bomb caused many deaths in 1944. A tiny snapshot of the rise and decline of empire, through which the person being buried lived for almost a century.

Howard had served in the Royal Air Force. A doughty veteran in his eighties was there to honour him, bearing medals from several wars. He had brought an RAF pennant, beside which he stood throughout the ceremony. Two serving officers in uniform were also in attendance, as well as a bugler who played the Last Post at the burial. A good send-off for a man who was devoted to the Air Force, and who, after the war spent many years as a reservist and a volunteer with the local veteran’s association.

He had more than one finest hour. He was a navigator who flew Stirling bombers during the latter stages of the war against Hitler. On the morning of D-Day, his aircraft towed a glider into France as part of the airborne force that landed in advance of the invasion. The glider, full of soldiers, also happened to be carrying Chester Wilmot, the BBC correspondent, whose radio broadcast described the experience of landing in the midst of heavy German flak. Wilmot later commented that his glider landed within 100 yards of the target and two minutes late – a tribute both to the pilot and to Howard’s navigational skills. You can listen to Wilmot’s broadcast here. I can hardly imagine the burden of responsibility that each pilot and navigator carried for the safe arrival of those men in their rickety wood and canvas craft.

Wilmot was lucky. Not all the gliders landed on target. Some were miles off, and there were many casualties as the result of bad landings and collisions with obstacles on the ground. In an understatement typical of his peers, Howard would later describe flying though flak as “rather dangerous”. A far cry from the emotional incontinence that typifies the age we live in today.

D-Day and other wartime sorties were not his only experience of mortal peril. After he left the Air Force, he joined British European Airways in time to participate in the Berlin Airlift, the massive international effort to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin between 1948 and 1949. Over a quarter of a million flights carried everything from food and fuel to salt to the city without the help of ground navigation beacons, which the Soviets had switched off. During the airlift, seventeen US and eight British aircraft crashed. At one stage a flight was landing in West Berlin every thirty seconds. Hardly a walk in the park for a navigator.

But if you had asked Howard what was his finest hour, most likely he would have answered that it came when he married Maura, to whom he was happily married for fifty-eight years, and who survives him. Their love for each other was obvious to all who knew them.

Later in life he enjoyed a long career with Customs and Excise. After he retired, he opened a brewery, and for many years he worked as a volunteer with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB), often representing clients in court.

My wife and I only got to know Howard during the last thirty years of his life. He was modest, kind and had a dry sense of humour. A perfect foil for his effervescent other half. They shared a love of travelling, especially to the vineyards of France. Whenever we came to dinner the wine was chosen with exquisite care.

He wasn’t a closed book on his military experience, yet he never assumed you would be interested. He only spoke of it if you asked him. But he was quietly proud of his service with the RAF, and maintained connections with it throughout his life.

On the order of service were photos of some of the highlights of his life: his wedding day; in uniform at an RAF flypast; receiving the MBE from the Queen in recognition of his work with the CAB. But the picture that best brings him back to me was at taken at lunch, as he roared with laughter over a glass of wine.

Howard was much more than a person with a distinguished war record. For me, part of a cosseted generation, most of which never knew the terrors of war, he was one of the few people of my acquaintance who was able to say “I was there”. That wasn’t why I treasured his friendship, but he gave me a direct connection with events whose consequences dominated my life. Just as a couple of decades ago we watched as the last of the First World War veterans departed, Howard was one of a dwindling band of veterans of the second global conflict. As a lifelong student of history, I feel lucky to have known him.

We bade farewell to a navigator not just because of his wartime occupation. He was a navigator in many other ways. Calm, measured and above all someone who could be replied upon, as those whom he helped in his later years with advice and guidance would surely agree.

After the Second World War, veterans quietly returned to civilian life. To meet them you would hardly know what extraordinary times they lived through. Howard Brown was one of them. This brief tribute is not only for him, but for all the others to whom the living in my country should remain profoundly grateful.

From → France, History, Social, UK, USA

6 Comments
  1. deborah moggio permalink

    Thank you for introducing those of us far away (in space and/or time) to a special person, from a faraway (in years and events) era.
    To have been through all he had and come out the other end a whole and wholesome human is almost hard to even imagine.

    • Yep, you’re right. And each generation has its veterans. Each have stories to tell to which we should listen, just as we should seek out the testimony of bystanders. S

  2. Abdullah permalink

    A lovely piece

  3. Margaret Richardson permalink

    Steve, what a beautiful tribute and a pleasure to read. Lets hope that all veterans of war will survive in the minds of future generations.

    BW
    Margaret

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