Non-Jewish British volunteer who fought for Israel, founded IDF’s first parachuting school, dies at 97

Tom Derek Bowden, aka Captain David Appel, first fought in WWII and spent a month in Bergen-Belsen before taking up arms for the fledgling Jewish state.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Tom Derek Bowden, a non-Jewish British cavalry officer who helped Israel win its War of Independence and then founded its first paratrooper school, died Monday at age 97.

Bowden hailed from a wealthy family. He had Jewish friends and an “affinity for a community whose music, dancing and traditions he had become familiar with,” Britain’s Jewish News reports.

Not much interested in academics, he dropped out of school at 15 and joined the army in 1938 at age 17, looking for adventure. He found it in Palestine policing Arabs while on horseback prior to the start of World War II.

Although knowing little of Zionism at the time, he was influenced by one of his commanders – the fervently pro-Zionist Christian British officer Orde Wingate. Wingate, known by the Jews simply as Ha-yedid, or “the friend,” is considered one of the “spiritual” fathers of the IDF, having founded the Special Night Squads, a mixed group of British soldiers and Jewish fighters, which introduced tactics later adopted by the Israeli Army.

In 1942, Bowden badly injured a leg while leading a cavalry charge against the Vichy French in Syria. His men, wearing red cloaks, brandished sabres and World War I rifles.

He spent months recovering in a Jerusalem hospital and then with a Jewish family on a kibbutz.

Afterwards, he volunteered for a paratroopers’ brigade and dropped flares ahead of Allied forces’ paratrooper landings in Northern Africa and Europe.

Parachuting himself into Arnhem in 1944, Bowden re-injured his leg and was captured by the Germans. An SS officer discovered he had letters on him from Jewish friends in Palestine.

“I knew I shouldn’t have [had them], but I didn’t want to part with them,” Bowden said in a newspaper interview in the 1990s.

The SS officer didn’t take kindly to the discovery, telling him, “I’ll show you what we do with the Jews.” Bowden was sent to Bergen-Belsen, where he spent a month forced to load Jewish corpses onto carts and dump them into pits.

“I remember the smell and the emptiness,” he recalled in the interview, saying it changed his life.

When Israel declared independence, he returned to fight for it. He was given the nom de guerre Captain David Appel.

“I was going to make sure they didn’t get stamped on,” he said to the paper of his desire to fight for the Jews. “They were going to kill the whole sodding lot of them! I’d seen enough annihilation.”

When the war ended in 1949, Bowden was asked to start and command the Israeli air force’s first parachuting school, to be built within a brand new airbase at Tel Nof. He described its inception in 2006 to Joe Woolf of the World Machal Organization, the association of overseas volunteers in the IDF, which features Bowden’s story on its website.

“It was very badly equipped and quite impossible to do much quickly. I built the camp myself, including all the swings and equipment, and I had no engineering qualifications at all. Luckily the instructors didn’t know that,” he wrote to the researcher.

He made up the first training manual for his regiment, and jumped constantly with his men.

Smoky Simon, chairman of World Machal, who served as a navigator-bombardier and chief of air operations in Israel’s War of Independence, said of Bowden:  “When I think of Derek, I picture him with his pipe; and in a picture with Ben Gurion; and Derek the man who is exuding confidence, and who knows what he is talking about.”

In 1950, with the school on its way, he returned to England, married to his Jewish army secretary, Eva. Although eventually divorced, the couple remained friendly, according to Machal’s website.

Bowden leaves behind a wife, four children, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.