To honour those who served their country

“In this their finest hour”


Air Vice-Marshal

 Tom Howell


Obituary from the

RAF armament officer who evaded capture in Java and survived Changi.

Air Vice-marshal Tom Howell, who has died aged 94, rose to senior rank in the RAF's engineering branch having suffered great privation in Java and Changi Jail after the Japanese had overrun Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1942.

Howell arrived in Singapore in October 1941 to join the armament staff of the RAF's main Far East aircraft depot and maintenance facility, No 151 Maintenance Unit, at RAF Seletar. After the Japanese invasion of Malaya on December 8 1941, the unit made desperate attempts to generate as many aircraft as possible and prepare the few that arrived as reinforcements.

On January 29 1942, 90 Japanese bombers inflicted heavy damage on the airfield at Seletar and four days later the men of No 151 started to evacuate to Java. By February 10 the unit effectively ceased to exist and the men reinforced the few remaining flying units until all Allied resistance in the Dutch East Indies ceased on March 7.

Howell joined a group of Allied and Australian men at a remote spot on the southern coast of Java, where they started to build a large raft with the intention of sailing for Australia. With the raft near completion, Howell left the site to find some rubber to use as a sealant. During his absence the Japanese discovered the party and, after a skirmish, the survivors were captured.

Howell was posted as missing but he remained at large seeking refuge with the natives. He worked in the fields and learnt the habits of the locals, having darkened his skin with natural dyes to be less conspicuous. He was also short enough (5ft 8in) not to stand out.

During regular bouts of malaria he was cared for by the natives but, after many months, the combination of increasing malnutrition, further bouts of malaria and a deep concern for the safety of those sheltering him compelled him to surrender to the Japanese. It was not until early February 1943 that the British authorities were informed that he was a prisoner of war.

After his capture, Howell was assigned to a working party building an airstrip on Bangka Island, off the coast of Sumatra.

In late 1943 he was transferred to Changi Jail where he shared a cell with James Clavell, the author of King Rat, and an American NCO who was apparently the model for the anti-hero of the book.

During his imprisonment, Howell, a gifted and accomplished linguist, became very proficient in Chinese.

By early August 1945 there were 17,000 starving prisoners in Singapore and aid started to arrive by the end of the month. On September 5 Howell and his colleagues were freed when Indian troops arrived to re-occupy the jail.

Evelyn Michael Thomas Howell was born on September 9 1913 at Bagshot, Surrey, the son of Sir Evelyn Howell, the Foreign Secretary to the Government of India. Tom spent his early childhood in India and Baghdad before returning to a prep school in Sussex, followed by Downside.

He chose to flout his father's wishes that he should go to university and entered the RAF College Cranwell in January 1933, where he gained his swimming colours, played for the rugby XV and was a fine rifle shot. On graduation as a pilot, he was one of the five prizewinners in his entry.

In December 1934 Howell joined No 142 Squadron at Netheravon, which was equipped with the Hart biplane bomber; and the following October he accompanied the squadron to Egypt, where he remained for the next three years.

On his return to England in late 1938 he attended the specialist armament course before joining the staff at Headquarters Fighter Command at Bentley Priory. He transferred to the Technical Branch (later the Engineering Branch) in April 1940 and remained at Fighter Command throughout the Battle of Britain.

During this period he took the opportunity to fly a Hurricane on visits to the fighter airfields. In September 1941 he left for Singapore.

After recuperating from his ordeal as a prisoner of the Japanese, Howell filled a number of armament policy appointments in the air ministry and the ministry of supply.

In May 1955 he was loaned to the Institute of Armament Studies at the Indian Military College of Engineering at Kirkee, where he added Hindi to the list of languages he spoke.

On promotion to group captain in October 1957 he became the chief armament officer at Headquarters Bomber Command, at a time when it was introducing the nuclear-capable V-bombers.

After serving as the director of air armament research and development at the ministry of aviation, Howell was appointed commandant of the RAF Technical College at Henlow. In 1965 he became the senior air staff officer at the headquarters of Technical Training Command, and he retired from the RAF in March 1967.

He was mentioned in dispatches (1942) and appointed CBE (1961).

Howell now joined Van Dusen Aircraft Supplies, an American firm that wanted a European manager who was both a pilot and a French and Spanish speaker. He worked in Minnesota and Missouri for 10 years, before moving to Sweden for another two, retiring in 1979.

An enthusiast for old cars, in 1936 Howell bought a Rolls-Royce that he kept until 1960, when he decided it was no longer practical – although he found he missed the sliding glass partition that had allowed him to shut off the noise of the children in the rear seats. He continued to fly light aircraft for many years and was a keen yachtsman.

In 1979 he settled in Cumbria, where he enjoyed village life, natural history and conservation. By his death on May 5, he was the oldest surviving Liveryman of the Clothworkers' Company, which he had joined in 1938.

Tom Howell married first, in 1937 (dissolved 1972), Helen Hayes. He married secondly, in 1972, Rosemary Cram, who survives him, together with a son and three daughters from his first marriage, and a son and a daughter from his second.


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