WWII hero who survived capture by Japanese troops celebrates 103rd birthday

WWII hero who survived capture by Japanese troops celebrates 103rd birthday

RAF hero Len Parry, one of Britain’s last surviving VJ Day veterans, celebrates his 103rd birthday today.

Burma Star holder Len told The Sun on Sunday how he had a narrow escape when he was captured in Singapore.

RAF hero Len Parry, centre, who turns 103, alongside pals George Martin, left,  and Harry Dowson, right
RAF hero Len Parry, centre, who turns 103, alongside pals George Martin, left, and Harry Dowson, rightCredit:

“We were surprised by Japanese ground soldiers who kept us in our air hangar for three days,” said the long-time reader.

“But when Churchill surrendered Singapore, all the Japanese went on the booze. That’s when we decided to escape.”

War hero Len spent five years in the Far East, including six months in Burma and stints in Ceylon and India.

His commitment to public service during and after World War Two even won him a bottle of bubbly from King Charles last year, who hailed his courage in a personal letter.


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Len will today be toasted at his care home in Yorkshire, with special guests from the Royal British Legion and Burma Star Association bringing a Fortnum and Mason hamper for the big day.

The longtime Sun reader, who insisted on wearing a blazer, tie, RAF badge and medals to be interviewed, was born to a veteran of Britain’s World War One campaign in Gallipoli.

He left school at 14 to become an apprentice gas engineer, spending almost five years fitting metres across his home town of Burnley, Lancashire.

Against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, triggering the Second World War, Len’s first try at following his father’s footsteps ended in rejection – after the Royal Navy told him he couldn’t switch from a planned place in the Royal Engineers.

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He said: “My best pal, he was called up (to the Navy), and I thought that’s where I wanted to go.

“So I had to go to the Blackburn recruitment offices, where they had a look at my details, and they told me ‘You’re no good to us.’

“I was in one of those jobs where they said we were more valuable to the country if we didn’t go into service.”

Not deterred by the rejection, Len instead tried for the RAF – where, after negotiating, he was accepted and sent to RAF Padgate for orientation as a ground crew technician.

But the necessities of war meant passed-out trainees were shipped straight to the frontlines.

Len was no exception, and in 1940 he was sent from Liverpool to Singapore – then a British stronghold.

At the time, the 6,000-mile journey took 11 weeks aboard the Empress of Australia and RMS Aquitania liners.

The vessels were forced to travel at just seven knots – eight miles per hour – due to the threat of Axis U-boats and submarines, but Len eventually arrived in Singapore with only his uniform and a briefcase.

Len was desperate to fight for his country and travelled across the world to do so
Len was desperate to fight for his country and travelled across the world to do soCredit: SWNS

After a spell fixing aircraft flight instruments, he first worked on the Short Singapore Mk1A flying boat at RAF Seletar.

He later became a specialised technician in the 205 Maritime Squadron, working on installing pioneering autopilot technology on American Catalina seaplanes used to scout out enemy submarines.

But just over a year into his deployment, Len’s fortunes would dramatically nosedive after Japanese forces began air raids from the South China Sea, with British troops facing deadly strikes daily between December 1941 and February 1942.

His squadron decided to withdraw to Java on the 13th of February – but a team of air mechanics, including Len, were forced to stay behind to repair a damaged jet.

He recalled: “(When the squadron was withdrawing) they found one plane which was badly damaged with shrapnel holes.

“A ground crew was held back to repair it, who would then take the plane to turn up with the rest in Java, and one of them was me.

“During the night, we were surprised by Japanese ground soldiers who kept us in our air hangar for three days.

“We had plenty of water from supplies that we had built up, but we had no food.”

But when Churchill decided to surrender Singapore to the Japanese two days later – Len was able to make a daring escape when the guards “downed tools and went on the booze”.

The autopilot fitter and his crew hatched a dramatic escape in an abandoned Chinese fishing junk hidden in nearby mangrove swamps but were only fully rescued when they were spotted by a Dutch seaplane and towed back to dry land.

More than 200 of Len’s 205 Squadron members would lose their lives in battles against Nazi-aligned Japanese forces.

Len was not given any time off to recover from being taken hostage – instead getting “straight back on the job.”

Unfazed by his narrow escape, Len went on to serve in the RAF in Ceylon, where he met then-Far East commander Lord Louis Mountbatten a year later.

He said of the experience: “We decided to put on a special parade for Lord Mountbatten in Colombo, and I was one who had been picked to be part of a lineup he would inspect.

“He turned up in a white suit, with a lovely scrambled egg cap on.

“Lord Mountbatten was number one in the world at that time in that area, but he just called everyone ‘son’. Not Corporal, or Captain or whatever. Just ‘son’.

“He asked me: ‘Where are you from, son?’

“I said: ‘Burnley, sir’. He just said: ‘You’ve got a decent football team at the moment’.

“I joked back: ‘Yeah, but they won’t win the cup.’

“He gave me a kind of wry smile and moved on. By then I was shaking like a leaf, but he was a wonderful fella and a very earnest chap.”

Almost 70 years on, Len and his local Royal British Legion representative, George Martin, sent the footie chat tale to the Burma Star Association – which represents veterans from the Burma campaign, during which 6,500 British troops died between 1942 and 1943.

The charity passed his memories to the then Prince of Wales – now King Charles – who took over as patron of the organisation from Prince Philip in 2018.

Despite not expecting a reply, Charles, 74, personally reached out to Len with a heartfelt letter, telling the veteran: “It was most humbling to learn of your experiences in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War.

“I need hardly say that I will always have the utmost respect for those who served in Burma, as my great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, often recounted to me the appalling hardships endured by our troops throughout this campaign.”

The monarch, who himself served in the RAF, added: “I can only say your outstanding service will never be forgotten by a most grateful nation.”

The letter, now framed on his residential home wall, occupies a special place in Len’s heart.

Len received a hamper from King Charles, who described his heroics as humbling
Len received a hamper from King Charles, who described his heroics as humblingCredit: collect

He said of opening the Clarence House envelope: “It was wonderful. He also sent a wooden box with a bottle of champagne.

“He’s our King now, of course. I’m really proud to have it and I admire him for sending it.”

After the war in Asia drew to a close, Corporal Parry returned to Skipton, North Yorkshire, and married his childhood sweetheart, Muriel.

The pair stayed together until Muriel’s death ten years ago and had three children – Nigel, Rosamund and Nicholas. (Note: Len can’t remember grandkids and great-grandkids clearly so I am getting this checked out).

Despite returning to the UK, he continued to work for the RAF – serving in a crack team of mechanics responsible for maintaining an Avro York jet used by VIPs including Winston Churchill.

But the plane became a money pit after a comedy of botches left it in a worse condition than when the elite aircrew received it.

Len joked of his time under Churchill’s wings: “That was a disaster.

“It was silver. We’d never seen an aircraft in silver during the war years.

“A flight sergeant was in charge of running the engines and checking the flaps.

“One day he was trying to check the flaps by lowering them, but pulled the wrong lever and pulled up the undercarriage.

“There was loads of concrete flying through the air and crashing down on top of us. It was a mess.

“The plane was a total write-off, and the flight sergeant was given nine months’ detention.”

After leaving the RAF he returned to work as a gas fitter, before becoming a salesman and manager.

Despite never aspiring to become a celebrity, Len became a public face in 2021 after Sun columnist and TalkTV host Piers Morgan helped raise £25,000 when his house was robbed.

Len, then 100, was in Bradford Royal Infirmary undergoing treatment for skin cancer when thugs broke in and brazenly stole a safe containing almost £4,000.

The veteran used the money to give presents to his children and grandchildren for birthdays and Christmas.

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He told of the ordeal: “After I talked to him he asked people to contribute and threw in £1,000 himself. I’m really grateful to Piers for that.

“It’s nice to know that people are still interested, genuinely interested, in wars and veterans, and making sure we are alright.”


Thomas Godfrey

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