Mike Howard was an orphan at 10 and on starvation rations in a prisoner of war camp at 20.
And yet at 99 he is cheery, chatty and hugely entertaining; a painter, a public speaker, a keen historian, and now a writer.
Mike, of St Faith’s Road, Norwich, has just written his memoirs, telling a remarkable story of wartime service and suffering. He barely survived – but went on forge a career, found a business, hone his skill as an amateur artist and is now the author of a folder of vivid stories he has called Before the Light Fades.
His recall is extraordinary but that is not always a blessing. He vividly remembers the tiny sliver of cheese which was breakfast in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, and the “soup” of water and eight pieces of macaroni which was the only other meal each day, and still shudders when he describes the infestations of lice, fleas and bedbugs.
“We were hungry all the time,” he said. “We woke up hungry and went to bed hungry. And it was nothing like you see in war films with men in pajamas lounging on beds with sheets. We slept in the clothes we were wearing, had a blanket each, our beds were just slats of wood and we burned those to keep warm during the first winter. ”
Mike was born in the East End of London in 1923. His mother died of cancer when he was just six. Bereft and distraught his father di lui, who had been terribly injured by mustard gas in the First World War, trailed with his only child through a succession of poor lodging houses. He died when Mike was 10 and, now an orphan, Mike was sent to live with his grandmother di lui in Great Yarmouth.
But there was no seaside fun for the little boy. “The years with my grandmother were sheer purgatory!” said Mike, remembering Sundays when the only activity allowed was a walk and the only book allowed was the Bible. And despite writing from his prisoner-of-war camps he did not get a single letter from her.
A bright boy, he won a place at Yarmouth Grammar School, where he loved art, history and English but left to work in a textiles factory in the town – until he was called up to join the Army.
“I loved the Army!” he said. “It was the camaraderie, the shared responsibility. You rely on the chap next to you as much as he relies on you. ”
He was still a teenager when he landed in Africa as part of a US-led invasion force. Fighting their way through Tunisia his company di lui was ordered to take a vantage point in the Atlas Mountains. It turned out to be trap and a third of his comrades di lui were killed and the rest taken prisoner by German soldiers.
“We were told to lie under these blankets and I thought this was it, they were going to machine gun us,” said Mike. Instead the men were handed over to the Italians and taken by sea to Naples.
“It was a 48-hour nightmare journey, 200 of us battened down in the ship’s hold without food, water, light or sanitation, and hazardous because Allied planes and the Royal Navy were attacking any unmarked shipping,” said Mike.
The Italian prisoner-of-war camp was brutal. Continually hungry, a favorite game was imagining the meals they would eat once was they got home. “We imagined going to the Ritz, the Savoy!” said Mike.
He also learned the value of being able to tell stories to pass the time. Now he gives talks to the other residents of his sheltered housing – on churches, pubs and signboards, superstitions and folk medicine, and Christmas carols. “Did you know that Good King Wenceslas wasn’t a king, he wasn’t called Wenceslas and wasn’t even that good to start with?” he asks. “Or that vinegar and brown paper was used to treat bronchitis?”
After the Italians surrendered Mike thought he would finally be able to rejoin the Army. Instead his camp of him was taken over by German troops and the prisoners were crammed into cattle trucks for the long drive north to Austria.
Mike was put to work in railway marshalling yards, loading and unloading gravel, cement, stone and coal. “It was long hours and hard labor with constant air raids,” he said. “Towards the end, when the bombing was bad, I thought I was never going to get home.”
But the day a massive US air raid obliterated the railway marshalling yards and labor camp his life was saved because he had been put to work quarrying stone a mile away.
As the tide of the war turned during the winter of 1944-5 the prisoners were taken on a terrible march into Germany. The erratic 900-mile death march stretched over many weeks. Once Mike and a fellow prisoner saw root vegetables in a field and, desperately hungry, tried reach them. A German officer caught them – but did not shoot. Yet again he had cheated death.
“It was the German villagers who kept us alive,” he said. “They would give us bread and water. I remember an old woman saying her grandson di lei was a prisoner-of-war and she hoped someone was feeding him. ”
Friends were made – and lost. Mike particularly remembers an Australian prisoner who, hearing he came from Norfolk, told him about Julian of Norwich and her famous line di lei: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
“I found that very comforting,” said Mike.
“Eventually the column of near starving and completely exhausted prisoners were freed by Allied troops. They were flown back to Britain for treatment and recuperation and when Mike was finally recovered enough to resume active duty he became a drill and weapons training instructor, until being demobilized from the Army in 1947.
Back in Yarmouth he began looking for work. “What good was someone who could paint a picture when they needed tilers, roofers, bricklayers …?” said Mike, who is a talented artist and still paints today.
He was interviewed for a job looking after sick circus animals but found work as a laboratory assistant in a fertilizer factory and eventually moved into marketing, setting up his own company.
He met his wife, Gwen, in the Palmers department store in Yarmouth. “My friend and I, we thought it was such a snobbish place, we went in our Army boots, to cause a bit of trouble. We got to the haberdashery counter and there was Gwen. Bear in mind it was August, I said I wanted to buy a pair of gloves! ”
Love blossomed and Mike and Gwen married. They had no children but Gwen’s extended family took Mike to their hearts. She died in 2004 and Mike wrote Before the Light Fades at the request of her nephews and nieces and their families di lei. “I’m the last of a line,” he said. “I have almost 100 years of memories. I have been blessed with the ability to remember a great deal of my early life. And people should never forget the war. ”
He has carried injuries sustained as a prisoner through eight decades. “Sometimes, in the quiet hours, I find myself back in that place, long ago,” said Mike.