Man who cheated death in the RAF celebrates 100th birthday

Grand century ... Arthur Howell with his sons Martin (left) and Mike
Grand century ... Arthur Howell with his sons Martin (left) and Mike

The Royal Air Force celebrates its centenary this year ... and one of its veterans celebrated his 100th birthday on Monday.

But Arthur Howell can count himself lucky to have reached the milestone.

During the Second World War, when he served as an aeroplane engine fitter in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Italy, a re-arming exercise on a Spitfire nearly went disastrously wrong.

The plane was supposedly out of ammunition but as Arthur drove a fuel tanker towards it machine gun bullets suddenly smashed through the windscreen – missing his head by inches.

On another occasion a Blenheim he had just hitched a ride aboard was found to have a tail plane so badly corroded it could have fallen off at any moment in mid-air. The bomber was immediately scrapped.

Arthur would usually join comrades on a weekly trip to Alexandria but on one fateful occasion told them he had to stay at the base to write letters home.

The truck his friends returned in was struck by a Lancaster which developed engine failure on take off just as they crossed the runway. They were all killed.

Arthur was born and bred in Ringmer, and still lives in the village in Harrisons Lane.

He left school on a Friday at the age of 13 and started work as a butcher’s boy in the village on the Monday. A year later he was able to satisfy his love of all things mechanical when he started work at Ringmer Motor Works as a mechanic.

His association with the RAF was not confined to the war years – he was a founder member of the Tangmere Aviation Museum at the station in West Sussex made famous by its role in the Battle of Britain.

After the war he went back to the village’s motor works and in 1967 launched his own car maintenance business in Ringmer. He carried on working until he was well into his eighties.

Arthur was in charge of the lighting box at Glyndebourne Opera House from 1946 until the early 1970s, and performed a similar role at Lewes Little Theatre for many years.

He married his sweetheart Sylvia, who served in the Women’s Royal Air Force during the war, at Malling Church, Lewes, in 1946. She died in 2012 at the age of 93.

Arthur, who has two sons, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren celebrated his big day with a family party at Ringmer Village Hall attended by more than 50 people.