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Tributes paid to war hero and former Wisbech school teacher Henry Wagner



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Tributes have been paid to Wisbech RAF war hero and former teacher Henry Wagner who has died at the age of 97.

Henry, who was a respected teacher of French and Latin, taught at the Queen’s Girls School, and many of his former pupils have paid tribute on Facebook when news of his death became public this week.

As well as his teaching career Henry was well-known for his exploits in the Second World War having been an RAF Navigator on Halifax bombers and was the sole survivor when his plane was shot down over Holland in December 1944 following, which he was taken prisoner.

Henry Wagner, who was a stalwart supporter of the Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum, has died at the age of 97.
Henry Wagner, who was a stalwart supporter of the Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum, has died at the age of 97.

He was married to his late wife, Joan, and the couple had two children Philip and Helen, he was also a grandfather and great grandfather. His family described him as: “One of the last of an extraordinary generation who gave so much for us all, he will be very sadly missed.”

Henry’s later years were defined and filled by his passions for walking, aviation, the RAF and the Ex Prisoner of War Association and his passing will leave a huge void for the many organisations in which he was involved, including the Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum, for which he was a stalwart supporter and Royal Air Force Association - a bar is named after him at the Wisbech branch headquarters.

In November 2010 Henry made an emotional return to Holland with his friend Dick Drawbridge and his wife, Eileen, to the spot where his Halifax crash landed after exploding at 15,000 feet after being shot by upward-firing canon.

Henry pictured bottom right as a young RAF navigator. (42933788)
Henry pictured bottom right as a young RAF navigator. (42933788)

Henry moved to Wisbech in the late 1970s with Joan and Philip, having previously taught in schools in his home town of Marlow in Berkshire, Reading, Leatherhead and even in Kenya.

He became firm friends with Dick, who was his regular golfing partner, and his family including his son Steve.

For the past number of years Steve has been looking after Henry, not as a carer but as a friend fulfilling a promise he made to his mother and father before they died that he would keep an eye on Henry.

Henry Wagner (left) with artist Les Pooley and his original painting depicting Henry's Halifax bomber being shot down.
Henry Wagner (left) with artist Les Pooley and his original painting depicting Henry's Halifax bomber being shot down.

Steve and Henry shared many adventures together over the past decade including last year when the pair enjoyed 'Henry's Big Day Out' which saw them fly the length of the country flying to and over landmarks important to Henry's flying career, including the site of his old air base at RAF Snaith, paying a visit to the RAF museum at Elvington and most poignantly visiting the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln, which had played such an important part in his early life.

While there he visited the memorial which commemorates all those airmen who lost their lives including his own flight crew. He placed poppies against their names.

Henry's extraordinary war time story of how he managed to parachute to safety moments before the Halifax exploded, and his subsequent time on the run behind enemy lines for almost a week before being captured and inprisoned, meant he was well-loved and respected among the RAF fraternity.

Henry sat in the navigator's seat on a Halifax bomber last year for the first time since being shot down. (42933794)
Henry sat in the navigator's seat on a Halifax bomber last year for the first time since being shot down. (42933794)

He was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace by Air Commodore Charles Clarke (now deceased) who was a prisoner of war with Henry for a short time before being transferred to Stalag III Luft Camp - the one featured in The Great Escape.

Steve, who described Henry as his best friend, said: "I used to go over and check in on Henry every day. One Saturday when I got there he said he'd had a phone call from someone inviting him to a garden party.

"He was terribly deaf without his hearing aids and struggled on the phone, so I called the number back and discovered it was Air Commodore Clarke and the garden party was at Buckingham Palace. We had a great day out that day too."

Henry with a plane like the one that shot his Halifax bomber down. (42933784)
Henry with a plane like the one that shot his Halifax bomber down. (42933784)

Henry never lost his taste for excitement and adventure, he enjoyed hang gliding until he was in his 70s, and wanted to celebrate his 90th birthday with one last parachute jump. It was cleared with the RAF, but a doctor refused to sign Henry off, declaring he had a heart murmur, which Henry had never heard about.

Steve said: "He was really disappointed, he was willing to sign anything to do it, but once the doctor said no, that was that."

But Henry found another way to enjoy an adrenaline rush later that same year, September 2013, when he saw a bungee jumping tower on Wisbech Market Place.

Henry was 90 when he did a bungee jump on Wisbech Market Place. (42933790)
Henry was 90 when he did a bungee jump on Wisbech Market Place. (42933790)

Steve said: "He was on his way home from church when he spotted it and went over and asked if anyone could have a go, they said yes, so he rushed home to get his bank card and at the age of 90 he did his first bungee jump. Not only that for a few years he held the record for being the oldest person to jump from 180ft - you can still watch him do it on YouTube."

Henry would regularly attend veterans events and did book and painting signings at an aviation art gallery on a regular basis and he loved air shows.

It was last year as part of his 'big day out' that Henry finally got a chance to sit in the navigator's seat of a Halifax bomber for the first time since that fateful day.

Henry enjoyed a 'Big Day Out' last year flying the length of the country to visit important landmarks. (42933786)
Henry enjoyed a 'Big Day Out' last year flying the length of the country to visit important landmarks. (42933786)

"It was a mission to get him in there, because you have to crawl, and at one point it looked like he wouldn't make it, but he was determined. Once there he held court for more than hour talking about the plane and what they used to do," said Steve.

He concluded: "Henry led a really full and good life, I think he wanted to do just that in tribute to the friends he lost the day his plane crashed. They never got a chance to live and so I think he was trying to live and enjoy life for all of them."

His funeral is on Tuesday (3) at St Peter's Church, Wisbech, covid-19 restrictions mean it will not be the send off Henry's family would have liked. But his coffin will be draped in the flag of the Ex Prisoner of War Association and limited numbers will be allowed in the church.

Henry had a twinkle in his eye when he sat in the cockpit of a Spitfire for the first time in his life. (42933800)
Henry had a twinkle in his eye when he sat in the cockpit of a Spitfire for the first time in his life. (42933800)

Donations in Henry's memory can be made to International Bomber Command Centre (Lincoln) and can be made online via: www.peterbarnesfunerals.co.uk

Henry pictured at the RAF musuem in front of a memorial commemorating the Long March - prisoners of war like Henry were forced to March by their captors as the Russians closed in at the end of the war. (42933796)
Henry pictured at the RAF musuem in front of a memorial commemorating the Long March - prisoners of war like Henry were forced to March by their captors as the Russians closed in at the end of the war. (42933796)


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