Wisbech war hero John Redvers Neil Virgo dies aged 94

John Redvers Neil Virgo who is appearing in a television programme, telling the story of his time as a POW in World War II.
John Redvers Neil Virgo who is appearing in a television programme, telling the story of his time as a POW in World War II.

A Wisbech man who bravely relived his experiences as a Prisoner of War (POW) in World War II for a television programme has died.

John Redvers Neil Virgo died last weekend in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn. He was 94.

He was filmed for ‘The Long March to Freedom’, a three-part series for channel Yesterday in 2011.

At the time he said it was difficult to share his memories of the three years he spent in Italian and German POW camps and admitted breaking down during filming.

Mr Virgo was a gunner in the Navy, serving aboard the Tribal-Class destroyer HMS Bedouin in the Mediterranean. It was torpedoed in the Battle of Mid-June by the Italians and Mr Virgo was actually credited with shooting down the plane that delivered the missile.

Unfortunately, his efforts were to no avail and the ship went down on June 15, 1942. Mr Virgo spent ten hours in the water, clinging to a rope on the side of a raft, before being picked up by the Italians and taken to a camp at Pantelleria.

He was there 18 months before being transported to Stalag VIII-B POW camp at Lamsdorf, in Germany.

Mr Virgo said: “I went on different working parties, on the railways, roads, and finished in the coal mines. I went on a death march and walked through Germany to Czechoslovakia, then back to Germany.

“We were walking 30 miles a day and I saw many people die on that journey. It was horrendous.”

Mr Virgo was in Bavaria, in south-east Germany, when news came that the Americans were there. He and some other soldiers were released by the Germans and went to a nearby farmhouse.

They spent nine days there before the Americans arrived and transported them back to England. Mr Virgo was shell-shocked from his experiences and spent six months rehabilitating at Cholmondeley Castle when he got home.

His family had known he was a POW, although there were three months following his initial capture where he was missing.

“My mother knew something had happened to me,” Mr Virgo told the programme. “She woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, her hair soaked, and said, ‘Something’s happened to Neil.’”

Before the war he worked with his father as a carpenter before joining wood merchants FT Nixon and Sons in Wisbech.

After the war he returned home and met and married his wife of 70 years Florence (known as Fod) - they would have celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary this June. In February 1949 the couple became parents to triplets: Neil, Christopher and Paul. Sadly Paul died nine years ago.

Neil said: “Dad was never the same after the war really and he went to work with his dad as a painter and decorator and doing small carpentry jobs. When he was about 50 and his dad gave up working, he went to work as a painter at the hospital where he worked until his retirement.”

Mr Virgo, was an active member of St Peter’s Church in Wisbech and still attended occasional services despite being ill. He was one of only two remaining members of the now disbanded Wisbech Royal Naval Association, and was standard bearer for over 30 years.

Neil added: “Dad appreciated simple things, like alot of people who lived through the war do. We are very close and loving family and he is going to be truly missed.”

As well as Fod, Neil and Christopher Mr Virgo leaves three grandsons and one great granddaughter.

His funeral will be held on May 1 12.45pm at St Peter’s Church, Wisbech.