Bill Phillips obituary

Other lives: Clergyman and army chaplain who was taken prisoner during the second world war

My father, Bill Phillips, who has died aged 104, was a clergyman and an army chaplain who spent time in a prisoner of war camp during the second world war.

The son of Clarissa May (nee Stevens) and Godfrey Phillips, Bill was born in Bangalore, India, where his father was vice-principal of the Bangalore Theological College. As Congregationalists, they were serving with the London Missionary Society.

Sent to boarding school back in the UK at the age of six, with his older brother of eight, and parted from his beloved nurse, Bill was not to see his parents for another six years. He attended Eltham college in London, founded as a school for the sons of missionaries, where he learned to play rugby, and was in awe of both the athlete Eric Liddell, who was in the sixth form, and the writer and artist Mervyn Peake, a classmate.`

Bill played rugby for Kent public schools and Gloucester rugby football club between 1934 and 1939. He read history at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and then theology at Wycliffe Hall, where he gained a rugby blue. In 1939, Bill met Nancy Wilson, a teacher and sportswoman, at a camp for children from London slums. They married that year and subsequently had three daughters and twin sons.

As a curate in Brighton at the outset of war, Bill initially displayed a pacifist stance that stimulated local gossip that he would help any German parachutist landing on the Downs. He subsequently volunteered as an army chaplain and joined the 1st Airborne Division.

In 1944, General Bernard Montgomery’s hastily made plan was to land men in Arnhem, Holland, behind German lines and capture the bridge over the Rhine; the leakage of this plan from officers’ telephone calls lowered morale dramatically. Bill’s battalion’s parachute drop landed seven miles from the bridge, among a crack German Panzer division. Hard fighting ensued but Bill and some paratroopers reached the bridge. Like all army chaplains, Bill was unarmed.

Bill responded to an officer’s plea to help minister to the wounded and dying, including Germans. But a German soldier entered the hospital ward, rifle and bayonet drawn. Bill could have escaped but would not go back on his word. Held prisoner of war in Oflag 79, Braunschweig, from September 1944 to April 1945, he experienced great hunger. Though he never talked to us about this, we were well aware that never a morsel of food was wasted in our childhood home.

After 30 years’ service in Kent and Sussex parishes, in 1978, he and Nancy retired to Gloucestershire and enjoyed village community life and playing golf, although he officiated as a clergyman into his early 90s. In 1994, he conducted the service marking the 50th anniversary of the Arnhem drop at Oosterbeek war cemetery, attended by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the Prince of Wales and General Sir John Hackett, among others.

Nancy died in 1995. He is survived by his children, Clare, Budgie, Damien, Martin and me, and nine grandchildren.

Magda Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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