Prison camp survivor celebrates a centenary

WITH the Second World War looming, Dick Birkhead joined a Territorial Army anti-aircraft unit to help protect key installations around his home at Walton-on-Thames.

Two years later, after distinguished service during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, he found himself fighting off the Japanese invasion of Timor – where he and his comrades were captured by the enemy.

Dick survived the horrors of three years as a prisoner of war and returned to enjoy a long and active life running the family business, supporting charities, playing sports and pursuing several hobbies.

107. Daughters Jayne Lancaster and Ann Banks hand Mr Birkhead his messages from the Queen.

On Sunday, he celebrated his 100th birthday, surrounded by family members and neighbours at his home in Barnes Wallis Court, Byfleet.

Dick was born in Kent to parents Walter and Winfred. The family moved to Walton when he was a boy and his father set up a saddlery store in the town. Dick, who went to Woking Grammar School for Boys, wanted to be an engineer but found himself working in the shop.

His daughter, Jane Lancaster, said it was his engineering skills which helped him survive as a PoW in the Far East, as he was able to help maintain machinery on Japanese forced labour projects.

“He worked on one of the notorious railway projects and later told us how they tried to sabotage equipment,” she told the News & Mail.

Dick left the Army as a sergeant in the 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery and later took over the shop from his father. He expanded the saddlery into one of Walton’s most notable businesses, also selling televisions, household goods, sporting equipment, toys and records.

He married Audrey Ashcroft in 1947 and they had three children, Ann, Jane and Bill. The girls have fond memories of working in the shop, Jane running the records department in the 1970s.

Outside of work, Dick devoted his life to charity work through Round Table and Rotary membership and he helped run the local talking newspaper for the blind for 26 years. He was a founder member of Walton-on-Thames Sailing Club.

As a keen amateur engineer, one his proudest projects was the restoration of a BSA Scout sports car after he and Audrey moved to Weybridge on retirement.

Audrey died in 2002 and Dick moved to the Barnes Wallis Court retirement complex in 2007.

He took up a new hobby of sailing model yachts at Silvermere Lake, on the edge of Cobham, and travelled there twice a week on his mobility scooter until last year. He was able to drive a car up to the age of 95.

Dick has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Many of whom were at his party on Sunday, where the guests included Woking Mayor and Mayoress Graham and Sarah Cundy and entertainment was by members of Woking-based Surrey Pipe Band.

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