Hellesdon Normandy veteran is a ‘Broadland Hero’

Just Regional
Aug 14, 2014 9 mins read

John Browning may be used to receiving awards – his OBE was bestowed upon him by the Queen no less – but his most recent accolade as one of Broadland District Council’s Community Heroes was a welcome recognition of the part he has played in the Hellesdon community – even if he does question the use of the term “hero”. Sophie Stainthorpe talks to him about Normandy, his headmaster days and working for the parish council.

To say John’s life was interesting would be an understatement. He has certainly achieved a lot in his 93 years.

Growing up in a small village near Newcastle, one of the things that John is most proud of is the fact that he was a “Geordie village boy who got to Oxford”.

Like many young men at that time, John was accepted onto the history degree programme at the University of Oxford’s Brasenose College in 1940, on the understanding that he would either go into the services or do work of national importance.

“I’ve always been grateful that I went to a college where I was accepted as myself, not for the school I went to,” said John. “The fact that my father was a horsebox driver didn’t matter.”

At the end of his first year, John went to the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) and was commissioned into the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI), where he served as a platoon commander and a lieutenant before taking the role of second in command of D Company to lead his platoon of 35 soldiers into Normandy.

As part of the armoured division which went in four days after D-Day, John will never forget the sight that greeted them as they walked up the beach.

“The first thing that met our eyes when we landed in the barges and waded on to Juno beach was a mountainous pile of equipment, and we knew it was the equipment taken off the dead Canadians, because that was their landing beach.

“I landed in Normandy and saw people killed and I think the real heroes were my blokes behind me when we advanced across country under shell and machine gun fire and never said a word. What I’ve done – and the others who have received an award can speak for themselves – I don’t think deserves the word hero.

“I still have a very warm place in my heart for 18 platoon and D Company of the KSLI. They were part of my life and they shaped my life.”

Unfortunately John’s involvement in the war was cut short when he stepped on a mine.

“Like many young officers I wanted to be awarded with a Victoria Cross (VC) or a Military Cross (MC), but I trod on a mine and that was the end of it. I had unfulfilled ambitions and I never really tested myself in close contact with the enemy.”

Once his wounds were healed, John was discharged from the army and went back to Oxford in 1947 to take the second part of his degree, after which he went into teaching.

In the years after the war John found a way to tackle his feelings of unfulfilment when he joined

the Territorial Army Parachute Regiment.

“My wife Sybille didn’t talk to me for two hours when I told her,” said John. “I was a captain for five years and did 31 parachute jumps. People always say ‘wow’, and I say ‘yes, but I was careful, it wasn’t in war time’.”

John gave up the TA when he got his first headship at a secondary modern school in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset. During his time there, his school and another school in the town were closed and he was selected to open the new school – something that he repeated when he moved to Hellesdon in the 60s to take the position of headmaster at the then new Heartsease High School, which is now the Open Academy.

“I saw it grow from holes in the ground to a magnificent building,” said John. “I was there for 16 happy years and finished up with 1,200 boys and girls and 70 staff.

“It wasn’t one of the highly regarded schools in the city but I think my staff did a jolly good job. I still see some of the boys and girls – well, they’re in their 60s now – and they always say ‘hello sir’.”

John also received an OBE in recognition of services to education which was awarded to him following his involvement in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award when it was instituted in 1956 – he wrote the original hand book for schools!

“I don’t know who nominated me,” explained John. “I had a letter from Margaret Thatcher and I still remember the phraseology: ‘I have it in mind to recommend your name to Her Majesty the Queen for an award’.

“I was told I must not mention it to anyone, because the Queen may not agree, so Sybille and I kept it mum and didn’t tell our family. She was with me when I went up to Buckingham Palace and I was allowed to take two guests so I took my son Michael and daughter Paula.

“It was a very proud moment, and I can say I received mine not from the hands of Prince Phillip, but from the hands of the Queen herself.”

After retiring from education, John became the clerk for Hellesdon Parish Council, a role he held for 16 years and which helped him though a very difficult time following the death of his beloved wife.

“I would say it was a Godsend that I had that to focus on,” said John. “I enjoyed the responsibility and I hope I contributed to the community through the parish council, but I was their servant really.”

John and Sybille had a very strong relationship and she was a constant support to him. They married during the war when she was 19 and he was 20 and he counts himself very lucky that she chose him.

“She was a beautiful woman and very much in demand I can tell you, so I had to get in quickly,” he said, adding that she sadly died 21 years ago, just before their golden wedding anniversary.

“Without her I don’t think I would have done anything. She wasn’t a driving wife; she would say ‘Johnny, have you thought about….’ and generally I hadn’t.

“Most of us depend upon others. Some people say they did it on their own, but I don’t know anybody who has done something important without help from others.”

John’s involvement with St Mary’s Church was something that he embarked upon with Sybille as soon as they arrived in Hellesdon.

Over the years he’s been church warden, a member of the deanery synod, and was even asked by the Bishop to be the administrator for the whole diocese for the Church Urban Fund.

He was also chairman of the Friends of St Mary’s for 12 years, which included working on the church extension.

“I’m now the honorary life president of the Friends of St Mary’s, which means I don’t do anything!” said John.

“St Mary’s was a place which gave me a great deal of comfort when Sybille died and I hope that I’ve contributed. I do still read a lesson every so often and I present the sessions, and if they need me, they know where I am.”

If all of this wasn’t enough to qualify John for a community hero award, then add the fact that he is also currently a member of the local community speedwatch and offers talks to local groups – although he thinks he’s exhausted them all now!

“I do love talking,” he said. “Sybille used to say to me ‘Oh Johnny dear, the trouble is not starting you talking, the trouble is stopping you talking’.”

Despite the fascinating life he has led, John is very modest about his achievements and the part he has played in the Hellesdon community.

“Most people don’t do these things because they’ll be called a community hero; they do it because they feel it’s something they can do and something that they should do.

“To me the great reward is feeling that I’ve helped somebody who needed help. That’s what voluntary work should be about, not saying I was the chairman and I did this, that and the other.

“It all comes down to being together and recognising other people who may have different gifts and qualifications than yours.”



John Browning was one of 40 people who lives in the Broadland area to receive one of Broadland District Council’s Community Hero awards, which are part of its 40th anniversary celebrations.

The council asked residents to nominate people from their community that had gone above and beyond the call of duty to make life better for others, and thanks to a nomination by parish councillor Danny Buck, John’s dedication to the local community was recognised when he received his award at a presentation afternoon at the Council Chamber at Broadland District Council.

Danny has only met John once, when he was seated next to him at the official opening of the new parish council offices at Diamond Jubilee Lodge back in April.

“I got chatting to him and he is quite a remarkable gentleman,” said Danny. “He went to the same university as me and we talked about his time in Normandy, being a headmaster and his work as clerk to Hellesdon Parish Council. Clerks put in so much work but don’t necessarily get any recognition.

“That one meeting left quite an impression on me. I’m a relatively young councillor at 25 and I hadn’t heard about the good work he had done, so I thought nominating him was a good way to bring his life to the attention of a younger generation.”

 Browning at home.  PICTURE: Julia Holland, All-About-Image

John Browning at home. PICTURE: Julia Holland, All-About-Image

Here is John receiving his Broadland hero award

Here is John receiving his Broadland hero award

John's OBE medal

John’s OBE medal

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