Wakefield war veteran completes final mission as he reaches 100th birthday

A war veteran who escaped a POW camp and trekked across Europe to escape the Nazis has completed a final mission - by reaching his 100th birthday.

Friday, 17th April 2020, 12:21 pm
Updated Friday, 17th April 2020, 12:22 pm
War veteran John Mountain, from Outwood, has celebrated his 100th birthday in lockdown.

John Mountain, from Outwood, fled across inhospitable terrain in 1943 ending up in neutral Switzerland. In later life he published a book about his experiences, ironically entitled ‘A Mountain to Climb’.

Now in West Ridings Care Home in Lofthouse Gate, he was unable to mark his major milestone on Saturday with family due to the lockdown, but was overjoyed at reaching triple figures, according to his niece, Judy Eland.

She said: “I got to talk to him on the phone and he was in really good spirits - it’s been his goal.

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As an escapee, Mr Mountain walked about 80 miles through the Dolomites. About 20 miles from Switzerland they bumped into partisans who took them to the border.

“He was just so happy to make it to 100, he’s been talking about it for such a long time.

“He had not been well in the week before his birthday but he is now feeling much better.

“He got his card from the Queen and he was really pleased with that.

“He puts his long-life down to his interest and enthusiasm for talking to people.”

Mrs Eland says reaching 100 is made more poignant given the experiences he went through during the war, and the difficult start in life he endured.

Originally from Wrenthorpe, his mother died when he was just six-years-old and he spent time in care as his father struggled to cope.

He later went onto join the Green Howards and found himself fighting in the Libyan Desert in 1942.

After 500 of his 800-strong unit were killed during a battle, he ended up being captured and held in a prisoner-of-war camp at the foot of the mountainous range, the Dolomites, in northern Italy.

But in September 1943 his guards switched sides and warned the POWs that the Germans were coming.

They took their distinctive uniforms and gave them civilian clothes so they would blend in.

Mr Mountain told the Express in 2015: “By dawn we had to split up, we couldn’t stay in a group. Three of us had many adventures - hairy adventures. The worst thing was the lack of food but we did survive.

“We set off at midnight and walked through the night, there was snow on the ground, it wasn’t easy walking but somehow we all managed.

“At 6am the following morning I saw two little red and white posts stuck into bushes and I knew that was the border.”

The escapees were helped by hill farmers and by partisans in their three-month trek to neutral territory.

They had an old map and walked about 80 miles through the Dolomites. About 20 miles from Switzerland they bumped into partisans who took them to the border.

While in Switzerland he put his trades skill as a bricklayer to good use and help build homes.

He did not land back in England until 1944 when he was finally re-united with his wife Nora, whom he had not seen in over three years.

Mrs Eland said: “His memory used to be so sharp and could remember so much stuff up until a few years ago. Well, he wrote his book from his memories.

“He does like to talk about his experiences so that’s why we told him to write them down.

“He’s a very open person and very easy to get on with and loves talking to people.

“He was always going into the cafe at M&S and sitting and talking to people, and he’s always got his door open at the home so if anyone is passing by he will shout out to them.”

Nora passed away in December 2013 and John continued to live independently in his bungalow up until two years ago. They did not have any children and Mrs Eland says he still misses Nora “terribly”.

Nora had helped him write the book, which chronicled her life also. It was published in March 2010, with all proceeds going towards Wakefield Hospice.