Werner Heubeck: German-born Northern Ireland bus manager who showed immense bravery at the height of the Troubles
Tuesday 27 October 2009
Werner Wolfgang Heubeck had a truly extraordinary life which encompassed fighting for Nazi Germany in the Luftwaffe and receiving a CBE, 40 years after the end of the war, from the hands of the Queen. "Her Majesty said that I must have an interesting job," he recalled in his gruff Bavarian accent. "I told her that sometimes it got too damn interesting."
The most "interesting" part of his job, as the man who ran Northern Ireland's bus services at the height of the Troubles, was his hair-raising habit of personally carrying suspected bombs off them. This practice, which clearly went beyond and above the call of duty of the managing director of a transport company, meant that he became a figure of fascination in Belfast, his adopted city.
Born in Germany, he came to identify so much with public service during those days of 1970s chaos that he repeatedly risked his life to keep the roads open and to keep his fleet in action. Hundreds of buses were burnt out or blown up by groups such as the IRA and by gangs of youths. The sight of a blazing double-decker, slung across a main road, was both physically effective and an unmistakeable symbol of the power of those with guns or even just petrol bombs. "They burn beautifully" it was said of them.
There was a wry old Belfast joke about someone being employed as a rear-gunner on a bus. But in truth the vehicles, going as they did through the most dangerous of districts at the most hazardous of times, were utterly defenceless against armed men. Constant attacks were most upsetting for drivers – one of whom was hijacked a dozen times – so Heubeck's acts of bravado were morale-boosting for a largely unsung group of men.
Some of them were expected to drive repeatedly up and down the Falls or Shankill Roads, half-a-dozen times a day, in the era of fierce gun-battles and bombings. At particularly tense times, for example when a route reopened after heavy violence, Heubeck would himself drive the first bus of the resumed service. He was also known for privately providing counselling for his drivers.
Some staff were actually killed, either on or off duty. In 1972, for example, a driver was called to give evidence in a case in which men were charged with ordering him off his bus at gunpoint and setting fire to the vehicle. Gunmen arrived at his house on the night before the hearing and shot him dead on his doorstep.
The early years of Heubeck's life also contained much conflict. Born in Nuremberg in 1923, the son of an engineer, he had achieved no formal qualifications when in 1942 he was conscripted as a 19 year old to serve as a soldier and engineer in the Hermann Goering division of the German Air Force. He initially served on anti-invasion guard duties in western France, then was posted to Italy before being despatched to join Rommel's Afrika Korps. An air attack on the transport ships pitched Heubeck into the sea, four-and-a-half miles from the African coast; however, he not only swam to the coast at Tunisia's Cape Bon, but also helped to rescue some of his colleagues. Only 60 of the original 550 survived.
Captured soon afterwards, he was taken to the US on a prisoner-of-war convoy in 1943, to spend the rest of the war in a work camp in Louisiana. His knowledge of and competence in the English language improved rapidly when his fellow prisoners nominated him as their spokesman and interpreter.
Repatriated in 1946, he returned to Germany to help his family rebuild their home in Nuremberg, and to provide for a total of nine people, including a homeless elderly couple billeted in the family home. Official rations providing less than 1,000 calories per day had to be augmented with black market supplies.
After a period working for the American army, organising transport of armoured vehicles back to the US, he secured work as a translator and proof-reader at the war crimes trials which were conducted in his home city. It was there he met his wife, Monica, who came from South Wales and was also employed as an interpreter. She had studied German before the war, and had been involved in intelligence activity with the codebreakers based at Bletchley Park.
In 1949 they moved to Britain to marry, Heubeck taking out British naturalisation papers. He worked first as a labourer in a nylon plant in Pontypool, then progressed to technical officer. Moving to Aberdeen, he went into the paper industry and became a mill manager.
In 1965 he moved to Northern Ireland, then a sedate backwater, after spotting a newspaper advertisement for a managing director to run the public bus operation. He had no previous associations with either Northern Ireland or with buses, but, he insisted, "The only qualification worth a damn is experience." He carried out a major restructuring programme which included the introduction of one-man buses, a move which he defended at often hostile mass meetings of staff.
Four years after his arrival in Belfast, violence erupted, transforming tranquility into a war zone. It also transformed his role as bus manager, for now his daily worries included, above all, the safety of staff. Then there was the daily question of how many buses might not return to their depots, instead becoming burning barricades, belching flames and smoke from their petrol and tyres.
As hundreds of vehicles were set alight and thousands more were damaged, he bought in second-hand back-up vehicles which he called his "strategic reserve". Even these were not immune from the civil commotion, since in many cases whole depots were burnt out. On at least one occasion he and other staff rescued vehicles from a depot while other buses, set on fire by incendiaries, burned around them.
Above all, Heubeck was renowned for his willingness to board buses, when others were running for cover, and to act as an amateur bomb disposal expert. His actions were not as foolhardy as they might sound, since he came to know many of the tricks of the bombing trade, and could often predict which were fake and which were real. A majority of cases involved hoaxes, but some of those he carried off were real and certainly capable of killing him.
He once said that he did not know how many buses had been destroyed: "It's academic really," he explained. "It's a war situation – you don't count how many fighter planes you've lost, you just calculate whether you've got enough to do what has to be done." Of his bomb disposal efforts he shrugged: "Why do I do these things? Well, it's not heroism. Having buses immobilised with suspected bombs on board means our efficiency is cut down.
"We just started dealing with these things ourselves. At least my drivers know that the boss isn't sitting on his backside doing nothing."
A colleague said of him: "He was a remarkable individual, a man for his time who rose to the occasion during very difficult times. There are many instances of him removing bombs off buses. He was a brave man."
After his retirement in 1988 he remained highly active in a wide variety of craft hobbies including copper beating and stone carving. He lived first in Co Antrim and then in Shetland, where one of his three sons worked as a professional ornithologist. From his workshops he turned out numerous handcrafted artefacts and furnishings.
He was awarded the OBE in 1977 and the CBE in 1988, the year of his retirement. When he left his post, staff displayed a large banner proclaiming: "Auf wiedersehen Mr Heubeck".
Monica, his wife of 60 years, died in September of this year. He himself died of cancer, which was diagnosed thirty years ago. He is survived by his three sons, Julian, Martin and Peter.
Werner Wolfgang Heubeck, transport executive: born Nuremberg, Germany 24 October 1923; married 1949 Monica (died September 2009, three sons); died Shetland Islands 19 October 2009.
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