Obituary: Audrey Hepburn

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The Independent Online
AUDREY HEPBURN has a happy place in one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, writes Michael Burn (further to the obituary by David Shipman, 22 January).

Her Dutch mother Ella van Heemstra was a very dear friend of mine. In the autumn of 1939, her marriage with Audrey's father was at an end. Audrey, aged nine, was living with friends on a farm near Folkestone. I was stationed nearby in the Army and at Ella's request went to see her.

Ella brought her back to Holland to care for her, Holland was invaded and occupied, and they seemed to have gone out of all reach. Not so. At the end of March 1942 I was captured in the Naval Commando raid on St Nazaire. After a very short time, in my first POW camp, long before I received any message from my parents or they from me, I got a Red Cross parcel. No giver was indicated. I was astonished and only learnt after the war what had happened.

Ella had gone to the movies at her home town, Haarlem, and been in time for the German news-reel, a propaganda version of our raid, aiming to show as a fiasco what in fact had been a brilliant success. Suddenly I appeared, being marched through the streets into captivity with a bayonet in my back and my hands up (in the V-sign, for the benefit of British Intelligence). Ella recognised me, in her excitement seized the arm of the person next to her, a German officer, and said in English, 'It's Micky.'

She knew the Jewish owner of the cinema, a woman, who although it had been confiscated still had the keys. Together these two courageous ladies went in at night, got into the projectionist's box, ran the news-reel through, cut out the frames which showed me, and spliced the reel together. Hence the Red Cross parcel.

At the end of the war Holland was near starvation. Ella wrote to me that Audrey, by now 15, was desperately ill. Penicillin was a new discovery, hard to come by. Could I send cigarettes to buy some? I sent bundles, and Ella wrote back that the penicillin they had bought had saved Audrey's life. She came to London and gave me the frames from the news-reel, which she had had enlarged, and of course I treasure.

I think that Audrey's life was saved at least as much by the parcels from Unicef, to whom in gratitude she dedicated those last years of her so generously and joyously given life. I remember her through all the glitter of world stardom as I first saw her more than half a century ago, as a fragile, exquisite, patrician child.