Pears poster-boy to D-Day hero: Johnny Hill dies aged 91


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The Independent Online

With his shock of curly blonde hair and cherubic smile little Johnny Hill stood out from the crowds of holidaymakers on Blackpool's promenade in the summer of 1924.

To the sharp-eyed photographer from Pears soap the three year-old and his brother Ron made the perfect poster boys for what was then one of the world's leading consumer brands.

The image of the two lads in their unlikely Roman togas later featured on billboards across Britain in the coming years and in advertisements in every chemist shop in the land.

In the ensuing decades Johnny was to grow up to become a D-Day hero and a liberator of the Nazi death camp at Belsen before  living out his days in Sedgefield, County Durham where he worked for 30 years as a painter and decorator for the local council raising his family.

But Mr Hill, who has died aged 91, never forgot that chance encounter with his brother in the Lancashire seaside town. "Both of them said they hated it.

They said they had to slip off their undies and put on this toga. You can see from the picture that there was a little bit of apprehension on their faces," said Mr Hill's son Geoff. Johnny was one of nine children from Nuneaton in Warwickshire.

"When they used to take him around the town he used to get recognised and it made him embarrassed. According to my dad he never got any money - only a year's supply of soap," added Mr Hill.

In fact Johnny, a great grandfather of six,  was to keep faith with Pears all his life - and retain his extraordinary complexion as well as the serenity he radiated in the picture, which featured pride of place on his parents' living room wall.

"He was a perfect gentleman, the most mild-mannered person I ever met. He never raised his voice once to us and I never saw him lose his temper," Mr Hill said.

But as a young man his early adult life was to be anything but peaceful. After leaving school he went to work first in a box factory before retraining as a Capstan lathe operator at a tool making factory - a reserved occupation which meant he would not have had to fight in the army in the Second World War.

But his engineering works was destroyed by Nazi bombs as they wrought havoc over the industrial Midlands and Johnny lost many friends and colleagues in the attack suffereing a nervous breakdown.

After undergoing rehabilitation rather than return to the factory he joined the Royal Army Service Corps and trained at Sedgefield where he met his wife Rachel and they married at St Edmund's Church where he will be buried today (Wednesday).

Mr Hill formed was of the Normandy invasion, going ashore on D-Day plus one. He was among the force which liberated Antwerp and was later nearly killed in a V2 rocket attack. He was later part of the Allied forces which discovered Belsen although he did not talk about his ordeal until many years later.

Mr Hill was widowed eight years ago and his brother Ron died in 2006. "Up until he went into hospital he was fit and nimble. He still had all his teeth although he had lost his hair in the army from wearing balaclavas. I have just been around to see him (at the funeral parlour) and he looks absolutely beautiful still," said Geoff Hill.