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Forget The Tennis • Happy Birthday, Colonel Tom

By Alix Ramsay

What was that noise this morning? It sounded vaguely familiar. A noise we were more accustomed to back when things were normal. Ah, yes. It was the sound of an aeroplane engine. Two of them, to be precise.

They were flying over the house of Colonel Tom Moore, the unwitting global superstar, who turned 100 today. It was the RAF’s tribute to the man who has raised more than £32 million for the National Health Service. And it almost didn’t happen. But we will get to that in a minute.

Now, before anyone thinks there is a typo in the headline, our hero is, indeed, now a colonel. Known in his own land – and in many other lands across the world – as “Captain Tom”, the former tank commander who served in India and Myanmar in World War II, celebrated his 100th birthday on Thursday and, like all those Brits who reach such a milestone, he received a birthday card from the Queen. But his was different. His card contained a personal message from Her Maj and it came with a promotion: he was now an honorary colonel.

Her Maj is obviously a David Bowie fan: the rank above captain is major but when it comes to international superstars, the role of Major Tom was taken back in 1969 when Bowie released Space Oddity. Best bump him up a rank, then. Col Tom it is. Good choice, HM.

The letter informing him of his new status was presented by Lt Col Thomas Miller, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment and was delivered on Wednesday. The appointment, which was approved by the Queen, was made by the head of the Army, Sir Mark Carlton-Smith in recognition of Tom’s fundraising and because his “mature wisdom, no-nonsense attitude and humour in adversity make him an inspirational role model to generations young and old”.

A few weeks ago, Capt./Col Tom wanted to do something to help the NHS front line staff who were risking their own lives every day to help others in the Covid-19 pandemic. At his age and only a couple of years after breaking his hip, he was not as spry as he once was but he thought that completing 100 laps of his 25m garden before his 100th birthday might be possible. His aim was to raise £1,000 – 10 laps a day for 10 days and the job would be done.

But then word spread. Television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines all got wind of the story and suddenly he was a national hero. As he racked up the laps, so the money flowed in. As the day of his birthday dawned, he had raised £30million. By late afternoon, that total was more than £32million. It is no wonder the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, called Capt. Tom “a one-man fundraising machine”.

The broadcasters couldn’t keep up as the story unfolded: “And now, Captain Tom who has raised £10million for the NHS….oh, hang on, it’s now £12million….” And so it went on day after day.

The Prime Minister sent a personal video message signing off with: “There’s a tradition going back a few years now where the Prime Minister takes each day to thank someone for their service to others, by recognising them as a point of light.

“Captain Tom, that its exactly what you are. A point of light in all our lives. So, on behalf of the nation, thank you, and a very happy birthday.”

But that was not all. The England cricket team made him an honorary team member and he topped the charts with a cover of You’ll Never Walk Alone recorded with Michael Ball and the NHS Voices of Care choir. The Royal Mail issued a special post mark and all mail sent during the week of his birthday was stamped “Happy 100th Birthday Captain Thomas Moore NHS fundraising hero 30th April 2020.” He even had a train named after him that went into service on Thursday.

But back to the flypast.

As the story about Capt. Tom gathered momentum, everyone wanted to celebrate this new national treasure (and 150,000 people send him birthday cards. He proved so popular with the public that the Royal Mail gave him his own post box just up the road from his house). The Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar in Kent – they restore Spitfires – wanted to do their own flypast for Capt. Tom using their Mark 9 Spitfire called The Spirit of Kent. Or they did until officialdom took over. In these days of lockdown, the Department of Transport (DoT) refused to allow the flypast because the journey was not deemed “essential”. Bah humbug.

However, the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based in Lincolnshire is not bound by the DoT’s edicts. When it comes to pulling rank, the DoT can’t cut it with the RAF. If the men that Capt. Tom would have known as the Brylcreem Boys back in WWII want to fly, they fly. The flypast was on.

At 7.45am, the Spitfire and the Hurricane left RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and headed100 miles south to Marston Moretaine in Bedfordshire to fly laps around Capt. Tom’s home. In the afternoon, RAF helicopters performed another flypast (never tell the RAF they can’t do something. You will never win that argument) while the Spitfire restorers of Biggin Hill did their bit, too.

At 8pm, to coincide with the weekly “clap for the NHS” (we all clap, cheer and knock seven bells out of our kitchen ware to make noise and show appreciation for the NHS workers every Thursday night), they flew The Spirit of Kent around Biggin Hill airfield to celebrate Capt. Tom’s 100th birthday and to show appreciation for the NHS. It’s their airfield and their air space so they didn’t need any official approval. So there, DoT.

But what did the new honorary colonel make of all of this? He is still doing circuits of his garden and while the Just Giving page for donations was due to close on Thursday night, that “one-man fund raising machine” asked anyone so inclined to send their money direct to the NHS charities. He is quiet and he is not one to blow his own trumpet but he will simply not be stopped.

“I really am honoured by that, it really is something special,” he said of the birthday flypast. “Reaching 100 is quite something. Reaching 100 with such interest in me and huge generosity from the public is very overwhelming.

“It hardly feels any different to yesterday. I don’t know what it feels like, I’ve never been 100 before. But I must say I’m absolutely delighted with all the people who have come to wish me a happy birthday and who have been so kind, thank you very much.

“It’s hard to describe. There’s been so much kindness shown and so many people making kind remarks. It really is outstanding. I never, ever anticipated ever in my life anything like this. It really is amazing.

“I will say to everyone, thank you very much to everyone, wherever you are. When you see all those cards from children, it really makes you … well, if you were a weepy person it would make you weep. All the work and the thought all these children have put into their cards.”

In a world paralysed by fear of Covid-19, terrified of what will be left after all of this is over and constantly complaining about what we have to endure while the virus takes its hold, an old soldier who was born during the Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50million people and who came through the horrors WWII that killed 75million people has quietly shown everyone what can be done if you set a goal and get on with it.

Happy birthday, Captain Tom. Or should that be Colonel Tom? You are a legend, either way.