A final farewell to war hero Joe

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The funeral will be held today of a Second World War veteran who is believed to have killed one of Hitler’s greatest allies.

Joe Ekins, 88, of Rushden, is widely credited with killing celebrated German tank commander Michael Wittman, better known as the Black Baron, during the Normandy landings of 1944.

Mr Ekins, who was part of the Northamptonshire Yeomany, was reluctant to tell his story and it was only in recent years that he shared his memories with his family and the wider world.

His son David said: “Like all men who served during the war he saw terrible things and lost some good friends. When he came back he put that part of his life to one side and it wasn’t for many years that we found out what he had done or how well-regarded he was.”

Mr Ekins was only 21 when the British tried to batter their way through the German lines during the landings and his tank became beached on a bridgehead.

He withstood six weeks of bombardment, before travelling four miles into enemy territory, in the early hours of August 8, 1944, settling in an orchard near St Aignan de Cramesnil.

The Germans launched a counter-attack, sending a group of the Nazis’ Tiger tanks towards Mr Ekins, who was in a group of four tanks.

He was the gunner of the sole Sherman Firefly tank, the only tank fitted with a 17lb gun capable of damaging the Tigers. As his tank was hit by a shell he fired at three tanks and in blowing up the second he killed Mr Wittmann.

In 2010 a film was released about the battle called Wittmann v Ekins: Death of a Panzer Ace.

David said: “My father was very well regarded by the Tank Museum at Bovington where he has his own exhibition. When the Queen opened the museum’s new wing he was presented to her and he was proud to represent his colleagues during that meeting.

“On the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings I went with him to the village in northern France that his unit liberated. I was proud to see the way the French people held him and his colleagues in such high esteem.”

Just before the end of the war Mr Ekins was invalided out with diptheria and in 1945 he married his wife Stella, who was known as Gwen. The couple had a daughter, Rosemary, and later their son David.

On returning home Mr Ekins went back to the shoe industry where he became a factory manager and a Boot and Shoe Institute teacher, training other managers and setting exams. He was also involved in design work.

When David took up judo at the age of 13 Mr Ekins soon became involved in the sport at the club in Kettering. He helped organise competitions for the Midlands area and eventually became part of the National Executive of British Judo Association, helping to organise national competitions. He was awarded a Queen’s Jubilee medal for his services to the sport.

David said: “Whatever he did, he did it wholeheartedly.

“He was a loving family man, who was generous and was a constant in my life.”

Mr Ekins died peacefully at Kettering General Hospital on February 1.