Tribute to Burgess Hill war veteran who has died a week short of her 100th birthday

A woman who had lived in Burgess Hill since 1937 and served in the female auxiliary of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War has died one week short of her 100th birthday.

Wednesday, 30th June 2021, 2:47 pm

Mary Rose Herzig – who friends in the town knew as Mary Heather – died peacefully in bed on Friday, June 11.

Although she developed longstanding links with Burgess Hill as a volunteer and member of several clubs, she had arrived in the town rather reluctantly at the age of 16, sad to be leaving friends and singing colleagues in Cheltenham where she had spent her childhood.

Her son, Maurice Heather, said: “She had won prizes in the Cheltenham festival for her singing, and had high hopes of a musical future.

Mary Heather SUS-210629-145648001

“When her parents, Lizzie and Jacob, moved the family to live with Lizzie’s parents in Gloucester Road, Mary was not best pleased.

“Compensation came in the shape of the boy next door, Noel Heather, and the couple soon became sweethearts.”

During the war in 1938, Noel joined the Royal Artillery while Mary joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). One of her main duties, she later recounted, was to allocate replacement aircrews around the RAF’s airfields during the terrible losses of the Battle of Britain – one of the jobs that she hated.

“Separation during those years of war made for a strange courtship for Mary and Noel, fraught with worry and only infrequent meetings, but in January 1944 they were married, while on leave, at St John’s Church,” said Maurice.

“For Corporal Mary Heather that was the end of her time in the forces, but Noel was not de-mobbed until 1946.

“Robert, the first of their three children, had been born in 1945 and the family settled in Livingstone Road, in a small terraced house with no electricity or indoor lavatory and an elderly sitting tenant occupying the front room.

“Mary’s parents and in-laws were both just streets away.

“She had a particularly strong bond with Pop, Fred Heather, who for 42 years was parish clerk and verger at St John’s Church, and Mary later recalled helping him with his duties, cleaning, polishing and replenishing the altar candles. These were happy times.”

Mary and Noel were keen members of the Leylands Road badminton club and Mary was heavily involved with the 1st Burgess Hill Scout troop, to which her brother, David, and her two sons, Robert and Maurice, belonged.

She played the piano and joined the Burgess Hill Choral Society, as well as the Townswomen’s Guild, history club and keyboard club. She also volunteered at the Blind Club, Meals on Wheels and the Cancer Research shop.

After some 12 years in Livingstone Road, Mary and Noel had the generous offer from Pop and Grandma Heather of half of their garden as a building plot, and over the next couple of years, with the help of one of their neighbours, Ralph Winter, they built ‘Lingleigh’, their own ideal home and Mary’s pride and joy.

Maurice said: “The family was the centre of Mary’s life. No sooner had her youngest daughter Margaret left for college than her own mother was taken ill and came to live with Mary and Noel.

“There followed a decade of caring for mother, mother-in-law and father-in-law during their final years, a sad and difficult time in Mary’s life.

“Noel and Mary celebrated their ruby wedding together in 1984, but in 1990 Noel was diagnosed with lung cancer and died the following year.”

Having already had several moves within Burgess Hill, Mary moved to Foundry Court, Mill Road, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Not short of close friends and family – she now had seven grandchildren and would eventually have 14 – she nevertheless found living alone a tough experience.

One compensation, however, was the discovery of a love of travel in Europe in the company of her old friend from her WAAF days, Wyn.

Mary had previously only travelled abroad on a few occasions to visit her Swiss father’s relatives, but now she took to holiday trips with enthusiasm.

Maurice says she remained staunchly independent into her 90s, only regretting how her hands would no longer manage the piano, then her embroidery and finally a jigsaw puzzle.

Just before Christmas 2020 she suffered a stroke and the last six months of her life were spent with her son Robert and his at their home in East Dean.