Colourful German who ran Ulsterbus

Sat, Oct 24, 2009, 01:00

Werner Heubeck: born 24th October, 1923; died October 19th, 2009:THE DEATH has taken place of Werner Heubeck, the former head of Northern Ireland's public transport company, Ulsterbus, and its Belfast counterpart, Citybus.

The German-born businessman lead the companies for 27 years through the worst of the Troubles, earning himself a reputation for doggedness, defiance and almost foolish levels of personal bravery.

However, the plain truth about Werner Heubeck is that most if not all epithets used about him fail fully to describe him. His life story, including his exploits in the second World War, the Troubles and his subsequent active charity work in retirement, portrays a multi-faceted, driven and complex individual. His life was vastly more colourful and eventful than most political or paramilitary figures in the North.

He was best known locally for carrying suspect - and sometimes real - bombs off buses and for driving some vehicles on particularly dangerous routes during civil disturbances. Motivated by a desire to show personal example to his staff and a preparedness to do anything he also expected his drivers to do, he won a reputation as a hands-on and dogged businessman in his public life and a fitness enthusiast in his private one.

Some regarded his apparent lack of self-regard as eccentric, a notion encouraged in some minds by his stereotypical German accent, big glasses and trademark soft hat. But Heubeck's closest colleagues credit him with cleverness, principle and a well-defined sense of risk utterly at odds with the public's assumptions of a devil-may-care businessman.

Werner Heubeck was born in Nuremberg in 1923, the son of a worker in the city's gasworks. He finished school with no obvious record of achievement. While still a teenager and member of the Hitler Youth he was conscripted into the Luftwaffe, fighting firstly under Göring then in Rommel's Afrika Korps. His transport ship was attacked in the Mediterranean and the young Heubeck swarm more than four miles to the safety of the African cost, allegedly helping colleagues on his way. He was one of only 60 survivors from a crew of some 550.

He was among the last to be taken prisoner and transported to the US, where he spent the final years of the war in Louisiana. It was there he perfected his English and worked as a translator in a work camp. These skills stood by him when he returned to his native city to assist at the war crime trials. It was here that he met his future wife, Monica, another translator and intelligence officer originally from Wales.

The couple moved to Britain in 1949 to marry and, overcoming all manner of bureaucratic problems, Heubeck became a British citizen. He worked in industry at a spinning company in Wales and a paper mill in Scotland until he saw a newspaper advertisement for the senior post in public transport in Northern Ireland.

Knowing nothing about running buses, he is said to have spent a day with a bus manager in Aberdeen before applying successfully and moving to Belfast. His arrival coincided with the decline of the train system in favour of road transport. Despite the ailing condition of the transport system in Belfast, Heubeck appeared driven by a determination to keep operating as large a network of routes as possible and was quickly known for personally presenting his business plans to mass meetings of staff.

He maintained a rigorous personal fitness regime, engaging in daily exercise and jogging - years before it was a popular thing to do. He encouraged his senior staff to join him in weekly sessions at the swimming pool.

Other staff members and drivers were urged to keep the buses running despite the mayhem on the street in the 1970s and 1980s. He personally took the controls of buses on some of the most dangerous routes.

Behind the scenes he was noted for acts of personal kindness, supporting the families of his staff during the worst of the Troubles.

He was awarded the OBE in 1977, the year of Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee, and was given the higher award of CBE 11 years later on his retirement. By then battling cancer, Heubeck retired to Co Antrim where he spent much of his time on his many hobbies and handicrafts.

Presented with a supply of seasoned hardwood by his former colleagues, he set about creating dozens of pieces, many of them commissions, for a range of churches across Ireland.

The Heubecks relocated to the Shetland Islands to join one of their three sons, who was a professional ornithologist engaged in watching migrations along the Atlantic coast. Monica Heubeck died last month, 60 years after their marriage. Werner died four weeks later from the cancer he had fought for 30 years.

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