One of the most distinctive public figures in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the managing director of Ulsterbus and Citybus, Werner Heubeck, died in the Shetland Islands yesterday at the age of 85.
Charismatic Ulsterbus boss Werner Heubeck was a member of Rommel’s Afrika Korps in World War Two
From his appointment in 1965, he turned round the economic fortunes of the province’s bus operations and his inspirational leadership rallied the staff to keep the bus services running throughout difficult times when buses were being attacked and destroyed on the streets and in their depots.
When he was appointed to lead the re-organisation of the bus operations, he had no previous association with Northern Ireland, and no experience or qualifications specific to the transport industry, but he convinced the interview panel that he had the character traits and general managerial background to make a success of the task.
Werner Heubeck was born in 1923 in Nuremberg, the son of an engineer in the city gas works. Young Werner was enthusiastic about physical fitness and hard work, but had achieved no formal qualifications when he was conscripted as a 19-year-old in 1942 to serve as a soldier and engineer in the Hermann Goering division within the German Air Force.
Initially, he served on anti-invasion guard duties in western France, then in Italy, before being despatched to join Rommel’s North Afrika Korps in the last stages of that campaign.
An air attack on the transport ships pitched young Werner into the sea, four and a half miles from the African coast, but he not only swam to the coast at Cape Bon, but helped to rescue some of his colleagues; only 60 of the original 550 survived.
Captured soon afterwards, he was taken to the United States on the last POW convoy, in September 1943, to spend the rest of the war in a work camp in Louisiana.
Repatriated in 1946, he helped his family to rebuild their home in Nuremberg.
After a period working for the American Army, organising transport of armoured vehicles back to the United States, he secured work as a translator and proof reader at the War Crimes Trials, conducted in his home city. It was there he met Monica, from South Wales, who was also employed as an interpreter.
They came to Britain to marry and to settle, and Werner took out British naturalisation papers five years later.
With his limited qualifications, he secured factory work with British Nylon Spinners in Pontypool, starting as a labourer, but moving upwards as his talents were discovered, to technician and technical officer. In 1957, he moved into the paper industry.
He later recalled that he saw, almost accidentally, the advertisement for managing director for buses in Northern Ireland, and prepared for the interview by spending a day with the local bus manager in Aberdeen, and taking a weekend in Ulster.
His first major task on starting the job was to convince the trade unions and bus staff, both operating and engineering, that the best future lay in total commitment to reorganisation and greater efficiency. Such major restructuring of nationalised industries was almost unheard of at that time, although commonplace in more recent years.
Werner presented these plans personally to mass meetings of the staff, facing up to suspicion and even outright hostility.
Ulsterbus Ltd commenced to trade on April 17, 1967. On that day, new duty schedules, with only minor adjustments in frequency and timing, required 1,200 bus staff, as against the previous 1,600.
So began his period of leadership of the bus business in the province. Ulsterbus was able to maintain a stable and successful out-turn in its financial results, which continued for more than 20 years.
The Troubles, which beset Northern Ireland through the 1970s and 1980s, presented Werner Heubeck with his greatest challenge. Being publicly-owned, the buses attracted attention, both on the streets and in the depots, as targets for both casual violence and planned terrorism.
Werner’s leadership skills became evident throughout the province as he turned up to give backing and leadership to staff in the most difficult situations.
While he was best known to the public for his exploits in lifting bombs off buses, he was also, less publicly, giving counsel to affected front line staff and, in many cases, their families.
This charismatic leadership earned the respect of employees as well as passengers, also those in government and public life, with whom he worked to ensure the continuity of the bus operations which had been entrusted to his management.
In recognition of his early achievements, he was awarded the OBE in 1977, to be followed by the award of the CBE for his services to public transport in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 1988, the year of his retirement.
Aside from work, Werner maintained his enthusiasm for physical fitness. On one occasion he was given a strong reprimand by the RUC, because his jogging route around the Belfast Docks area afforded no security for such a public figure.
In his retirement he found opportunities to provide personal support for a number of elderly and disabled acquaintances, whom he visited regularly, and in some cases personally nursed through terminal incapacity.
Monica, his wife of 60 years, passed away in September 2009. Werner himself had been fighting cancer for 30 years.
Typically he had not allowed this to curtail his enthusiasm for life. He is survived by his three sons, Julian, Martin and Peter.