Obituary: Joseph Augustus Powell, Commando veteran and stuntman

Joe Powell, veteran wartime commando turned Hollywood stunt king. Picture: Contributed
Joe Powell, veteran wartime commando turned Hollywood stunt king. Picture: Contributed
Have your say

Born: 21 March, 1922 in London. Died: 30 June, 2016, in Hastings, aged 94.

After stuntman Joe Powell accepted a £50 job to jump out of a plane clutching a dummy, his disappearance to the loo for an inordinate amount of time fuelled speculation he had lost his nerve.

Nothing could have been further from the truth: the veteran commando, whose daredevil credits include three Bond films and an account of the D-Day Landings he had fought in, was simply trying to figure out how the parachute fitted. He had never leapt out of a plane before.

It was utterly typical of the way he worked – on the hoof, to make the sequence more authentic.

“You don’t have time to be scared,” he once explained. “If you stop to think about what you are doing you wouldn’t do it. These days you still see stuntmen falling off cliffs and going straight into a perfect dive. I didn’t have any training so when I performed a stunt the audience were literally seeing someone fall off a cliff – it made it more realistic.”

Though he didn’t have any formal training for the stunt world of the movies, he had a head start courtesy of the gruelling regime the commandos had to conquer as they were put through their paces in the Highlands during the Second World War.

Powell, the son of public house proprietors Joseph Augustus Horatio Powell and his wife Ada, was born at the Shepherd and Flock pub in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. One of six children – his brother Eddie also became a stuntman – he learned to box as a young boy and joined the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers Cadet Corps.

After leaving school at 14 he signed up for the Grenadier Guards in 1939, aged 17, and trained at Chelsea Barracks. He was posted to Troon in Ayrshire after volunteering for the Special Forces and served with No 4 Commando under Lord Lovat. He learned mountain warfarefrom a base camp at Braemar but from 1942 the Commando training centre was at Achnacarry in the West Highlands, a forbidding establishment known as Castle Commando.

All recruits were expected to be at peak physical fitness at all times and in fighting order – able to run and march seven miles in an hour. Such high standards were maintained through punishing exercises with live ammunition and explosives, often in appalling weather conditions. They also needed to be experts in a range of skills including unarmed combat, seamanship, demolition and sabotage plus cliff and mountain climbing – no cliffs are insurmountable, they were told.

It was all perfect preparation for a life beyond soldiering. However he didn’t fall into his new role until he had seen extensive action in Europe, been Mentioned in Dispatches and won the Croix de Guerre.

He took part in Operation Abercrombie, a reconnaissance raid near Boulogne, in April 1942, manning an anti-tank gun from an assault landing craft. Lord Lovat received the Military Cross for the operation. Then 4 Commando’s next major raid was at Dieppe that August. And in June 1944 Powell was part of Operation Overlord, the D-Day Landings. They were the first commandos to reach the beach and stormed the heavy fortifications of Ouistreham (Sword Beach) taking out several gun positions. He was photographed that day helping to carry a wounded colleague.

Then in November that year he took part in Operation Infatuate, the attack on Flushing. By this time they were veterans of amphibious assaults, Powell was seconded to a Marine Commando unit for the mission and landed at Walcheren, with the aim of silencing the enemy guns that were hindering their passage from the Scheldt river estuary to the port of Antwerp which was in the hands of the Germans.

He spent most of the remainder of the war on patrol duties but was also involved in fighting the Nazi Werwolf troops, who were determined to continue the battle even after the German surrender, and guarding POW camps holding concentration camp personnel. He had reached the rank of sergeant and, in his spare time, had also learned to ride in Germany.

His stunt career began when a chance meeting at a bus stop with actor Dennis Price led to him being invited to Shepherd’s Bush studios. Price had indicated that the studios were looking for some strapping chaps for a film. Powell turned up, asked with some trepidation for Price, who unbeknown to him was already an established actor, and was then taken on as an extra. Bit parts in various films followed but he was paid more to ride a motorbike into a tree. He spotted a gap in the market and, along with former SAS hero Jock Easton, founded the country’s first professional stunt team.

Powell worked on scores of films including The Guns of Navarone, The Longest Day, Zulu, The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare. In the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King he performed a death-defying stunt for Sean Connery, walking a rope bridge, launching himself 100ft down a cliff and landing on a tiny shelf. Michael Caine reportedly couldn’t watch it and director John Huston said it was “the darndest stunt” he’d ever seen. It was named one of the ten greatest stunts.

He performed other high falls for: A Night to Remember, filmed partly in Clydebank; The Guns of Navarone when he plunged 90ft into the sea; Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, when he plummeted 60ft. He was a double for Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins and Telly Savalas, among others.

Powell, who lived latterly in St Leonards-on-Sea, suffered various broken bones and was killed off spectacularly in numerous films. As he once said, after a particularly trying stunt, what a way to make a living.

Married twice, he was predeceased by his wives, Marguerite, known as Clem, and Juliet, and his daughter Shelley. He is survived by his sons John, Nick, Julian, Alex and daughter Penelope.