TRIBUTES have been paid to a naval veteran whose football skills saved his life during the Second World War.

Henry Cockerill of Peterlee, County Durham – known to all as Les – died two weeks short of his 101st birthday.

He had been taken off his ship to play in a football match and was so good that an officer insisted he stay on land when his vessel left the harbour to complete the tournament.

He later learned the ship had been captured by the Japanese, with many dying in prison of war camps.

The great-grandfather joined the Royal Navy as a 16-year-old in 1935 and went on to serve on several ships throughout the war.

A leading seaman, he was involved in the rescue of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk and later served on the perilous Atlantic crossing, escorting convoys with vital supplies from the US.

It was during a voyage from South Africa to India, that his ship stopped over in Goa for a football match.

Speaking to The Northern Echo on an earlier birthday, Mr Cockerill said: “I was told to get back on the ship as it was leaving, but an officer ordered me and two other players to stay to take part in a football tournament.

“We later heard the ship had been captured by the Japanese. So football saved my life.”

Mr Cockerill, who served on HMS Dragon, HMS Mauritius and HMS Sabre among others, ended the war on a minesweeper clearing the North Sea.

Paying tribute, his daughter Denise Cockerill said: “My parents have been married for 69 years and they have known each other for 72.

“From the beginning to the end they have had a strong loving relationship and supported each other right to the very end. From an early age it has been a happy family to be in. My mum (Muriel) gave us the gift of spirituality and my dad gave us the gift of travelling.”

She added: “My mum and eldest sister Jillian looked after him without any intervention. He died very peacefully at home.”

Mr Cockerill is also survived by his son Alan and daughter Wendy, as well as seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His son David died several year ago.

Mr Cockerill’s funeral service will be held at St Cuthbert’s Church in Manor Way, Peterlee, at 11am on Wednesday, May 30. followed by cremation at Stranton Grange Crematorium in Hartlepool.