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Intrepid man who saved 669 children from the Nazis passes away aged 106

'Britain's Schindler': Nicolas Winton passes away aged 106
'Britain's Schindler': Nicolas Winton passes away aged 106

He was dubbed "Britain's Schindler" for his extraordinary efforts to rescue 669 Jewish children from the tyranny of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

But Sir Nicholas Winton, who died today at the age of 106, had a lifelong regret - that he couldn't save the lives of more youngsters.

A trip to Czechoslovakia at Christmas 1938 opened his eyes to the growing evil posed by the Germans, and he decided to help children get to safety before the Nazis annexed the country, arranging for trains to take as many as possible from Prague to London and organising for them to be fostered by British families.

Speaking two years ago to the American CBS TV programme 60 Minutes, Sir Nicholas recalled: "All I knew was that the people that I met couldn't get out and they were looking of ways of at least getting their children out."

Explaining why he wanted to help, he said: "I work on the motto that if something's not impossible there must be a way of doing it."

After eight successful trips a ninth train was arranged - for September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland and triggered the start of the Second World War.

The train, with 250 children aboard ready to head off for a new life, was detained in Prague station.

Sir Nicholas said: "They were all at the station, even on the train waiting to go, and war was declared, so the train never left.

"Never heard really what happened to all those children."

Presented with the heartbreaking suggestion that few of them were likely to have survived the clutch of the Nazis, Sir Nicholas said: "I think that 's true, yes."

Sir Nicholas had to go to great lengths to arrange for the children he did save to be rescued, embezzling stationery from the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and making up a false affiliated organisation by adding the words "Children's Section" under the title and making himself chairman.

"So eventually they had to adopt me", he said, admitting to having to practise a little deception to get his way.

Even after British families had chosen children from photographs he had circulated the British authorities were slow to issue travel documents, so he forged them to speed up the process, and dabbling in a little blackmail to move things along.

He told 60 Minutes: "It took a bit of blackmail on my part ... it worked, that is the main thing."

Sir Nicholas also wrote to America's president Roosevelt to try to enlist the help of the US, but a minor official at the US Embassy in London said the country was "unable to help", the programme claimed.

Sir Nicholas said: "The Americans wouldn't take any, which was a pity because we would have got a lot more out."

The incredible story of his rescue mission only came to light 50 years after his escapades, when his family contacted Esther Rantzen's That's Life TV programme in 1988 after his wife Grete found an old briefcase in the attic with lists of children and letters from their parents.

When he appeared on the show he was, unbeknownst to him at the time, surrounded by some of the children he had saved, along with their families.

Sir Nicholas told 60 Minutes: "I suppose it was the most emotional moment of my life, suddenly being confronted by all those children, who weren't by any means children any more."

But despite his heroic actions saving so many lives, Sir Nicholas was not one to dwell on the past or the adulation he so rightfully received.

He told 60 Minutes: "I am not interested in the past. I think there is too much emphasis nowadays on the past and what has happened, and nobody is concentrating on the present and the future."

But those he saved will be forever grateful - along with their descendants who the programme suggested could now number around 15,000.

Sir Nicholas said: "I have got children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren ... terrible responsibility, isn't it?"

Among his many accolades, Sir Nicholas, who was knighted by the Queen in 2003 for services to humanity, was given a "Hero of the Holocaust" medal at Downing Street in 2010 by then prime minister Gordon Brown for helping to save Jewish lives.

He said at the time: "I was in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge about what was going on, so I was able to do all that I did. The Germans were eager to find out what I was doing.

"There were plenty of people who did an enormous amount at the time. Luckily what I did turned out right, it could have all gone wrong.

"My job was to find families who would take the children when they arrived in this country. It was a lot of hard work, but I had a lot of people who helped me."