James Oswald Noel 'Jon' Vickers was born on April 6th 1916. Although always called Jon, or John, by colleagues he was `Mouse’ to his family and friends. He came from a privileged London background. His father was killed on the western front in the very year that he was born, and he was brought up by his mother.
At Stowe school, Buckinghamshire, his teachers included the Marxist historian George Rudé, who became a lifelong friend. At Cambridge, he studied history and English, won a boxing blue and – influenced by the death in Spain in 1937 of his school contemporary John Cornford – joined the Communist Party.
On the outbreak of war in 1939, Vickers was called up and posted to France with the 5th Division of the British Expeditionary Force. While on leave in February 1940, he married his fellow Cambridge Communist Winifred Lambert. But in May, just before Dunkirk, he was captured and a bullet was removed from his thigh without anaesthetic in a German military hospital.
He spent the next five years in PoW camps, including a spell in the punishment camp StalagXXI D, outside Posen (Poznan), where he was sent after classification as a "subversive". He spent much of his time working on escape plans, for which his facility in languages proved invaluable, and even managed to monitor foreign radio broadcasts. Late in the war, because of a distant family connection to Winston Churchill, he was interviewed personally by Heinrich Himmler. But, with the Germans in retreat, he finally managed to escape into woods near Kassel. A few days later, he saw a US tank and came out of hiding with his hands in the air. It was, he said, his most dangerous wartime moment. He was reunited with his wife at Baker Street station, where she had lost her legs in an air-raid three years earlier.
In 1946 Vickers was appointed warden of Wedgwood Memorial College, run jointly by the Oxford University extramural department and the Workers Educational Association at Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire. Here he worked with the historians Bridget Sutton (who later married Christopher Hill) and Henry Collins, but in 1949 was forced to resign after complaints about Communist bias. "I was proud of the fact," Vickers wrote later, "that Barlaston was almost unique in attracting industrial workers – especially miners and potters – and thought this important because I shared the view that a working-class elite was needed to lead the labour movement."
Vickers then got a job in the Electrical Trades Union research department, before becoming its education officer. He was proud of some of his ETU years, especially the founding of the union's residential college at Esher Place. But in 1956, after Hungary, he left the Communist Party and the ETU and soon joined the Labour Party, though he remained on good terms with some of his Communist friends, notably the teachers' leader CGT Giles, who shared the Vickers family home in Chiswick, west London, for several more years. In 1960, Vickers became deputy general secretary and, from 1963, general secretary of the Civil Service Union. He died on June 1st 2008, aged 92.