Frank Stone: Tail-gunner who helped construct the tunnels used in 'The Great Escape'

 

Frank Stone shared the room in Hut 104 of the North Compound of Stalag Luft III, from which 76 men made the break-out called "The Great Escape" on 24 March 1944, with Wally Floody, the tunnelling expert who made it possible. Also in this room was the stove which camouflaged the entrance to the 348-foot long, 30-inch wide passageway 30 feet down, nicknamed "Harry", that led beneath the camp's perimeter wire to the woods and freedom beyond.

Under the direction of the exploit's motivating personality, "Big X" Roger Bushell, Stone and Floody, and many others from among the 700 airmen in the compound, lent a hand in the digging of Harry and two other tunnels, Tom and Dick. Tom was discovered, Dick was used to hide tell-tale equipment and Harry was the one that got the men out. Stone's main job was to sweep the hut corridors to leave no trace of the bright yellow sandy spoil from the excavations that could have given the game away.

Stone, then aged 22, an RAF tail-gunner born and brought up in Quarndon, Derbyshire, and Floody, a Canadian, were among those who survived the Second World War and the camp at Zagan, 100 miles east of Berlin, but for the rest of their lives they were haunted by the war crime done on Hitler's personal orders to their fellows. Fifty of those who got away that night in the snow were summarily shot by the Gestapo, breaching the Geneva convention of 1929 that Germany had signed. Many were Stone's personal friends.

It was perverse good luck for Stone that the 77th escaper, not far in front of him in the order of those picked to go, was stopped at the exit at the barrel of a gun by the perimeter guard, and Stone, back at the entrance, got the news that neither he nor anyone else could now follow.

Stone had had precious little luck since volunteering for the RAF in May 1940 on reaching the age of 18. His parents' earlier apprehension in refusing to sign the forms for him to apply for training at RAF Cranwell not far away in Lincolnshire, which would have let him begin in 1938 as a "boy entrant", was prescient.

On joining up, Stone was given six weeks' training as a navigator, a job that included manning the guns at the rear of the plane, before being sent in July 1940 to 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, under the command of the future Wing Commander Guy Gibson (by then DFC but not yet VC). Stone accepted an invitation from Gibson to volunteer for operations over Germany, as, Gibson explained, "It will look good in your log-book".

Cramped in the famously uncomfortable fuselage of a Handley Page Hampden bomber, the teenager did his duty on his first foreign sortie early in August with the aircraft's newly fitted twin Vickers K guns, enduring its lack of any heating or provision for the crew to relieve themselves. That time he got back to home shores safely, but five days later, on 8 August, doing the same again, his aircraft was shot down over south-western Germany at Mannheim. The rest of his war was to be spent locked in rough prison camp huts, living on cabbage, and, like his fellow POWs, yielding up one in five of the boards supporting his meagre bed for Bushell's desperate schemes.

Violent death at the enemy's hands was already familiar to Stone, who had also lost his elder brother, Edward, in the war even before he heard of the mass shooting. His friend Jimmy Kiddel cracked under the strain of the camp's conditions and in a crazed attempt to scale the wire in full view of the guards, was machine-gunned to death. The incident is portrayed in John Sturges' 1963 film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, in which the character Archie Ives, deaf to the voices begging him, as Stone surely did, not to do it, is played by Angus Lenny.

"It was something I will never forget," Stone said many years later. "He went berserk and it was dreadful."

The tense, electric atmosphere of the night of the escape of the 76 went on until 5am, when the German guard's shot rang out. "We knew then we had been discovered," Stone said. The mood in the huts changed to anger, then great sadness. For days those left behind did not know what had happened to their comrades. All privileges were stopped – until news came of the Gestapo shootings. "Then," Stone said, "all the Luftwaffe Germans were ashamed of themselves, and all privileges were restored."

There was one more ordeal for the boy who had attended Herbert Strutt Grammar School in Belper, and whose bereaved mother back in the little cottage in Quarndon was keeping always ready for him a fresh packet of his favourite chocolate biscuits in case he came home. This was a forced march for 100 miles and more, north towards Lübeck, during which the prisoners caught dysentery. Soon afterwards, as Nazi Germany collapsed, they met an Allied scout car, were given rifles, and on eventually being flown back to England went on a pub crawl.

Stone joined the civil service, working for the Ministry of Labour, and later the Manpower Services Commission, retiring in 1983. In retirement he found himself in demand to give talks about the escape, with which he raised money for charity, and he returned to Zagan on the event's 65th anniversary in 2009. He was an accomplished stage-set maker for local amateur dramatic associations, played golf and cricket, and joined a team of bell-ringers. He is survived by his wife, Jane, and his daughter, Amanda.

Anne Keleny

Frank Stone, soldier and civil servant: born Quarndon, Derbyshire 14 May 1922; married 1952 Barbara Slack (died 1967; one daughter), 1969 Jane Moore (one son, deceased); died Hathersage, Derbyshire 15 October 2013.

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