Sqn Ldr Frank Day: 'Fearless' Spitfire pilot

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The Independent Online

Frank Day, who earned the sobriquet "Fearless" for his exploits as a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, seldom referred to the fact that he was imprisoned in the notorious Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp from 1942 to 1945, where he was brutally beaten on several occasions. The only words he uttered to the German officers were his name, rank and number. He sustained himself in the worst moments of his long ordeal by humming "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square".

Day was the son of a successful wine merchant in the City of London. He was educated at the Dragon School and at Uppingham, when John Wolfenden was headmaster. The overpowering ambition of his youth was to qualify as a pilot in the RAF, and this was achieved in his early twenties. As a flying instructor in Humble in 1938, he counted among his pupils Chiang Kai-shek, who would become the first president of the Communist Chinese republic.

In 1941, Flt Lt Day married a WAAF named Antoinette Kaye, whose grandmother held the opinion that the groom was a "counter jumper", a period expression meaning "parvenu". Frank's middle name was Barton, and the Kaye family assumed for a while that Barton and Day were double-barrelled, thus affording him a status he had to refute. Frank and Antoinette were happily married for half a century, though her last years were spent under the terrible shadow of Alzheimer's.

One of the earliest assignments the young pilot had to undertake was to guard Rudolf Hess, the Nazi peace broker, at gunpoint at RAF Turnhouse. Hess refused to speak English, except to ask for a copy of "Herren Only" magazine and a couple of veganin headache tablets.

In 1942, Day was sent on a photo-reconnaisance flight over Crete, during which he was attacked by a squadron of Messerschmidt 109s. The gunfire shattered his control column, severing his right thumb and wounding him in the leg. He baled out and was in the sea for 24 hours. "I had a Mae West lifejacket, but I couldn't open the bloody thing," he told Stuart Wavell in an interview for The Sunday Times in 2000. He was rescued, eventually, by Italians stationed on the island who took him to the German hospital in Heraklion. From there he was transported to Frankfurt. He arrived at Stalag Luft III by cattle truck.

He soon made friends in the camp with Rupert "Pud" Davies, who would later play Inspector Maigret on BBC TV with the enthusiastic approval of Georges Simenon, and the actor Peter Butterworth, who featured in many of the Carry On films, which were scripted by Talbot "Tolly" Rothwell, another inmate. The trio appointed Frank to be their make-up artist for the concerts they staged.

He was interviewed by the escape committee, who didn't rate his chances of joining them because of his injured leg and missing thumb. He was employed instead as one of 20 "penguins" who stored the earth from the tunnels in their trousers and scattered it casually in the prison grounds. These events were described in a book by Paul Brickhill and in the movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen. Most of the men who managed to dig their way to freedom were rounded up by the Nazis and shot.

Frank's eldest son, Jonathan, was born in 1942 and was not to see his father until the war was over. A second son, Michael, appeared in 1946. Frank, who left the RAF as a squadron leader, found post-war employment in the pharmaceutical company Savory and Moore. He began his career packing parcels and ended it as managing director. Although he was profoundly moved by the deaths of his comrades in the camp, and the horrific sights he had witnessed, there was no bitterness in his nature.

I got to know Frank towards the end of his life. In old age he still had a dapper, almost matinée-idol quality about him, addressing his male friends as "Dear boy" and treating women with charm and courtesy. He once remarked that the Nazis treated him with more respect than the NatWest bank did. He was quietly and deeply religious, the anonymous donor of a tractor to the Carthusian monks in the retreat at Cowfold in West Sussex. The shop at Glyndebourne Opera House sells postcards of a watercolour he painted when he was 10 and a half. It's entitled "It rained all day" and sells as steadily as the rain it depicts.

Paul Bailey

Frank Barton Day, wartime pilot and businessman: born London 5 May 1917; married 1941 Antoinette Kaye (died 1994; two sons); died Bosham, West Sussex 29 June 2008.