Squadron-leader Alfie Fripp: Britain's longest-surviving and oldest prisoner of war
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Tuesday 22 January 2013
The life of Alfie Fripp, who has died at the age of 98, is an example of the unpredictability of the fortunes of war, for he spent almost the entirety of the Second World War as a prisoner in the hands of the Germans. As the oldest surviving and longest-serving British prisoner of war, he was the last of the "39ers", who were captured in 1939 and spent long, dreary years behind Nazi barbed wire. When asked how many attacks he had completed in Blenheim bombers, he would reply wryly, "Half a mission," for his plane crash-landed in Germany in the second month of the war.
During his time in a dozen POW camps he was involved in preparations for the "Great Escape", the daring 1944 break-out from Stalag Luft III which was depicted in the 1963 film with Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. The incident so infuriated Hitler that he ordered 50 of those involved to be executed. Since Fripp had been moved from the camp just before the escape he missed both the break-out and the subsequent shootings.
He later recalled the German guards informing inmates that those who had been shot had included Mike Casey, Fripp's friend who had been pilot of the plane which had been brought down. Fripp described how the prisoners reacted, saying: "We were determined not to show our anger, so we just gave them three cheers."
Born in Wimborne, Dorset in June 1913, the son of a Royal Marine, Alfie "Bill" Fripp was turned down by the Royal Navy because, at four foot ten inches, he was too short. Instead he joined the RAF as an electrical apprentice, later becoming a wireless operator. Following qualification in 1933 he was posted to 201 Sqn (Flying Boats) based near Southampton. He was later transferred to a squadron serving in Singapore followed by spells in England, surviving several scrapes in the late 1930s.
Three days after the outbreak of war he married Vera Violet Allen. He quickly found himself in Amy, France, when his squadron was transferred as the air component of the British Expeditionary Force on strategic reconnaissance duties. A month later his Blenheim bomber, piloted by Mike Casey, was on an observation mission over Germany when it was intercepted by a fighter plane. Fripp, by then a warrant officer, recalled: "We were forced to hedgehop at six feet to avoid being attacked by a Messerschmitt in a cloudless sky. We crash-landed after colliding with the treetops."
In the five years and seven months that followed he was held at 12 different PoW camps, where he took risks during his years in captivity. In some of the camps he acted as a representative of the Red Cross, in charge of distributing parcels sent from Britain. In this role he became experienced in handling not just permitted deliveries but also material such as coded messages despatched to his fellow prisoners. His expertise may have contributed to preparations for the Great Escape.
In the last months of the war he was lucky to survive the "Long March" of 1945, when thousands of PoWs were forced to march westwards in winter from the camp at Sagan, now Zagan, in Poland to Spremberg in eastern Germany. At that point German-held territories were falling into disarray before the advance of the Red Army. Many prisoners died from cold and starvation.
In 2009 he and a number of other inmates returned to Stalag Luft III to mark the anniversary of the Great Escape. "The most important thing is saying goodbye to those who died," he said at the scene. "The huts have all gone, but the ghosts of all those boys are here. I'm glad I came to remember Mike – you reflect back on all the memories and the people you knew. As for the Germans, I've forgiven them, but not forgotten."
After the war he stayed on in the RAF, reaching the rank of squadron-leader, before retiring in 1969 and moving with his wife to Bournemouth, where he taught at a sixth-form college for 10 years. Near the end of his long life he reminisced: "I look back over the years on my RAF career with pride, and consider it a great privilege to have served from the time when the strength was only 30,000 airmen and the ration allowance fivepence per day. It is little short of a miracle that I have survived for so long, through a forced landing in the bay of Biscay in 1936 to a pre-war crash in a Blenheim in 1938, through my World War II experiences to the present day."
A family friend, Pat Jackson, whose father was held with Fripp at Stalag Luft III, said of him: "He was a lively, wonderful, inspirational man. He was marching past the Cenotaph in November 2012 – I was with him. "He walked four miles a day. He was a ladies' man, full of humour and wit and up for anything – and that spirit, he had an amazing spirit."
Alfred Fripp, RAF wireless operator, and teacher: born Wimborne, Dorset 13 June 1913; married Vera Allen (deceased; two daughters); died 3 January 2013.
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