Obituary: Brian Stonehouse

M. R. D. Foot
Wednesday 20 January 1999 00:02

BRIAN STONEHOUSE had an unusual set of careers: he was a Vogue fashion artist, a wartime secret agent, and a professional painter; he also survived several Nazi concentration camps.

Though born in the West Country, he was largely brought up at Wimereux, near Boulogne, where his parents found it convenient to live, and was thus bilingual in French and English. When he was 12, the family moved to Stowmarket in Suffolk. From Ipswich Art School, he was lucky enough to secure a job at Vogue, drawing strictly life-like illustrations, mainly of ladies' underwear. In May 1939, seeing that another great war was likely, he enlisted as a private soldier in a territorial medium battery at Ipswich and was posted to a field battery in Scotland a few weeks later.

His French came in useful in the spring of 1940, translating for the Chasseurs Alpins who had survived the Narvik expedition and were on their way back to France. He spent the next winter in the Orkneys and was sent in spring 1941 to an officer cadet training unit at Alton Towers.

The Special Operations Executive picked him up - Sir John Gielgud's brother Lewis interviewed him, and found him eminently suitable - and he went through SOE's paramilitary training schools in Surrey and in the Western Highlands before doing his parachute training at Ringway, near Manchester. He then had three months' intensive training as a wireless operator at Thame Park, near Oxford; and parachuted into France on the last day of June 1942.

He landed near Loches with the two Newton brothers, circus acrobats who were to jump into a radio station in central France and blow it up; they parted from him on arriving. He hung about in the woods for several days near his dropping zone till he had rescued his wireless/ transmitter (W/T) set, which had been caught in a tree. He then made contact with difficulty with Philippe de Vomecourt, one of the three Lorrainer barons who were the virtual founders of SOE's independent French section in France; and was packed off to provide W/T services from Lyons.

From mid-July until late October, he was busy transmitting from several sites (some of them rather grand) round Lyons for several of SOE's operators. A common fate of successful wireless operators was his: direction finders detected him during a transmission that went on too long, and on 24 October he was arrested at the Chateau Hurlevent in the Isere - by the French, not the German, police, though some German bystanders were present in plain clothes.

He told the French he was a British officer, expecting their sympathy: instead, they put him in prison and when, a few weeks later, the Germans occupied Vichy's nominally "free" zone of France, Stonehouse was handed over to them. They, in turn, put him in Fresnes prison (near the present site of Orly airport on the south side of Paris), and left him in solitary for 10 months: an experience that would unhinge many of us.

The loneliness was enlivened by repeated interrogations, never agreeable; they told him on Christmas Eve 1942 that he was to be shot as a spy. Instead, he was packed off to Germany, on the same train as Albert Guerisse, GC, the great escape line organiser, and Guerisse's Australian W/T operator, Tom Groome; his tour of concentration camps then began.

He was in Saarbrucken for a few weeks, then at Mauthausen; with a few more weeks on forced labour in a Luftwaffe factory in a Vienna suburb, and then back to the infamous Mauthausen quarry. He was moved across to Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace, and held under extra strong guard. He caught sight there of four young women - with some of whom he had trained - being marched off to be popped in the oven.

When France fell to the Allies, the prisoners in Natzweiler were crammed into trains for Dachau; here he saw out the war, being liberated by the US Army's Rainbow Division on 29 April 1945.

He was a witness at several war crimes trials, including the main Dachau trial, before he was demobilised in mid-1946. Vogue then gave him back his job and from October 1946 to the spring of 1979 he worked in Washington and New York, mainly for Vogue, but also for Harper's Bazaar, Elizabeth Arden and others. His task was to draw models wearing the latest designs. He enjoyed it and enjoyed the girls' company but it gradually became clear to him that the task could be better carried out by photographers than by artists.

He returned to England to paint more seriously portraits, landscapes, still lifes. He had a flat in London and a small place in Suffolk and became well-known to a discriminating field. His portrait of the Queen Mother dominates the bar of the Special Forces Club of which he was a pillar; and he had just finished a second portrait of her which was unveiled last month at the King Edward VII Hospital as a thank- offering for their care of her hip. On Remembrance Sunday, it was he who laid the Special Forces Club wreath at the SOE memorial in Westminster Abbey Cloisters.

Brian Julian Warry-Stonehouse, soldier and artist: born Torquay, Devon 29 August 1918; MBE 1945; died London circa 2 December 1998.

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