Bill Stone: The last British man to serve in both World Wars

Wednesday 14 January 2009 01:00

Bill Stone, who has died at the age of 108, was the last British man to have served in both the First and Second World Wars. One of 14 children of a Devon farming family, he was determined to join the Navy. When he was 15 he volunteered, but his father, who already had three sons in the senior service, prevented him from joining. However, two weeks before his 18th birthday, Bill received his call-up papers, so he got on his bike and cycled to Plymouth, where he joined the Royal Navy on 23 September 1918.

He started his training, but on Armistice Day he was in bed with the highly virulent Spanish flu that was sweeping the world, causing more deaths than the Great War itself. Part of the treatment involved being marched, 50 at a time, into a room and fumigated with a mixture of steam and disinfectant, then being made to gargle with Condy's Crystals. When he recovered, and after a further three months' training, he became an ordinary seaman, but his brothers, who were all stokers, persuaded him to become one too. His first ship was the three-funnelled Tiger, which he joined at Rosyth after a night sleeping in the luggage rack of a train.

He experienced, as all officers and men did, the filthy and arduous task of "coaling". Then he, along with 400 other stokers, had to keep the four furnaces going. He recalled, "I'd take off my pants and vest and hang them on the rails, and when I went on watch the next time, my trousers would be standing up on their own, with the perspiration and coal dust. I used to take a small piece of coal, wash it and put it in my mouth to keep my mouth moist."

On 21 June 1919, at Scapa Flow, he witnessed the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet. His next ship was the mighty Hood which, with the Repulse, made an 11-month cruise round the world. The Hood was showing the flag to the colonies and carried a Rolls-Royce, complete with driver, for official visits ashore. When he got to New Zealand, he had 14 days' leave, which he spent with relatives. The world tour continued: he remembered there being only inches either side of the Hood as she sailed through the Panama Canal.

On board, in his spare time, he trained to cut hair, and his tonsorial skills were to remain with him for the rest of his life. He then joined the Chrysanthemum, based in Malta, from 1925-27, where he was proud to become the ship's goalkeeper in the water polo team. It was in Malta that he saw his first "talkie" film – All Quiet on the Western Front.

Stone was then drafted to a submarine-chaser, P40, for nine months, before taking a Petty Officer's course at Portland, which he attended every day in a car for which he had had only one lesson before driving it to the course with three naval passengers. After qualifying in 1929, he joined Eagle, where one of his claims to fame was that he cut the hair of Franco's brother, who had been picked up when his aircraft crashed into the sea.

Stone fell in love with South America, and in Rio de Janeiro he climbed Sugar Mountain, while in Argentina he met two local girls who took him and his friend for a trip around Buenos Aires, where they explained that the name of the city meant "good air" – so would they kindly stop smoking their pungent cigarettes! An unexpected visitor at Rio was the Prince of Wales, who was flown on to the ship.

Stone joined a number of ships until he was drafted to Salamander in 1937. He married in 1938 and his daughter was born a week before the outbreak of war. In May 1940, Salamander was ordered to help with the evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk. Under constant fire, Salamander made five trips, taking back 1,500 men. He was to recall: "On our final trip on 1 June, I was on the quarterdeck, hauling the soldiers in. One poor old soldier, his bones were sticking out of his legs. I managed to get a rope round him, but the ship went on and pulled him away, and we lost him. The troops were worn out, and they were coming down to the water's edge and being bombed. In their panic they were digging themselves into the sand. It was terrible. Those were awful days, but we carried on as if nothing had happened – there was nothing else you could do."

He remained with Salamander on the Archangel run before joining Newfoundland, on which he was serving when he learned that the Hood had been sunk with the loss of 1,400 men, leaving only three survivors. Stone was in action again when Newfoundland came under aerial attack outside Bone in North Africa. He noticed that one of the men alongside him was jittery, but later learned that he'd been sunk on the Edinburgh and picked up by a Russian destroyer, which itself was then sunk.

On 8 June 1943, along with a number of other ships, Newfoundland provided shore bombardment for the invasion of Sicily. In May 1945, with the war over, Stone, wearing a khaki uniform with naval cap, and armed with a pistol, was among a party that travelled to Sylt to deal with pockets of German resistance. After a restless few months there, he returned to England, and after 27 years of service, retired from the Navy.

Stone moved to Paignton, where he bought a barber's and tobacco shop. Life quite remarkably took off for this very loveable man when he reached 100. He became the guest of honour at reunions of the Newfoundland and the Hood, and that year acquired his first passport to visit the First World War battlefields and cemeteries. His life story was recorded in the book Last Post: the final word from our First World War soldiers (2005), at the launch of which he sang "All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor", among other songs. On 11 November last year he attended the Remembrance Day ceremony at Whitehall with the two other remaining survivors of the First World War, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham. Reflecting on his life, he said, "I've had an extraordinary life – a lucky life. Someone's looked after me, I'm sure. Even in the toughest actions, I prayed, 'Lord, keep us safe this night, secure from all our fears, may angels guard us while we sleep 'til morning light appears.' I certainly remember saying that at Dunkirk."

Max Arthur

William Stone, veteran of the First and Second World Wars, born Ledstone, Devon 23 September 1900; married 1938 Lily Hoskin (died 1995, one daughter); died Sindlesham, Berkshire 10 January 2009.

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