Obituary: Billie Stephens

B. Rowland,Max Arthur
Sunday 17 August 1997 23:02

Billie Stephens was one of the few naval officers to escape from Colditz, the "escape-proof" castle near Leipzig used as German prisoner- of-war camp during the Second World War.

During the raid on St Nazaire on 27 March 1942, Stephens commanded Motor Launch 192 with considerable skill and bravery. Intelligence reports had indicated that the new German battleship Tirpitz had been completed. If she broke out into the Atlantic and then, like Bismarck, headed for France, the only dock that could accommodate her was at St Nazaire at the mouth of the River Loire.

Operation Chariot was devised: a daring scheme in which the destroyer Cambeltown, laden with five tons of explosives, would crash the gates of the dock and blow them up. To accompany her she had an escort of two destroyers and smaller vessels, including 16 motor launches. Under intensive fire, Cambeltown hit the caisson of the lock gate at 1.30am. Hoping to draw the fire from Cambeltown and to inflict further damage by landing commandos, the motor launches had a tough task. Only four returned.

Stephens, in one of the leading motor launches was almost abeam of the harbour wall when his ship was hit amidships by gunfire. Completely immobilised and on fire in the petrol compartment, he had no option but to order his men to abandon ship. They managed to swim ashore and carry their wounded and were soon taken prisoner by a patrol. Cambeltown, 10 hours later, blew up, wrecking the main gate and killing a number of German officers who were inspecting her.

Stephens and his crew were taken to a courtyard, searched and then lined up against a wall. The men felt certain of their fate, but fortunately an officer arrived to take control. They were then put into an underground store and, even though they had several severely wounded men, were denied water. The prisoners were then taken to Stalag 133 and confined in appalling conditions. Stephens was sent to Wilhelmshaven and interrogated before being sent to Marlag, from where he made his first escape. En route to Oflag IV C (Colditz) Stephens jumped from the train, but was captured the next day and sent on to Colditz to serve a week in isolation.

Major Pat Reid, in The Colditz Story (1952) recalled his early impression of Stephens:

He was handsome, fair-haired, with piercing blue eyes and Nelsonian nose. He walked as if he was permanently on the deck of a ship. He was a daredevil, and his main aim appeared to be to force his way into the German area of the camp and then hack his way out with a metaphorical cutlass.

Five weeks later, Stephens and Major Ronnie Littledale had their plan to escape accepted by the committee. They asked for two others, one of whom should have skill in lock picking. Flt-Lt Hank Wardle was chosen for this task, along with Major Reid. There followed days of preparation based on previous efforts to escape.

Reid insisted that each man carry a small suitcase even though these would hinder the escape from the camp. He felt that the suitcase was the hallmark of respectability; the only men travelling without a suitcase were fugitives. Wearing balaclavas, gloves and socks over their shoes and carrying their suitcases muffled with blankets containing sheets, they began their escape on 14 October. Pat Reid led the way through a kitchen window. Each time a sentry turned his back, Reid signalled for one of the others to crawl through. The next move was through a barred window which gave access to flat roofs which were well illuminated: a sentry was only 15 yards away.

The Battle of Britain pilot Douglas Bader was acting as an observer, conducting the camp orchestra. When the sentry turned his back the orchestra stopped playing. Each of the four men was then able to make a dash for the shadows of a ventilator. After overcoming a number of awkward situations, they were confronted by the only means of escape, a narrow flue. Stripping themselves naked, they managed to squeeze through. Somewhat bruised, they dressed in a nearby shrubbery. They then strolled nonchalantly past the sleeping sentry in the barracks. They knotted their sheets and dropped, in three stages of 18ft, into a dry moat. While they were doing this Stephens developed a tickle in his throat, which disturbed the dogs - in desperation, he stuffed his mouth full of grass and dirt. The men then climbed the outer wall, which was only 10ft high. At 4am they shook hands, split into two pairs, and Stephens and Littledale set off together.

They walked to a station at Rochlitz and caught the train to Chemnitz. En route to Nuremberg they changed at Hoff, where they sat in the station drinking beer. Warned to keep away from Stuttgart, they travelled on minor rail lines until they reached Tubingen. After two days of walking they reached the Swiss border which they crossed under cover of darkness. Their journey from Colditz had taken only five days. Reid and Wardle, who had travelled a different route, had arrived 24 hours earlier. All were interned in Switzerland.

In June 1940 Stephens crossed the Swiss border and made his way across France and over the Pyrenees into Spain, where once again he was imprisoned. Using his by now well-honed guile, he offered his wristwatch to a guard for a telephone call to the British Embassy in Madrid. He was smuggled out in the boot of a large American car to Gibraltar and from there by air to the UK.

William Lawson Stephens was the son of a Belfast shipping agent and timber importer. He was born in Belfast and educated at Shrewsbury before joining his father's firm. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1930 and at the outbreak of the Second World War joined the coastal forces, for which he was perfectly suited.

After the war Stephens returned to Northern Ireland to continue with the family business. He became chairman of Northern Bank and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board as well as Commissioner of Belfast Harbour and High Sheriff of County Down. He was also involved in the Missions to Seamen.

This debonair man, full of charisma, was always immaculate, fit and alert. He had a certain magic and an excitement to him. He was absolutely devoted to his Swiss wife Chou-chou who sheltered him after he crossed the Swiss border. They delighted in entertaining their many friends and in playing endless hours of bridge and the French edition of Scrabble. In the late Eighties they moved to France, to a cottage near Nice for the sake of her health. Her death in 1993 was a severe blow to him.

William Lawson Stephens, naval officer and businessman; born Belfast 9 March 1911; DSC 1942 and Bar 1943; married 1946 Chouchou de Meyer (died 1993); died Chateauneuf de Grasse, France 3 August 1997.

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