When Frank Stone was captured as a prisoner of war he was a youth of just 5ft 4ins who had not yet started shaving. By the time he tasted freedom again he was a man of 6ft and part of the team who had engineered the Great Escape.
The mass breakout, under the noses of the Luftwaffe in Stalag Luft III, was immortalised in an iconic Second World War film detailing the ingenious tunneling operation that led to the escape of 76 Allied aircrew.
The 77th was spotted and shot. Only three escapees made the home run.
The recapture and execution of 50 of the young airman’s companions subsequently sparked a quest to honour their memory and ensure they were never forgotten. Well into his 80s the former gunner continued to share his experiences of life in one of the most famous prisoner of war camps and how its inmates daily outfoxed their German guards.
He returned twice to the scene of the camp, where he had been number 215 on the escape list, and recalled the electric atmosphere of the night in March 1944 as they awaited the operation, followed by the bitter disappointment of its fatal conclusion.
Born and brought up in the Derbyshire village of Quarndon, he had first tried to join the RAF at 16 but his mother objected, informing him rather prophetically that flying was “dangerous”.
A clever youngster, who had won a scholarship to Herbert Strutt Grammar School in Belper, he had hoped to enrol at the RAF training college at Cranwell. Folowing his mother’s refusal to sign the application form he then considered architecture as a career. That too was scuppered as his parents could not afford to pay for him to become articled.
As a result he began an apprenticeship as a diesel engineer with the Trent Motor Traction Company in Derby.
However, as soon as he turned 18 he volunteered to become an airman and was expecting to become a navigator, and was due to be trained in Canada that September. Before that, as the blitz raged in July 1940, he was sent to 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton where he did minimum training as an air gunner.
His flight commander was Guy Gibson, later to lead the Dambusters raid, who invited him to volunteer for operations over Germany which he said would “look good” on his logbook when he went to Canada.
His first mission went well but the second, five days later on 8 August, 1940, ended when his Handley Page Hampden bomber was shot down over Mannheim in the Black Forest.
The plane caught fire but the crew survived and he was pulled to safety, from the rear gunner’s compartment, by a fellow airman who he always credited with saving his life. Rounded up by local farmers, he was handed over to the enemy and after initial interrogation was sent to Stalag Luft I, near Barth in Germany, by the Baltic Sea.
Eventually he was transferred to a new camp at Sagan housing RAF officers. This was Stalag Luft III, built over loose sandy subsoil to deter tunneling.
Young Stone worked as an orderly for the officers, initially living in centre compound before moving to north compound where hut 104, the setting for the escape, was located.
Three tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry – were dug roughly 30ft down on the instructions of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who commanded the escape committee. The conspicuous sand had to be disposed of surreptitiously and ingenious ways were devised to offload it – some was sprinkled on the ground from pouches hidden in the prisoners’ trousers; some went into the garden; more was disposed of deep below a seat in the camp theatre. Inevitably some was spilled and Stone’s role was to keep the corridors sand-free. He fashioned a special brush out of Red Cross string for the job.
He was also involved in soldering radios they built and in entertaining the senior security officer responsible for preventing escapes, Sergeant Major Hermann Glemnitz. Stone was based at the opposite end of the building from Harry’s entrance and would be given extra rations to provide coffee for Glemnitz, effectively distracting him from what was going on in the tunnel.
Throughout the operation the team of PoWs pilfered an incredible array of equipment to support the scheme, including thousands of bed boards, hundreds of mattresses and countless pieces of cutlery. Stone helped to deliver a large amount of vital cabling. He had been fetching potatoes with another orderly when inmate Joe “Red” Noble, just released from the “cooler”, spotted unattended flex the Germans had been using to re-wire a tannoy system. Seeing Stone and his companion, he swiped the wire and deposited it on the potatoes before throwing his coat on top and marching the pair back to the hut. The cable then provided lighting for tunnel.
On the night of 24 March, 1944, with the tunnel just completed, the plan was for 200 men to escape. The first batch was selected for their linguistic skills and ability to survive, the rest drew lots and Stone got number 215. He knew he would not be heading for freedom that night and gave up his place in hut 104 to one of those on the escape list. “Everybody was on tenterhooks waiting for it to happen,” he recalled. “Very few of us actually had a full night’s rest.”
But just before 5am a shot rang out and they knew it was over. The guards rushed in and those, including Stone, discovered in the wrong block were paraded outside in the snow until midday. Word later filtered in about the fate of those who escaped until they learned a total of 50 had been killed.
It was not the only tragedy he experienced in the camp. He learned of the death of his brother and also witnessed the machine-gunning of a friend, driven to suicide by trying to scale the perimeter fence under the watch of an armed guard – a scene that featured in the 1963 film The Great Escape.
Before being liberated, Stone also endured what became known as the Long March, a forced trek through horrendous conditions of ice and snow as the Russians advanced and the Germans retreated west.
When he returned to the area in 2009 for the 65th anniversary of the breakout he was able to identify the place where he had rested after the first 16 hours of marching.
After returning home following VE Day he took a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Labour and worked his way up in the civil service, where he spent the rest of his career, becoming a higher executive officer. He worked in London and Sheffield and specialised as a resettlement officer for those with disabilities.
A man who could never throw anything away – a legacy from his PoW days – he was heavily involved in amateur dramatics, firstly as an actor and then in set designing and stage management – latterly with his local group the Hathersage Players, near Derby. He also took up bell ringing and golfing in retirement.
He gave numerous talks on his PoW experiences, raising large sums of money for charity through them and the sale of a DVD of his talk, proceeds of which went towards the Bomber Command Memorial in London. He returned to the campsite again in 2011 when he was filmed for the television documentary Digging the Great Escape.
Widowed by his first wife in 1967, he was predeceased by his son Robin and is survived by his second wife Jane and daughter Amanda.