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Last of the ’39ers': Hero of the REAL Great Escape who was the oldest surviving and longest-serving British POW dies aged 98

A World War II veteran thought to be the longest-serving British prisoner of war and the oldest survivor of the so-called ’39ers’ – those captured at the start of the conflict – has died aged 98.

Squadron Leader Alfie Fripp, who was shot down by the Luftwaffe in October 1939 just a month after the war began, passed away in hospital in Bournemouth earlier today surrounded by his family.

He was held at 12 different PoW camps, including Stalag Luft III, the scene of prisoner escapes that were dramatised in the film The Great Escape.

Sqn Ldr Fripp helped 76 PoWs escape from the camp in Poland in March 1944 by acting as a spy for them as well as obtaining vital tools like wire cutters and files.

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Squadron Leader Alfie Fripp, seen at the Zagan camp in 2009, helped 76 PoWs escape from Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Pictured right, in 1944, Mr Fripp was tasked with collecting Red Cross parcels for the prisoners from a depot in the nearby town, where he ‘liberated’ numerous items to help the tunnelers

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‘Always cheerful': Alfie Fripp, pictured second left with fellow PoWs (l-r) Andrew Wiseman, Frank Stone and Reg Clever on a visit to Stalag Luft III camp in Poland in 2009, has died aged 98

Most of the men were recaptured by the Germans, with 50 of them being executed under the direct orders of Adolf Hitler.Sqn Ldr Fripp was freed at the end of the war after Germany had been conquered by the Allies. His niece Patricia Fripp announced her uncle’s death on Facebook. She wrote: ‘For the friends of Uncle Bill, AKA Alfie. He passed away this morning surrounded by his family. He never complained, was always cheerful and will light up Heaven.’

He had been the oldest surviving prisoner of war until he passed away during the early hours of this morning following a short illness.

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Alfie Fripp, far right, with fellow Prisoners of War. 50 RAF officers were executed by the Gestapo following their escape in 1944

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Pat Jackson, a family friend whose father, Charles Hancock, was held with Sqn Ldr Fripp at Stalag Luft III, said: ‘He was a lively and vibrant man.’ Above, Mr Fripp and Ms Jackson at the Cenotaph last November during the Remembrance Sunday ceremony

Pat Jackson, a family friend whose father, Charles Hancock, was held with Sqn Ldr Fripp at Stalag Luft III, said: ‘He was a lively and vibrant man. ‘Just eight weeks ago he was marching past the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday.  ‘He had also been making plans to go to Stalag Luft III in March to take part in a ceremony for the men who died in the Great Escape.’

Sqn Ldr Fripp, from Bournemouth, Dorset, joined the RAF in 1930 and married his sweetheart, Vera Allen, in September 1939, three days after war broke out.  His 57 Squadron was sent to France when he was a flight sergeant and the navigator in Bristol Blenheim bombers.  Just a few weeks later his aircraft was shot down over Belgium by the Luftwaffe during a reconnaissance mission.

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Alfie was shot down over Belgium by the Luftwaffe during a reconnaissance mission. Above, on a return trip to the Zagan PoW camp four years ago

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Sqn Ldr Fripp (pictured left in 2011) was transferred out of Stalag Luft III a few months before the mass break-out. He later endured the Long March of 1945, when thousands of PoWs were forced to march in winter from a camp in Zagan in Poland to Spremberg in Germany

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In memory: Stone, who helped the escape committee draw up plans for the tunnels, lights candles for absent comrades

 All of the crew were captured including pilot Flight Lieutenant Michael Casey, who was one of the 50 men killed following the escape from Stalag Luft III. Sqn Ldr Fripp was transferred out of the camp a few months before the mass break-out. He later endured the Long March of 1945, when thousands of PoWs were forced to march in winter from a camp in Zagan in Poland to Spremberg in Germany.

Many of the men died from the cold and starvation. Mrs Jackson said: ‘Alfie was a legend, a great wit and an inspiration to all who knew him.  ‘He was a ladies’ man, full of humour and up for anything. He had an amazing spirit.’

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Escape to victory: Frank Stone, second from the left, plays football with comrades at the Zagan camp

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Allied airmen sailing model boats in the resevoir at Stalag Luft III in Zagan

After the war, he remained in the RAF until he retired by the time he had reached the rank of Squadron Leader. He and wife Vera had two children and four grandchildren. His nephew was Robert Fripp, the famous guitarist who was in the band King Crimson. Mrs Fripp died several year ago aged 84. Sqn Ldr Fripp suffered recently from a minor ear infection for which he was hospitalised. In 2009, Mr Fripp returned to Stalag Luft III for the first time in more than 60 years to remember colleagues who did not survive the war, including Flight Lieutenant Mike Casey, the 21-year-old pilot of the plane Mr Fripp was shot down in.

He was one of 50 Allied airmen who escaped from the camp, only to be caught by the Nazis and executed on Hitler’s orders. ‘I’m glad I came to remember Mike – you reflect back on all the memories and the people you knew,’ he said. ‘As for the Germans, I’ve forgiven them but not forgotten.’ Casting his mind back to the fateful day in 1939 when they were shot down, he added: ‘We were forced to hedge-hop at six feet to avoid being attacked again by a Messerschmitt in a cloudless sky.
‘We crash-landed after colliding with the treetops.’

 

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Historic return: British veterans (from left to right) Andrew Wiseman, Alfie Fripp, Frank Stone and Reg Clever returned to the Stalag Luft III camp in Poland

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Prisoners of war: Frank Stone (second from the left) with comrades in the 1940s

The Great Escape from the camp in Poland – German territory before the war – was the single greatest flight for freedom attempted by POWs during WW2. Seventy six men made it out of the tunnel christened Harry that ran for 348 feet from hut 104 to the woods beyond on the night of March 24-25 1944.Among the 50 who were shot was Roger Bushell, the mastermind of the escape plot planned to free over 200 men. Twenty six others were returned to the camp while three made ‘home runs’ back to the UK.  All those 29 have since died.
But they were remembered by the group who travelled to the site in 2009 to mark the anniversary, including Frank Stone, 86, from Hathersage in Derbyshire who was in hut 104 from 1943 onwards.

Shot down in his bomber over Mannheim in 1940, Warrant Officer Frank helped the escape committee draw up plans for the tunnels. The original plan was for three tunnels,  codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry.  But Tom was discovered soon after it was started, and it was decided to use Dick to store the spoil from Harry as it was dug.

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At the tunnel exit: Left to right, Frank Stone, Andrew Wiseman, Alfie Fripp and Reg Clever

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James Garner as Flt Lt Hendley aka ‘The Scrounger’, Donald Pleasence as Flt Lt Colin Blythe aka ‘The Forger’ and, right, Steve McQueen as Capt Hilts aka ‘The Cooler King’ in The Great Escape film

‘I was given a chance to go on the escape but the priority was given to those men who had the best chance – German speakers and the like. It was a lottery and my number didn’t come up,’ he said. ‘The tension was electric the night of the escape.  And then around dawn I heard a shot and barking and I knew it was all over.’  He said the character Archie Ives in the film – the  Scotsman played by Angus Lenny who was machine-gunned by the watchtower guards – was  based on his real life friend Jimmy Kiddel.

Reginald Cleaver, 84, from Brinklow near Rugby, was a man who resembled the James Garner character in The Great Escape who scavenged and stole items from the Germans to aid in equipping all the escapers with proper papers and uniforms.

Reg,  shot down in a Halifax over Holland in 1943, added: “I have been back once before and I knew I had to come on this trip because it is such an important anniversary.” Accompanying the group of 12 veterans were serving RAF volunteers who built the hut and repainted the names of the dead men on the memorial at Harry’ whose route is marked by stones in the woods where the camp once stood.

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