Remembering Frank Stone, One of Stalag Luft’s “Great Escape” Heroes (1922-2013)

Frank Stone

Stalag Luft III, 1944

“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.”

Frank Stone was an 18-year-old WWII RAF gunner who was taken to Stalag Luft III in Zagan after his bomber crash-landed in Mannheim, Germany in 1940.

A prisoner of war, he was housed in the camp’s hut 104. That same hut was also home to 76 airmen who tried escaping from Stalag Luft via a 348-foot tunnel in 1944. The teenage RAF gunner was one of those who helped dispose the soil from the tunnel the other prisoners dug up.

The tunnel, however, was discovered before all of them could make their way out. Of the 76 men who made the attempt for freedom, 50 were shot after being recaptured – including the plot’s mastermind, Roger Bushell, who hoped to free 200 men through the tunnel they had dubbed as “Harry”. The other 26 were returned to the camp and there were three prisoners who successfully eluded SS troops and were able to get home. All 29 have already died.

Stone, aside from helping dispose the dug-up soil, was also elemental in drawing up the escape plans.

(Left) Frank Stone as a POW in Stalag Luft in the 1940s; (Right) Frank Stone along with four other comrades in his first visit to Stalag Luft in 2009.
(Left) Frank Stone as a POW in Stalag Luft in the 1940s; (Right) Frank Stone along with four other comrades in his first visit to Stalag Luft in 2009.

The Great Escape

The soldiers’ original plan was to dig up three tunnels which they code-named Tom, Dick and Harry. However, Tom was discovered as soon as it was started and the band decided to store the soil they dug up from Harry into Dick.

‘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,’ Stone said in an interview conducted in 2011.

The Great Escape 1963

The Stalag Luft escape, the one greatest prison break attempted by the POWs during World War II, was immortalized into a film adaptation with the title The Great Escape in 1963 and starred then popular actors Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasence.

The WWII veteran even said that the character played by Angus Lenny in the film, the Scotsman Archie Ives who was killed when he was machine-gunned by the watchtower guards, was based on Jimmy Kiddel, his friend in the camp.

“Frank was an orderly to the engineer who drew up the escape plans so he had full knowledge of what was going on. It was decided the first 50 to escape would be the ones who had the best chance of reaching freedom, those who could speak German or had some knowledge of German. Frank’s name went into the hat for the order of escape. A total of 200 were to go out first followed by a second 200 the following night. Frank was no 215 so he never got a chance,” Mrs. jane Stone, Frank’s widow revealed about her husband’s role and story in the Stalag Luft escape.

The RAF gunner was then promoted to warrant Officer while in camp afterwards and was one of the survivors of the “Long March” – the time when the Germans evacuated the prisoners as the Russians were fast approaching.

After the war, he was finally freed and was able to return home, got married in 1969 and had one daughter.

Return to the Tunnel

Frank Stone returned for the first time to Stalag Luft III in Poland in 2009 along with three other comrades, Alfie Fripp, Reg Clever and Andrew Wiseman, in time for the tunnel’s 65th year commemoration. The British WWII veterans gave toasts to their absent buddies and paid respects to the 50 men who were shot down after that fateful escape night.

The veteran was also part of a documentary spearheaded by Cambridge University historian Dr. Hugh Hunt along with a team of experts which attempted to build an imitation of the tunnel made by the POWs in 1944. Mr. Stone was the one who demonstrated how the escape was done with a trolley. The said documentary was shown in  a Channel 4 program entitled Digging the Great Escape in November 2011.

Remembering Frank Stone

Frank Stone had since carved out a role as a civil servant after he was freed from Stalag Luft III when the war ended. His widow, Jane, stated how he devoted his time retelling the story about the escape.

“He gave lots of talks about the escape and always said he was doing it in memory of those 50,” she stated then added, “He gave talks wherever and whenever people wanted him and it was an emotional time for him when returned to Germany to the site of the camp.”

She also mused at how her husband was not at all comfortable about his “star” status.

“Frank could never understand why people where so interested in him, but they were.  We often had to put extra talks on so more people could come.”

The WWII veteran was an active member of the Bomber Command Association and the RAF’s Ex-POW Association.

“He saw The Great Escape and always used to say what was shown on the camp in the film was the truth but everything filmed outside the camp was pure Hollywood. But he said if the film had never been made then no one would ever have heard the story of the great escape and it was a story that should never be forgotten,” Mrs. Stone further said.

Frank Stone’s funeral service will be held in St Michael and All Angels Church in Hathersage on October 25 followed with his burial at the village’s cemetery.

– The Daily Mail (October 17) and BBC News (UK) report

– Additional notes from Wikipedia and Daily Mail (March 2009)

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE