AN RAF veteran from Dorset has made an emotional return to a German Second World War prison camp to honour a comrade who was gunned down by the Gestapo after taking part in what became known as the Great Escape.
Former navigator Alfie Fripp, 94, of Southbourne, was one of six ex-prisoners to take part in a memorial event to mark the anniversary of the escape from Stalag Luft III.
The veterans gathered for a minute’s silence at the exit of the tunnel nicknamed “Harry” at 10.15pm on Monday night – exactly the time that the escapees started entering it 65 years before.
A total of 78 Allied airmen took part in the escape, but only three made it to safety. Fifty were rounded up and illegally shot in the back on the direct orders of Hitler.
RAF personnel accompanying the veterans read out a roll call of the murder victims before everyone raised their glasses to toast them in Champagne. On Saturday, the mayor of the nearest town, Zagan, now part of Poland, will be hosting a civic service to rededicate the renovated memorial stone to the 50.
Although Mr Fripp did not take part in the escape, his Irish pilot, Mike Casey, then 28, was among those killed after the escape.
Speaking from Zagan, Mr Fripp told the Echo: “I’m very pleased to have said goodbye to my pilot. I’m sure he’s much happier up there than we are down here. He was a very nice bloke and very friendly. He got married two days after I did, on September 8 1939, and we flew out to France on September 30.”
The pair’s Blenheim aircraft was shot down during a reconnaissance flight over Germany 16 days later. “In the first place, there were just a few of us, so things weren’t too bad,” he recalled.
Mr Fripp – known as Bill to his family, including his famous musician nephew Robert – was held in a dozen different POW camps during his five years and seven months of captivity, but spent two years in Stalag Luft III.
“The guards weren’t too bad because they were Luftwaffe (German air force). They realised that the English had some Luftwaffe prisoners and were looking after them, so they treated us well. Food was very scarce. We had a lot of black bread, which was 25 per cent sawdust.”
Mr Fripp was put in charge of the Red Cross parcels and, through that, was able to help with the escape effort. “I went down to see the tunnel and determine what instruments, if any, I could get from my liaison with Polish workers at the railway station.”
He managed to procure wire cutters, pliers, screwdrivers and parts used to build a radio set, which was hidden inside a portable gramophone. “If the Germans came along, we could put on a record,” he explained.
Mr Fripp was transferred to another camp six months before the escape, then was repeatedly moved around as Russians moved in from the east. After three weeks of marching, he and his fellow prisoners eventually met up with British troops advancing from Holland.
After the war Mr Fripp stayed in the RAF, taking part in the 1960 Berlin air lift. After retiring in 1969, he spent a further 10 years as chief laboratory technician at Brockenhurst College.
Widowed after 57 years of marriage, he has two daughters and four grandchildren.