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With reviews of books that cover these topics
Last of the 39ers
The extraordinary wartime experiences of Sqn Ldr Alfie Fripp
Sean Feast, Grub Street, November 2013
Some obvious errors have crept in: Feast uses the word masochistic when he means sadistic. I would have thought Alfie was posted to Eastney on Portsmouth Island, rather than Eastleigh (site of Southampton airport), as stated.
It would have been useful to have a map of Germany and Poland showing the location of the various camps that Alfie attended.
In the Cold War era 57 Sqn evolved into a Tanker squadron. A long time ago I had a trip in a 57 Sqn Victor tanker as seen on the right (coincidentally at Cosford, now an outpost of the RAF Museum).
The title refers to the fact that Alfie was short down in 1939 in one of the first missions of the war, and was therefore incarcerated for most of the war’s duration. He was one of the oldest and longest serving PWs until his death last year. It is one of those instances where reader and author alike will have wished that the subject could have been questioned (gently) earlier in his life. If the book had been produced a decade earlier with Alfie’s active involvement, I have little doubt it would have been more vivid. I reviewed an earlier book by Sean Feast, The Pathfinder Companion, here.
Alfie qualified as an NCO wireless operator, and served initially on flying boats, but in 1939 was transferred to 57 Squadron, flying the Blenheim Mk1 in day-bomber and reconnaissance roles. Once the ‘balloon went up’ in the jargon of the time, it was despatched to France. Feast gives a good feel of the lunacy and amateurish nature of their early missions. There is a certain inevitability to Alfie’s crash and capture.
The meat of the book is therefore about life as a POW. Much of this will not be new to those who have read the many wartime bios; however most of those books were written by or about commissioned officers. There is some small layer of extra interest in reading about it from a NCO’s perspective. Alfie clearly had good people skills, and his metier as a kriegie was as a fixer – obtaining those hard-to-get items that either made daily life more bearable, or which aided escape attempts. He also acquired the role of administering the receipt and distribution of Red Cross parcels – which became an invaluable source of supplements to the prisoners’ otherwise near-starvation diet.
By mid-volume Alfie has ended up in the infamous Sagan camp; where interestingly some of those who were to become the cream of Britain’s post-war actors found themselves – Roy Dotrice, Peter Butterworth and Rupert Davies, amongst others. The NCOs were moved when it was decided to make Sagan an officers-only camp. This was the scene of the infamous Great Escape, and the pilot with whom Alfie was flying when they were shot down was one of those escapers later murdered by the Nazis.
Once the war was self-evidently being lost, the Germans forced many POWs to march in the opposite direction of the advancing Allied troops (well documented in John Nichols’ book The Last Escape). In Alfie’s case this meant trudging towards the Elbe. Never had the contents of Red Cross parcels been more important. But this occasions a very inglorious episode for the RAF when a marauding Typhoon squadron brings down rockets and cannon fire on the column of prisoners. 22 POWs were killed (as well as several guards).
Alfie was eventually repatriated as part of Op Exodus, arriving at the processing centre at RAF Cosford, before an overdue reunion with his young wife. These concluding pages are touching, and reinforce Alfie’s simple but great humanity. Alfie enjoyed a successful career in the post-war RAF, eventually retiring at the age of 55. He departed to the higher life almost exactly a year ago.