SOE clandestine wireless operator who was caught by the Germans but survived imprisonment in four concentration camps

BRIAN Stonehouse, was a clandestine wireless operator for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in wartime France; he was captured but survived Gestapo imprisonment and two years in concentration camps.

At one stage Stonehouse saved his life by drawing sketches for the camp commandant of Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace-Lorraine. While Fellow prisoners were being murdered or worked to death in a quarry.

This commandant had been well treated as a prisoner of the British during the First World War, and perhaps this predisposed him to treat Stonehouse less badly. But Natzweiler was notorious as a Nacht und Nebel (night and fog) concentration camp for the untraceable disposal of such prisoners as captured SOE agents.

One day in the summer of 1944, four women SOE agents arrived at the camp. That evening Stonehouse saw them being taken by SS men to the cremation chamber. "One of the women was carrying, what I remember thinking at the time, was a not very good fur coat," Stonehouse recalled. "They moved down the path on which I was working. I was able to observe them very closely before they turned towards the crematorium building."

One of the women was recognised as Andrée Borell by Albert Guerisse, a former Belgian army doctor who shared much of Stonehouse's imprisonment. (As "Pat O'Leary" he had run, until his arrest, an escape line for smuggling Allied airmen out of France.) Andrée Borell had once worked for Guerisse. Her companions were, it was discovered later, Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh and Sonya Olchanesky. They had been singled out to be destroyed without trace.

Later Stonehouse saw the tell-tale sign of a jet of flame shoot from of the crematorium chimney, showing that the door of the oven had been opened and shut. When a guard emerged from the building, the fur coat was over his arm.

After his rescue at the end of the war, Stonehouse continued to develop his career as an artist. In later years he established a reputation as a portrait painter whose work was particularly appreciated by the Queen Mother. She sat for him several times at Clarence House. Next Wednesday he had been due to attend the unveiling at the King Edward VII Hospital for Officers of his new portrait of the Queen Mother. An earlier portrait hangs at the Special Forces Club, of which she is patron.

Brian Julian Stonehouse was born on August 8 1918 at Torquay. The family moved to France and he went to school at Wimereux near Boulogne. Later he studied art at Ipswich.

Stonehouse worked as an artist and served in the Territorial Army until July 1939, when he was conscripted into the Royal Artillery. In the spring of 1940 he acted as an interpreter for French troops who had been evacuated from Norway to Glasgow.

The next year Stonehouse trained for a commission at 121 Officer Cadet Training Unit (Honourable Artillery Company). In the autumn, SOE, impressed by his fluency in French, recruited him as a wireless operator. Stonehouse parachuted into France on July 1 1942 near Tours. The container carrying his wireless got caught in a tree, and he lived in the woods for five nights until he could get it down. His troubles were not over. Technical problems prevented contact with home. Weakened by dysentery, he was told to move on to Lyons and make a fresh start.

He was joined by another agent, Blanche Charlet, who had been landed by felucca. Her task was to find him safe houses to transmit from. It was late August before Stonehouse was in regular contact from his home station. Soon he was in such demand that he began to operate too often and for perilously long periods. On October 24, enemy direction-finders located him at the Château Hurlevent, south of Lyons.

He was caught red-handed by Vichy police and German agents. Minutes later, Blance Charlet unsuspectingly turned up with new messages for transmission. She was held in several French prisons, but managed to escape and eventually reached London. Stonehouse's fate was worse. He retained his sanity during weeks of solitary confinement and interrogation at Castres prison by reading torn-up sheets of newspaper provided for the lavatory.

In December he was transferred to Fresnes prison in Paris, where, on Christmas Eve, Arnold Schneider, his Gestapo interrogator, told him he would be shot as a spy. But the execution was not carried out, and after further interrogation he was sent by rail to Germany with a party of SOE prisoners.

Stonehouse arrived at Saarbrucken on October 24 1943, and in November was sent on to Mauthausen. In mid-December he was moved again to a Luftwaffe factory camp in a suburb of Vienna. In the New Year of 1944 he returned to Mauthausen, and in early summer arrived at Natzweiler. After D-Day Stonehouse was sent by train on a three-day journey to Dachau.

He was freed by American troops on April 29 1945. With his friend and fellow prisoner Bob Sheppard, Stonehouse witnessed the killing of several guards by fellow inmates. Sheppard and he prevented one lynching, not as he later explained, so much to save the guard's life as to ensure he would eventually stand trial.

On May 7 1945, the day before VE day, Stonehouse was greeted by Vera Atkins, the indefatigable aide to Colonel Buckmaster, the head of SOE's F Section. She lodged him in Room 513 at Chelsea Cloisters in Sloane Avenue. Hollow-cheeked, shaven-headed and very thin, with his big dark brown eyes exceptionally bright, Stonehouse was debriefed.

That year he was awarded a military MBE.

In April 1946 he was promoted captain and joined the Allied Control Commission at Frankfurt. He assisted with the prosecution of war criminals by interrogating suspects at the Darmstadt camp for former Gestapo and SS members. While there he refused an opportunity for revenge.

"There was this older prisoner who would not look at me," he remembered. "His head was always down. I thought, that head looks sort of familiar. Then one day he came in and his face was up. It was my interrogator in Paris, who'd told me I'd be shot as a spy on Christmas Eve."

Stonehouse's fellow interrogators handed him a tommy gun and offered to close the camp while he shot his former tormentor. He refused, saying: "I'm free, and he's locked up."

At the end of 1946 Stonehouse left for the United States where he built up a career as a fashion artist, working for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Elizabeth Arden. He returned home to England in 1979 to paint portraits.

Brian Stonehouse died aged 80.December 1998 . From Obituary Daily Telegraph . (Tony Tanner.)


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