John Gifford Stower (H. 1932-33), born September 15th 1916 in the Province of Jujuy, North of Argentina, came to the UK as a youngster in 1925, spending his first years at a small school in Worthing, before finishing his education at Brighton College via Sedbergh. Two years later, aged 20, he returned to Argentina to work in a sugar cane mill close to his place of birth.
Shortly after World War II broke out in 1939, John, as so many other native-born Argentines of British descendants, decided to volunteer and joined the Royal Air Force, sailing from Buenos Aires in July 1940 aboard the “Andalucía Star” for Southampton, with several other volunteers. His valiant and courageous decision broke the heart of his recently widowed mother and sisters.
On arrival, he immediately went to the RAF recruiting centre and, after being admitted, was sent to Canada for training. John showed well above average leadership abilities to become a bomber pilot and was immediately commissioned as a Flight Lieutenant and received his wings. On his return to England, his first posting was to Squadron 420 of the RCAF in Waddington.
He was then commissioned to pilot Hamden Mk. I bombers and spent several successful missions before being transferred to RAF Squadron 142 in Grimsby and placed in charge of a Wellington Mk.IV twin Wasp engine bomber. His squadron carried out numerous night missions, often under very trying conditions hampered by adverse weather and incessant enemy anti-aircraft attacks. Unfortunately on one of those endless nights, his aircraft was badly hit by enemy flak but he managed to take the plane down in the North Sea and safely boarded their rubber dinghy with all his seven-man crew. Hoping to reach an allied coast position, they were surprised by a German patrol and taken prisoner.
John was sent to Stalag Luft III, a new prisoner of war camp built especially by the German Luftwaffe to host American and British air force prisoners separately. John was a restless prisoner and was permanently thinking of how to escape. On one occasion he had figured out how to clamber over the outer wire fencing, but while attempting to escape, he tripped over a tree root within the camp only to find himself surrounded by German soldiers pointing their rifles at him. Had he succeeded in getting past the warning wire or even started to climb the perimeter fence, he would have been shot. A lucky break!!
A few weeks later he managed to escape with two other airmen. He was at large for a few days until he was recaptured and sent back to Stalag Luft III and spent some time in the cooler; a solitary confinement for the big offenders. “A wanderer at heart with a pronounced adventurous streak, Johnny chafed more than most men at captivity”, - this was a true definition of John as written by Jonathan Vance in “A Gallant Company – the Men of the Great Escape”. He never once lost his determination to plan a new escape and when John heard that Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was planning a mass escape he immediately volunteered as a tunneller.
This led to the famous ‘Great Escape’ where three tunnels were dug simultaneously (Tom, Dick & Harry) under the British RAF wooden barracks. The only one not to be found was “Harry” and on the night of March 24th / 25th 1944, 78 prisoners’ managed to escape before the German guards discovered the tunnel exit. John succeeded in getting from Sagan, now Poland, into Switzerland, and after four days, unknowingly walked back through the frontier into German territory and was caught by a German patrol.
Whilst only two escapees managed to reach England, the remaining 76 airmen were recaptured and rounded up. Meanwhile, as soon as Hitler was informed, he was so infuriated that the star Luftwaffe prison camp had been ridiculed by this mass escape, that he ordered the Gestapo to draw up a list of 50 from the 76 prisoners to be executed immediately.
Johnny was amongst the 50 RAF prisoners of war executed on March 31st. Their bodies were cremated and several Stalag Luft III prisons were given permission to build a stone memorial near the camp, that stands today in memory of those valiant RAF pilots that gave their lives for freedom, and is now kept up by the Red Cross. However their ashes could not be identified and so they lie in a mass grave. The accompanying photo was taken just before John was taken prisoner in 1943.