Sunday, 4 September 2016

Charles Horace 'Digger' Fry

I'll be heading north again in a few weeks on another research trip. I tend to do a lot of prep before I interview family members and, as part of that process, I've put together a brief biog/profile of Charles Horace Fry, one of the Australians in Stalag Luft III that I hope to discover more about during that trip. Be warned, it really is brief! 

Charles Horace Fry was a graduate of 20 Course, 1 Flying Training School, Point Cook. He was ranked 16th with 70.9% and awarded his pilot’s flying badge. He did not have a spotless record, however. His General Conduct Sheet was endorsed with the offence: ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and Air Force discipline in that he dropped his rifle on parade’. He was confined to barracks for three days. 

Photo accompanying application for RAAF cadetship. RAAF Service file, NAA.

On 17 July 1937, he embarked for the United Kingdom on the Orient Royal liner RMS Orama and was granted a short service commission in the RAF the next month.

(Charlie Fry was on the same course as two Australians who were killed in the Battle of Britain, Stuart Walch and Jack Kennedy. In an earlier draft of Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain, I included details of the 20 Course initiation ceremony, conducted by the senior cadets of 19 Course, including one Pat Hughes. Because I was seriously over word limit, I had to delete the description. I am now very pleased that I can include it here in Charlie Fry story: On 24 July, a cold Victorian winter’s night, 19 Course took the disrobed 20 Course juniors down to the seaplane hangars. There, they painted them with dope—a flammable lacquer applied to aircraft to weatherproof the fabric stretched over the airframe—and branded some with a cold, and some with a hot, iron. They then sprayed them up and down a ladder with a fireman’s hose before throwing them into the icy sea. Finally, the hapless new boys—including Charles Frywere knighted on a block of ice with an electric shock. ‘Whoopee’, wrote Pat Hughes in his diary, as he signed off on his description of the night’s overly aggressive high jinks.) 

Point Cook, 20 Course. Courtesy RAAF Museum Point Cook 

After completing his training in the UK, and a brief stint in 32 Squadron, Charlie joined 112 Squadron. The squadron transferred to Egypt in May 1939, flying Gladiators. 

From Egypt, to Greece, to Crete, and from Gladiators to Hurricane, and a lot of combat. ‘Crete was being subjected to Stuka attacks and the sky was often thick with Messerschmitts’, Charlie Fry recalled. And, then, on 16 May 1941, ‘a fateful day’, Charlie, or Digger, as he was known almost from the time he set foot in England, was in battle yet again.

‘They appeared again in the very early morning, followed by JU88s, Dornier 17s, and Ju52s. Crete was subjected to a great softening-up before the troop-carrying gliders came on the scene. The sky also turned white with the canopies of German parachutists. The tide of our war had turned. My Hurricane lay in ruins after I was shot down, but I survived’.  

He had survived, but was wounded and unable to fly. He made himself useful, though, and set about building pens to protect the squadron’s aircraft. As Crete fell to the Germans, and their aerodrome was taken, Charlie attempted to construct another strip in the hills. When he realised there was no hope, he organised the evacuation of the remaining squadron members. As one of his squadron friends recalled, ‘He used to lay up in the hills during the day, and at night he would take them down to the beaches on the off-chance of a warship being around. I know there were occasions when he could have made his escape but he preferred, as is the duty of an officer, to remain with his men to the last—good old Digger.’

Charlie succeeded in getting off two officers and three airmen before he was captured on 6 June 1941. He was the last 112 Squadron officer remaining on Crete. And so, lauded his friend, ‘he remained at his post to the last. A good pilot, a good officer, and an excellent leader of men’.

He was a flight commander then but, if Charlie had made it back to Egypt, his friend was convinced he would have commanded the squadron. (And just think how differently things might have turned out if Clive Caldwell had not taken command in January 1942?)

If he had ended up as CO of 112 Squadron, there is no doubt that Charlie would have continued to lead by example. His service in Greece was later acknowledged by a Greek DFC and a British DFC for, according to press reports, ‘a terrific air battle during the Nazi invasion of Greece’ during which ‘he engaged 15 hostile aircraft single-handed, destroying one and damaging another.’ He had moved a long way from his Point Cook training days when he had been guilty of conduct to the prejudice of good order and Air Force discipline’. When announcing the award, the Air Minister, Mr McEwen, noted that ‘Flight Lieutenant Fry had shot down six enemy aircraft in serial combat’. A quick consultation of Aces High indicates that wasn’t quite accurate, but it certainly reflected the spirit of a fine, battle-hardened pilot who survived battle, bale-out and evasive activity ‘only to be taken prisoner. So I spent the next four years in Germany as the “guest” of the Third Reich.’

Cropped from Charles Fry's German POW card.

Charlie arrived at Dulag Luft on 8 August, and sent a note to his parents back in Newcastle, NSW, that he was well and in good health. That arrived on Christmas Day 1941, along with a letter from his squadron friend telling them about his heroic activities on Crete just before he was captured. From Dulag Luft, he was transferred to Oflag XC Lubeck, Oflag VIB Warburg, and on 11 May 1942, he arrived in Stalag Luft III. But Sagan was getting crowded and on 7 September he was one of the group purged to Oflag XXIB Schubin. But he was back again at Stalag Luft III on 2 April 1943.

Schubin. Left to Right Ron Garside, John Ruffel, Popham Wallace-Tarry, obscure, Owen Green, Aiden Crawley, and Digger Fry. Private collection. 

Charlie is mentioned in the East Compound history as helping to make a desk which hid the secret radio. He did a lot more to keep himself occupied during his time in Stalag Luft III, but that story will be revealed in due course. 

Charles Fry, 1945, after his DFC investiture. Lifted from the internet.


  1. Kristen...yes, there's lots more to RAF 112 than just Kittyhawks and I'm interested to see your evolving narrative re Digger say you are travelling north...shades of David Williamson ?

  2. Kristen...yes, there's lots more to RAF 112 than just Kittyhawks and I'm interested to see your evolving narrative re Digger say you are travelling north...shades of David Williamson ?