William (Billie) Lawson Stephens (1911 - 1997):
Billie Stephens, born 9 March 1911 at Holywood, County Down, son of Rowley Stephens and his wife Lillian, née Nash. Educated at Shrewsbury, subsequently joining the family shipping and timber agency firm, Stephens and Walkington Ltd, of Belfast, and in 1929 the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Midshipman, promoted Lieutenant in 1937. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he served in coastal forces and in 1942 commanded M L 192 as Senior Leading Officer of a company of Motor Launches which formed part of a force named Chariot charged with destroying the German-occupied French dry-dock at St Nazaire, at the mouth of the River Loire. During the course of the attack his craft was hit amidships damaged, on fire and had to be abandoned, the crew swimming ashore where they were captured and taken prisoner. Stephens managed to escape on two occasions before being sent to the supposedly escape-proof Colditz Castle where he arrived on 3 September 1942.
Six weeks later, on the night of 14/15 October, a dangerously daring plan succeeded, assisted by other inmates, including Douglas Bader, leading to the successful escape of Stephens and three fellow prisoners. The party then divided and, not without further drama, he and a companion arrived in Switzerland five days later on 20th October where he was to remain on ‘special service' until June 1944 when, leaving Switzerland he travelled through France to Spain where he was arrested again but managed to escape for the fourth time. He made his way to Gibraltar and home by air. In 1945 he returned to Switzerland to marry, on 3rd August, Chouchou de Meyer who had sheltered him after his escape from Germany. They had no family but he became step-father to her two sons.
After the war Billie Stephens rejoined Stephens and Walkington and was appointed a Director of the Midland Bank and Chairman of its Irish subsidiary, the Northern Bank. He also served as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, as a member of Belfast Harbour Commissioners and Naval President of the St Nazaire Association. He was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for County Down and served a term as High Sherriff of the County. His wartime service was recognised by the award of the DSC and Bar in 1943, and by the French Medaille Militaire.
Billie Stephens was a very private man, but one of great personal charm, elegant in manner and appearance yet capable of displaying ruthless determination and great courage, nowhere more ably demonstrated than during the second world war. Late in the nineteen-eighties he and his wife left Northern Ireland to live in Chateauneuf de Grasse, Nice. Chouchou Stephens died in 1993, the result of a tragic accident. Billie Stephens died on 3rd August 1997 at their home in France.
|Born:||09 March 1911|
|Died:||03 August 1997|
© 2017 Ulster History Circle