Obituary: Frank Ashleigh

Youngest glider pilot who fought at Arnhem during the Second World War


PORTSMOUTH, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 04: Former glider pilot Frank Ashleigh, aged 92, stands by a taxi before setting off to the beaches of Normandy with the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans on June 4, 2017 in Portsmouth, England. A convoy of over 90 London taxis organised by the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans left Portsmouth on Sunday carrying veterans of World War II back to the battlegrounds of Normandy, the location of the D-Day landings. The journey to Northern France will be the last large-scale trip organised by the charity, as the number of veterans from the conflict who are able to travel declines. The 73rd anniversary of the D-Day landings which will be commerated on June 6, saw 156,000 troops from the allied countries including the United Kingdom and the United States join forces to launch an audacious attack on the beaches of Normandy and these assaults are credited with aiding the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A true Cockney born in Stepney, Frank Ashleigh, who has died aged 98, may not have believed as a child that one day he would be a Tiger Moth glider pilot, undertaking heroic, dangerous missions during the Second World War.

The son of Jewish Russian immigrants, Isaac and Annie Greenbaum, he could also barely have imagined he would become the youngest pilot to volunteer for a reconnaissance mission in the Dutch town of Oosterbeek, near Arnhem.

But that was all to come.

First Pilot Sergeant Frank Ashleigh was educated at Castlewood Road school in Stamford Hill and Upton House Secondary School in Homerton, Hackney, leaving school aged just 14. When war broke out Frank, then living in north-west London, was taking a course in welding.

On his 18th birthday in 1942 he volunteered for the army and was sent to Arnold near Nottingham for basic training, then to REME, the Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, based at Woolwich Arsenal.

He immediately volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment and was sent to Fargo camp, Salisbury Plain, which Frank described as “six weeks of hell on Earth”. The physical training was intense with five-mile march-runs with field order packs, before breakfast.

After the six weeks were up, the remaining recruits were promoted to corporal and were allowed to enter the corporals’ mess.

Frank was sent to Booker Camp in Buckinghamshire and travelled each day to Denham airfield near Uxbridge to start flying training on Tiger Moths.

Frank could go solo after only seven hours flying. After ten hours flying experience, he was posted to Stoke Orchard in Gloucestershire.

He recalls seeing a Jewish chaplain and receiving the usual small Jewish Soldiers’ Prayer Book and Book of Jewish Thoughts.

In North Luffenham in Leicestershire he learned to fly the Horsa heavy glider, towed by Whitley bombers. He qualified and was promoted to sergeant and was presented with his wings and red beret of the Army Flying Corps.

Posted to “A” Squadron at Harwell, Frank was now operational. He still kept a coin buried there according to the tradition that you buried a sixpence so you had to come back for it!

Then came Arnhem in September, 1944. Their Stirling bomber carrying six men of the RASC Air Brigade landed peacefully just north of Wolfheze, surrounded by other gliders.

The next day they were sent out on patrol to Oosterbeek. Now acting as infantry, they carried Enfield .303 rifles. Frank later also obtained a Sten gun. There was much fighting going on and Frank actually walked by the now famous scene of the German staff car with its dead senior officers hanging outside the doors.

With Captain O’Malley and two other glider pilots, he entered Oosterbeek, at 19, the youngest volunteer to do so.

Suddenly realising they were cut off, they dived into a church as a large group of German troops approached from the rear. As the Germans entered the church the pilots scaled the stairs to the roof space.

Realising they had not been seen, they made for a small window in the roof and for three days they acted as snipers from there, firing only one round every hour or so and managing to dispose of many enemy troops.

From just inside the roof and window, their gun-smoke could not be seen and the Germans had no idea where they were.Eventually the Germans investigated the church.

The door of the organ loft opened and Captain O’Malley was shot in the stomach. They then had to surrender. Meanwhile, Frank was reported missing on September 25, 1944 .

The SS troops treated them very well. Frank told them in schoolboy German they had not eaten for three days and they were given food, but he and everyone else were slapped a few times on the face by interrogators and his nose was injured .
From here Frank was taken in appalling railway cattle trucks on an awful journey east to a POW camp.

Each truck contained a barrel of water; every eight hours or so they would stop and a slice of bread was distributed to each man. Finally they arrived at Stalag Luft VII in Upper Silesia at Bankau near Opole in modern-day Poland.

In January 1945, the POWs were made to embark on one of the notorious forced marches in freezing conditions over the river Oder, to escape the approaching Soviets.

There were between 800 and 1,000 men on Frank’s march, moving from camp to camp. Frank saw many die of exhaustion and hypothermia on the roadside, though he saw nobody killed, as happened on other marches.

They finally reached a huge army POW camp (Stalag III-A) south of Berlin.
Then one morning in April they awoke to find the guards had gone; soon massive Russian tanks arrived — “like saving angels” Frank said — and they were liberated.

The Russians caught the camp commandant but handed him over to the Russian POWs who slaughtered him. The British POWs were treated like great heroes and the Russians were hugely kind to them, Frank remembered.

Within 48 hours, they were taken to an airfield and flown home. Frank received six weeks repatriation leave with double civilian rations. Finally he was demobbed at Woking.

He was awarded the 1939-45 France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, and War Medal. He also received the Thank You, Liberators medal from the Dutch government.

After the war Frank worked as a company director in the toy trade and retired aged 72. But he remained active in the community and was given a citizenship award by his local council and the Mayor of London for “making an outstanding contribution to London life”.

Frank returned to the church at Oosterbeek some time after the war. Amazingly, the cartridge cases from their weapons were still there in the loft.

Wearing his Airborne Pegasus tie, he was stopped many times by local Dutch people — including young children — and invited to meals with them. After 2002 he frequently returned there with his wife Mavis and their two sons, usually under the auspices of the Glider Pilot Association.

Every year he was “on parade” at the Annual Remembrance Parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and the following Sunday with the Jewish War Veterans, Kenton contingent, of AJEX .

Frank is survived by Mavis, his wife of 60 years, their sons, Paul and Philip, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

First Pilot Frank Ashleigh: born December 23, 1924. Died June 18, 2023

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