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War hero, 108, beats illness to join remembrance ceremony

It was an act of defiance typical of the last man still alive in the UK to have served in both world wars.

Just weeks ago Bill Stone was lying in a hospital bed with a virulent infection.

He astounded doctors by recovering in time to return to the residential home where he lives to celebrate his 108th birthday.

Today, health permitting, he will proudly join other veterans again in the annual remembrance ceremony. Mr Stone was born the 10th of 14 children in Kingsbridge, Devon, at the turn of the last century. Yet he was still rattling a tin for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal as recently as five years ago.

There is not a royal he has not met, not a grand monument he has not been photographed in front of, nor a remembrance ceremony where he has not been centre stage.

Speaking in recent years Mr Stone, who now lives in a residential home near Wokingham, Berkshire, said: "I've had a wonderful life."

"I've always worked hard, never stopped for a minute and it's kept me going all right."

That energy has taken Mr Stone all over the world, to Cape Town, Tasmania, Jakarta, Newfoundland, Buenos Aires and Malta; it has seen him work as barrow boy, steam engine driver, barber, tobacconist and farm hand.

Mr Stone experienced first-hand the horrors of the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic and cut the hair of General Franco's brother on rescuing him from a stricken plane.

He witnessed South Africa's apartheid, grieved with a nation at the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and danced in the streets at the end of the Great War (1914-1918).

Mr Stone was called up just six weeks before the Allies won that conflict but encountered the horrors of naked, scrambling soldiers who he picked up at the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 during the next world war. He remembers the majestic ships he served on which now lie in watery graves and the men he drank beer with who fell prey to German bombers.

"War is terrible," he said. "I saw Plymouth flattened and at the end of the war I went to Germany and all their buildings were flattened too.

"We were guarding an island there but there was no trouble because the Germans were as glad as we were that it was all over. They didn't want war just as we didn't."

Mr Stone joined the Royal Navy in Plymouth as a stoker at 18 after an initial attempt - thwarted by his father who refused to sign his papers - to follow his brothers and sign up at 15.

Within the year he had joined the battlecruiser HMS Tiger, which took him to Scapa Flow, the home of the navy's Grand Fleet, before progressing to the battleship HMS Hood in 1922 to travel around the world "showing the flag" to the colonies.

It was during this time that Mr Stone developed the hair-cutting skills that would make him a popular member of the ship.

"The man before me couldn't cut butter but I got so good the officers used to send for me," he said.

"They'd ask how much they owed me and I'd say: 'If it's all the same to you, sir, I'll have a beer"'.

He was destined for greater things, moving in quick succession from leading to chief stoker and on to HMS Chrysanthemum, HMS P40, HMS Eagle, HMS Harebell, HMS Thanet, HMS Tenedos and HMS Carlisle.

During the Second World War, he made five trips to the beaches of Dunkirk on board HMS Salamander, went minesweeping to Arkhangel on Russia's northern coast and supported the Allied landing in Sicily in 1943.

In 1938 he married Lily, a girl from his village, and the following year their daughter Anne was born, just months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Lily died in 1995.

Mr Stone and the other seven brothers and uncles in his family amazingly emerged unscathed from both wars, despite many near misses.

After he had moved on from HMS Hood she was blown up in a duel with the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, with the loss of 1,416 lives. And Salamander was mistaken for the enemy and attacked by RAF planes.

During the Dunkirk evacuation a ship 50 yards from Mr Stone's vessel was sunk with 100 sailors and 200 soldiers on board. Shortly afterwards a torpedo skimmed the bows of his own ship.

Later, another ship he was on would have its rudder blown off and limp over to Boston using a sail made of quarterdeck awnings.

"I always say 'God help us'," he said. "I have said it many times and it has always helped tremendously. I've been very lucky."

In September, Mr Stone collapsed with an infection and was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading.

But he proved he is still a fighter by spending two weeks there recovering before being released in time to celebrate his 108th birthday.

Belfast Telegraph

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