On the night of March 24, 1944, seventy six Allied airmen escaped from the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp through a tunnel called “Harry” that they had built under the noses of their German guards. This event is now known as The Great Escape and my uncle, John Edwin Ashley Williams, was one of those seventy six men.
Paul Brickhill, RAAF officer and Stalag Luft III POW wrote the 1950 best-seller “The Great Escape” which was turned into the famous 1963 movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen. My sister, Louise Williams, has now written a book called “A True Story of the Great Escape”. The book not only recounts my uncle John’s life before his capture, but has been meticulously researched to reveal many missing details of the planning and implementation of the escape.
My father grew up idolizing his eldest, “war hero” brother but sadly died never knowing what had happened to him after he was among the 50 captured escapees who were executed on Hitler’s orders. These pages recount the heartwarming story of a Czech commercial pilot who happened upon the fate of four of the executed escapees that led to a memorial and eventually my sister’s book.
All further content about the escape, memorial, people and book has been contributed by my sister, Louise Williams.
It is a melancholy fact that escape is much harder in real life than in the movies, where only the heavy and the second lead are killed. This time, after huge success, death came to some heroes. Later it caught up with some villains. – Paul Brickhill, RAAF officer, Stalag Luft III POW and author of the 1950 best-seller “The Great Escape”.
The Great Escape was a triumph of the ingenuity, organization and sheer physical and mental endurance. Seventy-six Allied officers tunnelled their way out of the supposedly “escape proof” Stalag Luft III under the German’s noses. Recalling that glorious moment when they finally pulled themselves up out of the tunnel, free, RAF Squadron Leader, Bertram “Jimmy” James later said: “It was exhilarating. It felt like liberation just to be on the other side of the fence.”
Construction of the 10-metre-deep, 111-metre-long escape tunnel and the preparation of civilian clothes and forged documents operation occupied 600 men for more than a year, and aimed to break 200 of them out; the most audacious escape plan of the war.
However, the success so enraged Hitler that he ordered the secret execution of fifty of the seventy three men eventually recaptured across Germany and beyond, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Escapees were driven into remote forests to be shot.
The Great Escape Memorial at Most (in the Czech Republic) was unveiled on March 24, 2012, the 68th anniversary of the break out. The Memorial honours four of the executed Allied officers; John “Willy” Williams, Reginald “Rusty” Kierath, Leslie George Bull and Jerzy Mondshein (see photos above). These four made it all the way to the Czechoslovakian border, walking the last 20 kilometres or so though snow drifts and bitter cold. After being intercepted by a German alpine patrol, they were briefly detained by the Gestapo but soon executed in the woods near Most.