An Aussie Great Escaper
Louise Williams is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist and the niece of Squadron Leader John ‘Willy’ Williams DFC. He was one of seventy-six POWs who tunnelled their way out of Stalag Luft III in what later became famous as the Great Escape. On 17 March 2021, RAF Museum curator Peter Devitt spoke to Louise about her book ‘Great Escaper.’
PD: How has writing ‘Great Escaper’ affected you personally?
LW: I went into the project expecting, or at least hoping, to unravel a family mystery – we never knew exactly what had happened to John or what role he had played in the escape, so his execution cast a long shadow over my Dad’s life and, by extension, over the whole family.
What I hadn’t imagined was how rich, surprising and incredibly rewarding the research process would be; and how many extraordinary people it would connect me to right across the globe – some with similar stories and some who had even been on the other side in the war. I met the Czech daughter of the last person to see John alive; I had a phone call from the daughter of one of the German guards, Nicky Hesse, who had helped John inside Stalag Luft III; I met John’s teenage friend who spent his war interned because of his German heritage; and we met Michal Holy, the Czech commercial pilot so touched by the murder of John’s group that he took it upon himself to establish a memorial. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
It became clear to me that probably millions of people were doing much the same thing as me: using the benefits of declassified and digitised records, and instant global communication, to fill in the gaps of the incredible, poignant wartime stories of their Dads, Mums, uncles etc. So, while I was researching a famous event, I was also doing something entirely ordinary; and it is, of course, all those small details of people’s lives that enable us to really connect as human beings.
PD: How was the book received, and how have people responded to your fresh insights into the Great Escape?
LW: Mostly really well. It was not a traditional war story – it was the story of what led my uncle and his group down the various paths that culminated in the Great Escape and, ultimately, their deaths. So, it was a very personal story of their characters, courage, often their humour, and their fate. The research process was featured in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV special, and the book also became the subject of a radio special and numerous other interviews. I have also done several public talks and continue to do so. There were, however, a few older, male readers who expressed disappointment in the book: they wanted only action and adventure and not the personal background or interactions of the key characters. I do understand such expectations of a ‘war’ story. However, I think we need more diversity in the way those stories are told and, perhaps, this might be achieved by bringing more diverse authors, including women and people of different ages, into the genre.
PD: How do you now view Australia’s contribution to victory during the Second World War?
LW: I have thought a lot about this, not just when I was researching the Great Escape but during my current project, as lead author on the RAAF’s 100th anniversary history book, ‘Then, Now, Always.’ Many Australians certainly went to war with a ‘colonial’ chip on their shoulder and expected a great deal from the mother country. Like most young men who signed up, the Aussies and New Zealanders soon found there was nothing glamourous about fighting a war – and they were a very, very long way from home and had no idea when, or if, they would see their countries again.
One thing I found remarkable was how many of the ‘hard jobs’ the Aussies and Kiwis were assigned to. Aussies were arguably disproportionately represented in Bomber Command (and, of course, in the resulting casualties) and the RAF’s decision to assign the RAAF to the Desert War was partly due to an expectation that they would be able to handle the punishing conditions. The final list of ‘the Fifty’ to be executed following the Great Escape was dominated by non-British officers, many more Aussies, Canadians, New Zealanders, Poles etc than British RAF officers.
PD: What for you is the significance of RAAF 100?
LW: It is amazing what can be achieved and how much can change in 100 years!
We’ve gone from considering how the first relatively flimsy aircraft would transform the way wars are fought, putting an end to fighting in trenches at extraordinary human cost, to deploying all kinds of networked hi-tech aircraft, including those piloted from air-conditioned ‘offices’ on the ground. Today, aircraft can see over the horizon, visualise the entire battlespace and interact seamlessly with space-based and land-based assets in pursuit of a common goal. And beyond the hardware, the RAAF has cyberspace to secure. Since 2019, the Service has been actively recruiting for ‘cyberspace warfare officers and analysts’, as the next war might be launched in the virtual world.
The Second World War was certainly the coming of age for the RAAF, as it was for many air forces. It is not surprising that it continues to fascinate us. I think that is partly because bomber and fighter aircraft were being pushed to the limits ‘en masse’ for the first time, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher. So, the popular excitement and fascination with flight coincided with very real risks for the aircrew. The war was filled with sharp, bright, perilous moments, and it was hard to look away.
PD: The theme of forgiveness and reconciliation is central to the success of your book. What are your thoughts about this, five years on?
LW: War stories are fascinating because they are framed as ‘us versus them’. But the further you dig, the more blurred those lines become. Of course, there were many terrible, cruel ‘enemies’, but there were also lots of ordinary people dragged into terrible roles in the war. That goes for both sides. I was interested to read that many of the Allied aircrew fighting in the Desert War were thankful for a ‘clean’ fight. That is, as they were operating mostly over vast stretches of empty desert sands, there were few civilian casualties, unlike the carnage on the ground in Europe. For that, they were grateful.
Can you ever forgive someone who takes a young member of you family out into the woods somewhere and executes him, illegally, in cold blood? I am fortunate to be one generation removed from that crime. So certainly, the only way forward is through forgiveness and reconciliation, but those who pulled the triggers and murdered John’s small group were never identified. Would forgiveness be possible if those men had no remorse for what they did? I am not sure.
PD: What part did the RAF Museum play in shaping your understanding of the events of March 1944?
LW: Museums are wonderful places, but they can be challenging and lonely to navigate. So, I will never forget the first day we visited the RAF Museum at Hendon and met the friendly, knowledgeable staff working in the Archive. The moment I was presented with original documents from Stalag Luft III, a quest I had spent most of my adult life dreaming of finally became real. Having professionally qualified people willing to assist and who obviously had a genuine interest in the Great Escape, and John’s story, made all the difference.