A True Story of the Great Escape

A True Story of the Great Escape. A young Australian POW in the most Audacious Breakout of WWII by Louise Williams

Allen & Unwin, September 2015, 284 pages ISBN: 9781743313893. 

First appeared in Flightpath, February 2016. Volume 27, Number 3.

The author of A True Story of the Great Escape is the niece of John Williams, one of five Australians killed on Hitler’s order after the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III.

This is not simply a retelling of the Great Escape from an Australian perspective. Williams gives considerable attention to John Williams’ background, training and pre-war flying career. He excelled as a trainee pilot and was granted a pre-war short service commission. Instead of a posting to an operational squadron, he became an instructor. After transferring to the Western Desert, he gained experience in RAF squadrons before notching up a series of victories for 450 Squadron RAAF as one of its new flight commanders. He gained a reputation as an aggressive pilot and the culmination of his flying career came when he was promoted to commanding officer. The 23-year-old’s promising leadership stint, however, was cut short when he was shot down by one of his own men in October 1942 and taken prisoner.

John was sent to Stalag Luft III where he became involved in the escape organisation. He was in charge of the carpentry department and was responsible for acquiring bed slats used to shore up the three escape tunnels that were constructed for the ‘Great Escape’. Little was known about John’s life in camp, his rationale for joining in the escape effort or the specifics of his fate. Louise Williams has devoted much of her life to discovering exactly what happened and the result is a warm, compelling yet poignant account of the life and career of an Australian airman, and the events that led to his terrible death.