The Great Escape

Memorial painting of the Great EscapeMemorial painting of the Great Escape
Memorial painting of the Great Escape
Click on left or right part of image to enlarge that portion

On the night of 24th/25th March 1944, over 200 captured Allied aircrew attempted to break out of Stalag Luft III, a prisoner-of-war camp in eastern Germany. The attempt was the culmination of many months of careful preparation, including the digging of a narrow tunnel over 330 feet long. Of those who made it out, 3 managed to get home to the UK and 23 were returned to POW camps. The other 50 were killed in cold blood by the Gestapo. One of those murdered was 106173 F/ L John Francis Williams from Ewell. He had lived with his parents at 134 Stoneleigh Park Road Ewell and was only 26 when he was killed. Before the war, John worked for the Milk Marketing Board. He belonged to the Lyric Players in Wimbledon, was keen on photography and driving his sports car. He volunteered for the RAF and was stationed at Dereham, Prestwick and Rainham. Disappointed that he did not become a pilot, he instead became an observer on Boston Bombers. He was with 107 Sqdn when his Boston III was shot down on 27 April 1942 he was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III. From the camp he wrote a number of letters home to his girlfriend which are an insight into the life of a POW. The last postcard sent was on the day of the escape and contained a veiled mention of the escape.

Stalag Luft III
Stalag Luft III

His family first heard that he was missing on the 4th May but did not learn that he was safe until the end of May; the first card arrived on the 3rd of June. On the 10th of June there was a knock on the door of his girlfriend's home by a lady asking for her. She had heard on the German radio a request from John asking anyone who heard the broadcast to contact her and tell her where to contact him. By the 11th of June he was writing to his girlfriend. Boredom was the main problem so he had started to learn German, Spanish and Italian. This would lead to his death as it was those who could speak German who were thought to have the best chance of getting home ('making a home run' as the POWs called it) and so were first out of the tunnel. With all this spare time, he writes, he was doing far more sunbathing than he had ever done before. He was sharing a hut with five other officers and they were cooking their own food supplemented by Red Cross food parcels. He had not lost his sense of humour; he writes 'Some well-known people in this camp - Wing Commander Bader, Stamford-Tuck, Eyre and me!'.

John Williams (front, 3rd from left) and friends
John Williams (front, 3rd from left) and friends

By the time he writes again he has had four letters from his girlfriend and another three from his family. But in return he can only write three letters and four postcards a month. He also gives some idea of camp life. They get up and have breakfast 9 to 9.30, lunch at12.30, brew between 1.30 and 2.00, tea at 4.00, dinner between 7 and 8.30, and then brew at 11.00: but, he adds, 'it's not as much as it sounds'. There are a lot of classes and lectures to attend. He is missing the everyday things that people that for granted 'like riding on a trolley bus and seeing a film'. He writes again on the 7th of September, sending a picture of his self and the other officer he is sharing a hut with. To do this he borrows a camera from a German officer, which suggests good relations between the POWs and the guards - perhaps because they were all fliers. He also complains that he has run out of hair oil and has been trying alternatives without success. So 'I have stopped parting my hair on the side so it now falls in soft waves PHEW!'. In many of his letters he asks for photographs to be sent and has them stuck to the wall around his bed and they appear to be an important way of keeping in touch with a life back home which is passing him by.

Diagram of Harry - Click image to enlarge
Diagram of Harry - Click image to enlarge

A letter of the 25th tells his girlfriend that mail back home has been cut down to two letters and postcards a month, also that he has had a picture of her drawn from a photo by another POW, in this case a Pole, Ft/O Zakazewski. Drawing like this seem poplar among the POWs. Art classes were held and there are many sketches and drawings of the camp. Putting on a show was another popular pastime. In his letter of the 2nd November he writes that some 500 officers went over to the sergeant's compound to see French without Tears, a show written and performed by the men - presumably based on memories of Rattigan's 1936 play of the same name. He found it 'excellent'. They had had quite a lot of snow and were expecting a white Christmas; although it was only early November, he wishes her a happy Christmas in case she does not hear from him.

Digging the tunnels
Digging the tunnels

By the end of 1942 John Williams had received 29 letters from his girlfriend and there had been 147 letters in all. He writes that a Red Cross parcel had arrived with a Christmas pudding which they were looking forward too. He is also attending church services 'This morning brought forth another of our usual good services and very good padre'. They had not lost their sense of fun - they flooded the football pitch to make an ice rink on which the Canadians play ice hockey in the afternoon. They had a merry time over Christmas and New Year as they were given 3½ litres of beer at Christmas and another 1¾ for New Year. He had planned to grow a moustache until it turned out to have twirly ends when he decided to shave it off.

Digging the tunnels
Digging the tunnels

Next Spring, on March 29th, he sends a postcard telling his girlfriend he is to be moved to another compound within the camp. The camp was becoming overcrowded and had to be enlarged. (It was from this new compound that the escape was made). As the weather warms up he complains about clothes; he wants shorts but they are sending winter clothes, never the right thing at the right time. He has taken up gardening and is planting seeds - onion, carrot, spinach, and lettuce - in this compound the soil is much better in the last one where he managed to grow just one radish. (Growing the food helped to supplement their food but it was also a way of hiding the sand from the tunnels, which was dug into the topsoil). By June he was giving elementary German lessons and was proud of the nine tomato plants, which he had grown. His girlfriend had been to the dentist so in his letter of the 20th July he writes that he hopes she 'held his hand spiritually'. He also recounts a trip to the dentist in the camp, who must have been a German as he said 'that he had good teeth for an English man'. He asks for a picture of his girlfriend wearing sunglasses and is worried that she may be called up. He had also had an attack of appendicitis and was waiting to find out if they were going to operate on not. On the 13th September he was promoted Ft/Lt Williams.

Papers were forged for the escape route
Papers were forged for the escape route

On the 24th July he writes that he has had his appendicitis removed in a local French PO Camp Hospital and was to spend the next nine weeks recovering. On September 29th he writes 'I am sure I shall be holding you in my arms again, looking into your eyes seeing that lovely smile of yours'. She had been to the Rembrandt in Ewell, which had pleasant memories for him and he hopes that they could soon go together. He had seen a production of George and Margaret; 'you should have seen the leading ladies', he writes. She asks whether she should postpone the celebration of her 21st birthday on 13th March next year until he gets home, and he tells not too. But by his next letter on the 24th October he has changed his mind and wants her to delay the birthday, if she has no objections. (Her 21st birthday seems to have played on his mind; being home for it was so important to him that it may have played some part in his being so keen to escape). During December he writes again about plays and classical concerts at the camp, where they had built their own theatre. 'I wish you could see our theatre, all our own work, it has 350 armchair seats made from the tea-type plywood chests in which the Canadian food parcels come'. There is also a fad among POWs to design their ideal homes.

Wanted Poster
Wanted Poster

By mid-February he writes 'I'm sure it won't be long now my love, before we are together again and then we must endeavour to make up for lost time mustn't we? I'm sure you won't mind me telling you this but recently I've felt a little lonely my darling, I miss you so very very much your letters are a wonderful antidote for the gloom and I love receiving them. I spent yesterday afternoon framing a couple of pictures of you a very pleasant way to pass time which seems to bring you very close to me'. He passes on news to her from a family friend which illustrates the uncertainty of life during the war. Her daughter had just lost her husband, killed in the RAF that December and they had only been married in June. Before that she had been engaged to a merchant shipping captain who was torpedoed and killed.

The last postcard, written on the day of the escape, contained the message 'I hope to see you soon!'. John Williams was last seen alive on the 6th of April. Sometime after that he was murdered by unknown Gestapo and cremated at Breslau. He is now remembered with honour at the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery.

David Brooks November 2012
Images courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum




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