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'Willy' WILLIAMS and 'Rusty' KIERATH (450 Squadron RAAF).
- And the True Story of the Great Escape.


- A new book by Louise Williams Order Here.

(Manly Surf-Lifesaving Club, Manly Beach NSW.  31 August 2015.)


 By GPCAPT Terry van Haren DSM, Officer Commanding 78 Wing, Williamtown NSW:

It is a true honour and a privilege to represent the Royal Australian Air Force and the ‘Family and Friends of 450 Squadron Association’, which is the squadron that SQNLDR John Willy Williams, DFC, and FLTLT Reginald Rusty Kierath, MiD, served with in North Africa, as part of the Desert Air Force.

I received a copy of this book a week ago and I am about two-thirds of the way through; and thoroughly enjoying the insight and the stories. 

I had been intending to recount the official Service Histories of John and Rusty, but instead I will summarise their service and highlight what gained my attention as a contemporary fighter pilot in the RAAF.  John Williams joined the [British] Royal Air Force pre-war in 1938.  He trained in the UK and was appointed as a Flying Instructor after gaining his Wings.  (Which is a testament to his flying skill, leadership, and what we would call nowadays ‘emotional intelligence’.  - You don’t let novices instruct your young pilots.)  He initially instructed in England and then was posted to one of Empire Flying Training Scheme school squadrons in Southern Rhodesia in 1941.  Here he crossed paths with his old school and rugby mate, ‘Rusty’ Kierath, who had joined the RAAF in August 1940 and been sent to undergo training in Southern Rhodesia. 

Rusty completed his first combat tour with 450 Squadron between Dec '41 and Apr '42 – during the initial days of the Squadron's operations under its first C.O., SQNLDR Gordon Steege, DSO, DFC.  He was then sent to enjoy a rest from combat and became a Flying Instructor at the same flying-training squadron, back in Rhodesia.

I note that John logged over a 1,000 flying-hours as an Instructor (which quite a lot of flying in those days) before being posted to an Operational Training Unit in January 1942.  John flew initial combat operations with RAF Nos.112 and 260 Squadrons, before joining No.450 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force as a Flight Commander, at the height of the North African Campaign, in June 1942. 

I note that a fellow 450 Squadron pilot, Hector Fullerton, described John as "an aggressive pilot; strong but unassuming; well liked”; and he was a, “smiling, good natured and first-class fighter pilot. Apparently he was also, “scruffy and particularly non-regulation,” wearing leather sandals and khaki shorts – even when flying in combat!   (Which I can’t even imagine in this modern era!)

So, having grown up here at Manly beach - maybe you could say, "You can take the boy from the beach, but you can’t take the beach out of the boy."

Group portrait of members of 450 Squadron RAAF.  They are riding in a German vehicle designed to tow an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun.
The wagon was found before the battle of El Alamein, when the Germans pushed the Australians back.
It could do 40 miles an hour and was used during a five-day spell to go to the Mediterranean, about 30 miles from the airstrip.

Both men served 450 Squadron with great distinction.  SQNLDR John Williams was credited with four aerial victories and two probables whilst with 450, and was later awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for "courage, determination and devotion to duty".  John was appointed Commanding Officer of 450 SQN in Oct 1942 and was on all accounts an excellent Squadron Commander.  His command was cut short though, as he was shot down on 31 October '42 in what we would call today a 'friendly-fire incident’ behind enemy lines.  He was captured the next day and began the long journey as a Prisoner of War back to incarceration in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, in eastern Germany.

Rusty Kierath rejoined 450 as a commissioned officer in Tunisia, in April 1943.  His second tour was short-lived, however, as he was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire on 23 Apr (what we call the "Golden BB") and himself captured, taken back to Germany and reunited with ‘Willy’ as a POW in Stalag Luft III.

During their time with 450 Squadron, they had both taken part in some of the most monumental air and land battles of the North African Campaign, a campaign that revealed not only the legendary ANZAC spirit of courage, valour and mateship, but also the Air Force values of:

Respect across the ranks and for each man's role in the campaign;

Excellence and skill in combat operations;

Adaptability in a constantly changing battlefield, austere living conditions and the harsh desert environment;

Determination to keep pressing the enemy – even when in retreat;

Innovation to get the job done with whatever is available;

And outstanding Teamwork.

450 Squadron Kittyhawks lined up for inspection at Castel Benito, near Tripoli, Libya.

So when you account for the Australian character and the spirit displayed by our aircrew in the North African campaign, it is no wonder that a number of Australia's interned POWs – including John Williams and Rusty Kierath, would be so heavily involved in the planning, preparation and conduct of the Great Escape (which I will allow Peter Devitt to talk about with more authority).

Before I conclude, I must congratulate Louise on her fantastic recount of John Williams’ and Rusty’s lives, their service and tragic murders.  The book is a masterpiece of storytelling, with in-depth research, great insight and a beautifully crafted narration.  I will recommend ‘A True Story of the Great Escape’ to all interested in a good read, and in our proud military history.

A True Story of the Great Escape is well-dedicated:

To the loving memory of 
Squadron Leader John ‘Willy’ Williams, DFC;
and Flight Lieutenant Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath, MiD.

- Lest We Forget -


Historical Background

By Peter Devitt, Curator, RAF Museum, London:

I must begin by congratulating Louise for writing 'A True Story of the Great Escape', which traces the personal odysseys of two fine young Australians: her uncle, Squadron Leader John Edwin Ashley WILLIAMS, and his close friend, Flight Lieutenant Reginald Victor KIERATH; “Willy” and “Rusty”. 

Her book does much more than this, however.  And to put it into perspective, I will ask you to travel back with me to England...

Old Trafford, in Manchester, is well known for its Cricket, but they also play Soccer there... 

It’s October 2001 and England are playing Greece in the last game of their World Cup qualification campaign.  They need a draw to go through, but trail 1 to 2; and the game is very nearly over. 

In stoppage time, the Greeks concede a free kick 30 yards from goal. 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man… David Beckham places the ball carefully, and then, with characteristic style, he curls it around the defensive wall, beyond the despairing keeper and into the corner of the net.  It's 2-all and England are going to the World Cup! 


At this, 65,000 ecstatic England fans do something as inevitable as it is understandable: they break into a spontaneous a-cappella version of Elmer Bernstein’s stirring theme to The Great Escape, punching the air for emphasis as they sing.

I know you won’t want to linger too long on the image of thousands of England fans writhing in celebration - not this year anyway!   But please understand that for over half a century, The Great Escape has been deeply embedded in the English psyche.  At home, it serves as a shorthand for defiance in the face of adversity and victory against the odds.  It’s also comforting, because it brings to mind, in a nostalgic and harmless way, what it means to be English, or British, when so much is now uncertain.

I don’t need to tell you that you have an Australian to thank for all of this - a brilliant storyteller by the name of Paul Chester Brickhill.  Paul Brickhill was a Melbourne-born journalist who worked successfully on a newspaper in Sydney.  In January 1941, Brickhill volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force and two years later he was flying Spitfires with the RAF in Tunisia.  In March 1943, Flying Officer Brickhill was shot down, taken Prisoner of War and transported to Stalag Luft III, the “escape-proof” camp at Sagan in Silesia.  He was one of over 800 Australian Air Force prisoners held by the Germans during the war.

While there, Brickhill was recruited by the “X” [Escape] Organisation, orchestrating the mass break-out from the camp.  The Australian suffered from claustrophobia, which prevented him from tunnelling or escaping himself, and was instead employed co-ordinating a team of look-outs or “Stooges” [such as 3SQN's Alan Righetti].  Brickhill’s real value, however, was as the historian of the extraordinary events unfolding above and below ground.  His journalist’s eye for detail and descriptive powers were brought to bear; and like a bard in ancient times, he wandered about the camp committing to memory the experiences and impressions he could not yet commit to paper.  In later years, Brickhill would refer to himself as the Boswell of the enterprise, and if that was true there was no doubting the identity of his Dr. Johnson.

Squadron Leader Roger Joyce BUSHELL was a man you don’t meet every day.  Born in South Africa, Bushell was a charismatic and successful lawyer who before the war flew with the socially exclusive Auxiliary Air Force.  In May 1940, his Spitfire was shot down over Dunkirk and he was captured.  Bushell made two unsuccessful bids for freedom; and after the latter attempt, he witnessed the brutality of the Nazis first hand, when a family sheltering him in Czechoslovakia was betrayed to the Gestapo and executed.

Bushell’s interrogation was harsh and he arrived at Stalag Luft III knowing that if he escaped again, and was recaptured, he, too, would be executed.  Those that knew him saw that Bushell had changed: he appeared driven, brooding and even a little sinister.  Brickhill for his part remembered him as:

‘…a big, tempestuous man, with broad shoulders and the most chilling pale-blue eyes I ever saw.’

SQNLDR R. J. Bushell.  Sagan's Senior Escape Officer ("Big X").

Although he was a marked man, Bushell hated Nazism and was determined to hit back hard.  He was a natural leader and as “Big X” he now harnessed the talents of the most committed and enterprising officers to an escape attempt more ambitious than any seen before.  Bushell’s aim was to humiliate the Germans by getting over 200 POWS out of the high-security camp.  He also intended to cause as much disruption in the Third Reich as possible, forcing the enemy to divert valuable resources to hunting for the escapees.

The facts of The Great Escape are well known.  For over a year, 600 British, Commonwealth, European and American officers worked on the project and three tunnels, code-named ‘Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” were dug using improvised tools.  The tunnels, each 30 feet deep, were served by underground railways, illuminated by electric lights and ventilated by simple but effective air pumps.  Some 200 tons of bright yellow sand were removed from the tunnels and dispersed via the trouser legs of men code-named “Penguins”.

Although only tunnel “Harry” was completed, it represented an extraordinary engineering achievement, extending nearly 350 feet.  Recognising this, the “X” Organisation commissioned Flight Lieutenant Bennet Ley Kenyon, a talented artist from London, to produce a visual record of the digging.  The drawings he executed underground are proudly held by the Royal Air Force Museum and Louise features them in her book.

F/Lts. Mac Jones & Rusty Kierath, RAAF at work, Stalag Luft III.  [By Albert Comber, AWM copyright ART34781.019]

As “Harry“ was inching towards the perimeter wire, a team of forgers was busy producing 400 high-quality fake passes, while other specialists were manufacturing 1,000 maps and 250 compasses.  At the same time, a tailoring concern was turning battledress and blankets into convincing German uniforms and civilian clothing.  Individual guards were selected to be bribed or blackmailed into providing items the POWs couldn’t make themselves; and one or two anti-Nazi guards were identified who bravely offered to help.  All the while, a sophisticated security network, employing 300 “Stooges” [lookouts], kept the whole operation secret.  Even today, the ambition, ingenuity and sheer audacity of The Great Escape remains impressive.

On the night of 24/25 March 1944, 76 captive Air Force officers escaped from Stalag Luft III through Tunnel “Harry”.  All were volunteers and most were chosen by lot.  Within a few days, 73 had been recaptured and 50 of the men, representing 12 nations, were coldly murdered by the Gestapo in defiance of the Geneva Convention.  This was done on Hitler’s express order, because the Fuhrer had taken the mass-escape very personally.  The elaborate provocation Roger Bushell had masterminded caused the Nazi mask to slip, exposing the savage nature of the regime.  Bushell was counted among the dead and so, too, were John Williams and Reginald Kierath.

Chilling Gestapo identity photographs of 'Willy' Williams in his escape clothing.

Only three of the escapees - Norwegians Sergeant Per Bergsland and Second Lieutenant J. E. Muller; and Flight Lieutenant van der Stock from the Netherlands - managed to evade capture and make “Home Runs” back to Britain.

News of the murders soon filtered out and after the war, most of the guilty were brought to justice.  In 1950, Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape was eventually published to popular and critical acclaim, selling five million copies.  It was translated into 12 languages and is still in print.

In 1963, John Sturges’ star-studded Hollywood film brought Brickhill’s inspirational story to a worldwide audience.  Notwithstanding Steve McQueen’s fictitious motorcycle chase and James Coburn’s memorable Australian accent, the film is surprisingly accurate.  The Great Escape is still shown on TV in Britain over Christmas and the theme tune was adopted by football crowds at some point in the 1980s.

- As an aside, Paul Brickhill also wrote The Dam Busters, his account of 617 Squadron’s astonishing attacks on the Ruhr hydro-electric dams; and Reach for the Sky, the biography of the brave, but controversial, fighter ace, Group Captain Douglas Bader.  Both books were also hugely popular and both in turn became successful feature films.  It is interesting to speculate what the impact on British and Commonwealth culture would have been if Brickhill had not been claustrophobic, and had been able to escape through the tunnel into the hands of the Gestapo executioners. 

The Great Escape soon passed into legend and every few years a new book or documentary appeared, stressing the ingenuity of the enterprise and focusing on Roger Bushell’s key role as “Big X”.  The wider human cost of the escape largely receded from view except, of course, for the families of the murdered men who were forced to manage their grief as best they could.  The families of John Williams and Reginald Kierath were no exception. 

There things rested until 2011 when Louise received an email from a Czech airline pilot named Michael Holy.  Using German records, Michael had researched the last movements of John and Rusty and their two companions, Englishman Squadron Leader Reginald Bull and Flying Officer Jerzy Mondschein from Poland.  All four had been murdered in the town of Most, in what is now the Czech Republic, and Michael was determined to pay what he called ‘a long overdue debt’ by selflessly raising a memorial there in their honour.  The memorial was unveiled on a beautiful afternoon in March 2012 and members of the families of all four officers attended.

Ceremony in the town of Most, Czech Republic, on the 24th of March 2012 (the exact anniversary of the Great Escape).

Inspired and intrigued, Louise combined Michael’s research in the archives in Prague with family papers and official records in Australia and the UK. 

She then started writing her book. 

At its heart, the book is an affectionate, though clear-eyed, family history, which adds the final missing pieces to a mosaic tinged with sadness and loss.  But 'A True Story…' is also about Australia and the way the country’s identity developed and crystallised in the first half of the 20th Century. 

Louise outlines her family’s story against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the widespread poverty that afflicted the nation.  John’s paradoxical progress to the privilege of Shore school, courtesy of a kindly aunt, and the way he grew up to be a cultured and principled young man, are detailed.  His friendship with Rusty Kierath is also described, and the characters of the two likeable youngsters are seen maturing on the playing fields of Shore.  John’s real love, however, was surfing - and that is why we are gathered this morning at the Manly Lifesaving Club; the institution which has for over a century has done so much both to save and change lives. 

Louise shows how Australia’s surf culture developed between the wars.  Children grew tall and strong on the beach while the Lifesaver, uniting a healthy body with a healthy mind for the benefit of others, became a new and compelling Australian icon. 

It was at Manly that John befriended Hans or “Harry” Wicke, a gifted surfer of German heritage.  Sadly, the impact in Australia of the rise of Hitler’s Germany would strain and then break the friendship.  It would also lead to John choosing to join the RAF in December 1937 and ultimately to his premature death.  Harry would endure the pain and indignity of wartime internment and he would grieve for his friend alone.  The Williams family would never forgive him, or so it seemed. 

Australians have been fighting for, or alongside, the Mother Country for two hundred years.  The first was Captain Andrew Douglas White, born the bastard son of a British Naval officer and a convict mother in Sydney Cove in 1793.  He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers and survived the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  Exactly 100 years later, the ANZACS arrived at Gallipoli and in eight hard months changed forever what it meant to be Australian.  Wherever Australians have served, their qualities of courage, endurance, initiative and intense comradeship, together with their irreverent humour, have marked them as special men.  Louise shows that her uncle John was a typical Aussie and that his bravery and skill as a pilot, allied to his relaxed and democratic outlook, made him a much-loved and respected leader of 450 Squadron (RAAF) during the fighting in the Western Desert. 

John with his Kittyhawk (marked OK-M) showing off his "Mandrake the Magician" nose-art
- and the famous combat-sandals!

In October 1942, at the start of the Battle of El Alamein, John’s Kittyhawk was shot down in a friendly-fire incident.  He was captured by the Germans and sent to Stalag Luft III.

Rusty Kierath had himself joined the RAAF in August 1940, and like his friend he was selected to train as a fighter pilot.  He was eventually posted to North Africa to join the strength of 450 Squadron, John’s old unit, and, unfortunately, the coincidences would not end there. 

Once at Sagan, John, known to all as “Willy”, became the chief carpenter for the “X” Organisation.  He had learned his trade carving surf boards at Manly Beach and he is perhaps best remembered for scrounging no fewer than 4,000 bed boards to shore up the sandy tunnels. 

Not long after, in April 1943, Rusty was shot down in Tunisia and also sent to the camp. 

The two school friends were soon reunited and were again inseparable.  John told Rusty about the escape and Kierath wanted in. The two mates laboured hard together for a year, and on the night of the escape they drew lots, to decide their places in the tunnel they had helped construct.  John was number 31 and Rusty 32.  [Flight Lieutenant Paul Royle, who passed away last week, drew number 54.]

The Great Escape is an inspirational story about people from all over the world fighting together against tyranny, and refusing to give in to that tyranny.  It means as much today as it ever did. 

However, Louise William’s warm, wise, meticulously researched book restores the human dimension of The Great Escape.  She reminds us that the brave young men engaged in the enterprise had lives and loved ones before they were held at Stalag Luft III, and that the families of The Fifty had lives to lead afterwards.  Above all, Louise has restored the voices of two brave and palpably decent young Australians who might otherwise have been remembered for their misfortune in drawing low numbers in the tunnel lottery. 

In 2012, Louise travelled to a retirement village in Queensland to meet Harry Wicke, then aged 97.  Her exceptional book ends with forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. 

For this we should all be thankful.

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