Seventy years ago today five young Australians were among a group of allied soldiers who against all odds pulled off what is now famously called “The Great Escape”.
For more than a year they dug their way underneath and eventually out of a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Around 10,000 airmen were imprisoned after they were shot down and captured by Nazis during the Second World War.
All that remains of the notorious Nazi compound in the village of Zagan in Poland are overgrown ruins and the narrow tunnel – codenamed “Harry” from which 76 inmates so famously escaped.
All but three were recaptured, with Adolf Hitler personally ordering the execution of 50. Five of those young soldiers were Australian.
“This is something our dad could never do,” said Louise Williams, who is visiting the former German prisoner camp where her uncle, Squadron Leader John “Willy” Williams, died.
“And that’s really why we’re here. ‘Cause dad was ever able to come to his brother’s grave.”
Ms Williams said her uncle loved his family and he loved to surf.
“He was the chief carpenter and he made the trolleys that they pulled along on in the tunnel,” she said. “Even though he was a medical student when he went to war he made wooden surfboards so that was something, I guess an interesting skill, from surfing to being a carpenter in the great escape.”
Only two original escapers were well enough to mark the 70th anniversary in Zagan.
Their story was made famous by Hollywood, but not all veterans are fans. They say the film had too many inaccuracies and glamourised their escape.
“The real story is even much more remarkable than the film,” said Group Captain Paul Nicholas from the Australian Defence Force. “Such an audacious plan and to carry it out so successfully is amazing.”
More than 600 allied prisoners of war spent 15 months constructing ‘Harry’. They dug ten metres down and more than 111 metres out to freedom.