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April 12, 2012
FLTLT Cath Friend
THE courage, stamina and determina-
tion to beat the odds of four WWII air-
men were remembered at two services
on March 24.
The services were united by one
theme and were attended by people
from the same organisations -- but
were thousands of kilometres apart in
Australia and the Czech Republic.
On the night of March 24, 1944,
RAAF officers SQNLDR John
Williams and FLTLT Reginald
Kierath, of 450SQN, were two of the
76 prisoners who escaped from the
German Stalag Luft III POW camp in
what has become known as The Great
They teamed up with RAF officers
FLTLT Leslie Bull and FLGOFF Jerzy
Mondschein (a Polish officer) and set
out on foot through thick snow for
Switzerland via Czechoslovakia.
Near the Czech border they were
arrested by a German mountain patrol
and taken to a nearby prison for inter-
After hearing of the escape, Adolf
Hitler ordered that 50 of the 73 escap-
ees who had been captured were to be
executed "while trying to escape".
The four officers were shot on
March 28 and cremated in the Czech
village of Most the next day.
On March 24 this year, family
members of the four men joined the
president of the 450SQN Association,
representatives of the ADF, Britain and
Poland, and members of the public for
the dedication of a marble memorial in
the Most cemetery.
At the same time, at RAAF Base
Williamtown, the association and
3SQN held a memorial service at the
450SQN memorial, which was attend-
ed by more members of SQNLDR
Williams' and FLTLT Kierath's fami-
lies, members of the association and
representatives from 3SQN and Air
CO 3SQN WGCDR Timothy Alsop
said that 3 and 450SQNs shared a long
and rich history built on the shared
experiences of achievement, service
"That connection is alive and well
today and 3SQN takes great pride in
its connection with 450SQN," he said.
"The sacrifice made by the four
FLTLT Cath Friend
THE story of the Great Escape
by 76 Allied prisoners of war
from the German camp Stalag
Luft III is well known.
What is less known is the vital
role two members of the RAAF
played in the execution of the
Australians SQNLDR John
Williams and FLTLT Reginald
Kierath, of 450SQN, were among
the escapees on the ill-fated evening
of March 24, 1944.
SQNLDR Williams and FLTLT
Kierath were shot down on October
31, 1942 and April 23, 1943, respec-
tively and became POWs at Stalag
The camp, 160km south-east of
Berlin, was run by the German Air
Force and housed captured allied
airmen. Eventually it housed almost
The site for the camp was select-
ed as the sandy subsoil would make
That did not deter the prisoners
who decided to get 200 men out. To
do so they would dig three tunnels,
Tom, Dick and Harry.
The two Australians joined 600
men who spent a year digging tun-
nels, forging documents and chang-
ing uniforms into civilian clothing.
FLTLT Kierath was tasked to
build fake walls in order to hide the
forged documents and other mate-
rial while SQNLDR Williams was
in charge of 'scrounging' the 4000
bed boards used to shore up the tun-
nels and a myriad of other materials;
all without the guards realising that
anything was missing.
The escapees had a major set-
back when guards eventually dis-
covered and destroyed Tom and all
tunnelling had to be suspended for a
time to avoid further detection.
Due to building construction
above Dick, the decision was made
to use that tunnel for storage only.
All work then focused on Harry,
which was to become a 10-metre
deep, 111-metre long tunnel that
was intended to surface behind trees
in a wood outside the camp.
The escape went to plan, but
when the outer end was opened
it was discovered that the tunnel
ended about 10 feet short of the
woods -- on the path of the perim-
The escape continued and 76
men got out before a shot was heard
at the tunnel exit about 4.45am.
Harry had been discovered.
The Germans began a country-
wide search, which included the
three services and the police.
Adolf Hitler instructed the
Gestapo heads in eight German cit-
ies that 50 of the escapees -- more
than half of those captured -- were
to be shot after their interrogation; a
violation of the Geneva Convention.
As the prisoners were recap-
tured, they were interrogated and
taken out two at a time, on the
pretext that they would be returned
to the camp. Instead, the Gestapo
escorts stopped in the country and
invited them to relieve themselves.
The prisoners were then shot at
close range from behind. The bod-
ies were left for retrieval and their
death certificates read, "Shot whilst
trying to escape".
Of the 76 who escaped, only
three made it home safely. The sur-
vivors remained in German custody
until the end of the war.
Apart from the two 450SQN
members, three other Australians
were executed after being recap-
tured. They were SQNLDR James
Catanach, DFC, of 455SQN; WOFF
Albert Hake, of 72SQN (RAF); and
FLTLT Thomas Leigh, of 76SQN
Australians' story retold
The two Australian airmen had key tasks in the building of the
tunnels, writes FLTLT Cath Friend.
men plays a central role in the ethos
of the 3SQN of today. Their example
set a standard which we hope and can
only strive to achieve in our service --
both in the air and on the ground."
ONE OF TWO CEREMONIES: 450SQN veteran Maurie Douglas, right, sits with Chief of Staff ACG GPCAPT
Michael Kitcher, centre left, and OC 81WG GPCAPT Joe Iervasi at a Great Escape memorial service at
RAAF Base Williamtown. Left inset, families and veterans of 450SQN remember those who lost their lives
during the war.
Photos: LAC Mark Friend
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