among murder victims
James Catanach, above, with one of the damaged aircraft
he brought back to base on three occasions.
Al Hake, the compass maker, and his wife, Noela.
Reg Rusty Kierath
FLTLT Tom Leigh.
John Willy Williams
THOUSANDS of their compatriots fell victim to fighters and flak
in the air battles of World War II, but five Australians who broke
out of Stalag Luft III in the Great Escape on March 24-25, 1944,
met pitiless deaths at the hands of the Gestapo, along with 45
They were Squadron Leader James Catanach, DFC, aged 22; Warrant
Officer Albert Horace Hake, 27; Flight Lieutenant Reginald Victor
Kierath, 29; Flight Lieutenant Thomas Barker Leigh, 25; and Squadron
Leader John Edwin Ashley Williams, DFC, 24.
Of the five, WOFF Hake whose Spitfire was shot down over
France in April 1942 on operations with No. 72 Squadron (RAF)
played the most prominent part in preparations for the
breakout as he was the mastermind of the compass-making operation.
The ingenious compasses were made from melted Bakelite phonograph
records, slivers of magnetised razor blades, glass from broken
windows and solder obtained from the seals of tin cans. WOFF Hake
stamped them with the inscription Made in Stalag Luft III.
Patent pending so that the bearers, if recaptured, would
not be shot as spies.
This did not prevent his execution after he was caught not far
from Sagan, where the POW camp was located, as he slogged on foot
across the snow-covered landscape.
When he joined the RAAF in January 1941, on his enlistment papers
he had included ice skating among his list of sporting pursuits.
(He first met his future wife, Noela, at an ice rink. They were
married five months before he embarked for service overseas.)
But the icy conditions the exposed POW faced on the run were something
else and he suffered severe frostbite. Other recaptured Allied
airmen saw him hobbling with a group of prisoners and a Gestapo
escort to a black car outside the Gorlitz civilian prison on March
30. The man renowned for lively renditions of songs, including
Waltzing Matilda, on guitar at Stalag Luft III, was never seen
FLTLT Leigh was also in the group of airmen murdered at that time.
He, too, had been recaptured in the Sagan area.
An air gunner with No. 76 Squadron (RAF), he had been in a Halifax
bomber that had been shot down in August 1941. An ex-RAF Halton
apprentice, his nationality is listed as United Kingdom on Commonwealth
War Graves Commission records, but he originally came from Sydney.
Like FLTLT Leigh, SQNLDR Williams joined the RAF before the war,
though he was flying with No. 450 Squadron (RAAF) when his Kittyhawk
was shot down during a strafing mission in North Africa in October
He had been born in New Zealand but his family moved to Australia
when he was a child.
Known to his squadron mates as Willy, he took to the
skies in baggy khaki shorts and shirt and leather sandals.
Despite his appearance, he was a formidable pilot who became an
ace and earned the DFC.
At the POW camp before the Great Escape he was among those who
collected wooden slats from the bunks to shore up the tunnels.
He and FLTLT Rusty Kierath were among a group of 12
airmen disguised as foreign workers who attempted to make their
way to Czechoslovakia.
Their pair who had attended the same school were
arrested with two others by a mountain patrol near the border
and taken to Reichenberg jail. They were murdered by the Gestapo
on March 29.
For the Kierath family, descended from German immigrants and who
had already had a son killed in action with the Australian Army
at Tobruk in 1941, the death of another son who they believed
was safe in a POW camp would have been devastating.
A member of 450SQN, FLTLT Kierath became a POW in April 1943 after
being hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking naval targets.
At Stalag Luft III, he helped create fake walls to hide forged
documents, Al Hakes compasses and other material vital to
the breakout .
SQNLDR Catanach enlisted in the RAAF in Melbourne in August 1940.
His previous military experience was confined to three years in
the cadet corps at Geelong Grammar, but he became an accomplished
He never lived to receive the DFC awarded for bringing back to
base on three occasions aircraft that had been severely damaged
on raids with No. 455 Squadron (RAAF).
There was to be no return when his Hampden bomber and other Coastal
Command aircraft flew out on September 2, 1942, for Murmansk,
Russia, to protect Arctic convoys. Near the Finnish/Norwegian
border, anti-aircraft fire from an armed trawler forced him to
crash land. One of the RAAFs youngest squadron leaders and
keenest fliers was forcibly grounded a prisoner in Stalag
Fluent in German, he learned Norwegian in the POW camp. After
he broke out, he and three companions headed for Denmark. Near
the border a suspicious policeman insisted on checking their cases,
which contained escape rations. Inspection of their clothing revealed
they were wearing altered greatcoats. The four airmen were handed
over to the Kiel Gestapo and murdered on March 29, 1944.
The Hollywood myth
IN the classic film The Great Escape, one of the scenes in the
closing stages shows a character played by James Coburg and supposed
to be an Australian, escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.
The reality was far different as only three of the 76 airmen who
escaped made it to safety and none were Australian (two were Norwegian
and one was Dutch). The choice of an Aussie character may well
have been in acknowledgement of Paul Brickhill, who wrote the
book The Great Escape, which inspired the movie.
However, there was an Australian link to one of the successful
escapees Dutch pilot Flight Lieutenant Bram van der Stock
wore an altered RAAF overcoat on his journey to freedom.
The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill.
A Gallant Company: The Men of the Great Escape, by Jonathan
The Longest Tunnel, by Alan Burgess.
The Great Escape. The full dramatic story with contributions
from survivors and their families, by Anton Gill.