Late last year, I received an email from the Czech Republic. It contained an invitation from a total stranger.
The sender, Michal Holý, explained that a memorial was to be unveiled to four men who had been secretly executed near the northern town of Most. The men were my uncle, World War II fighter pilot John “Willy” Williams, and three other Allied air force officers.
Michal, a commercial pilot and amateur historian with no direct connection to any of the dead men, was attempting to contact relatives of all four, hence the email that found me, my brother Richard and my mother. He wanted us to attend the unveiling, and then to join him in a very special journey. He planned to retrace these men’s fateful last days on the run in Nazi-controlled Europe.
Their extraordinary exploits – beginning with an audacious mass escape from a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp along with dozens of other officers – had been celebrated in books, film and WWII folklore. Many know it best through the movie version, starring Steve McQueen. But the real Great Escape was just as heroic – and ultimately more tragic than Hollywood dared portray.
Why now, I wondered, nearly 68 years after the event? Like most of the surviving relatives of the escapees, Michal was far too young to remember the Nazi era. But, having stumbled across details of a brutal crime that had been committed near Most (then called Brüx), he and his friends had vowed to do what they could to make amends.
I was stunned by the invitation at first. News of Uncle Willy’s death had profoundly affected my dad, his youngest brother, and had devastated my grandparents and the wider family. As I grew up, I felt his ghostly presence. For instance, for years Dad took us, rain or shine, to swim at Manly, the Sydney beach where he had surfed with Willy before the war. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that this invitation was a wonderful opportunity, not only to understand what really happened, but to finally help afford Willy the dignity and recognition he’d so long been denied.
A lifetime ago, Willy is believed to have been pushed out of a car into a lonely forest in Czechoslovakia by his Gestapo guards and shot in the back, or the back of his head. How a young Australian perished so deep behind enemy lines was part of a sensational war story, and perhaps a visit to the Czech Republic could help me fill in the details. Along with my mother and brother, I tell Michal we would be thrilled to accept his invitation.