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#localread for Manly, NSW – part of #rwpchat

September 4, 2015

We have just had a striking example of the power of a local connection, with the launch of a new book by Louise Williams, A True Story of the Great Escape (Allen & Unwin). Louise’s book is a biography of her uncle, John ‘Willy’ Williams, DFC, who was one of the men who took part in the Great Escape of prisoners of war from Stalag Luft III in World War Two. Willy Williams was a surf life-saver at Manly before the outbreak of war. Louise tells how he became one of the youngest squadron leaders in the RAF, winning the DFC, and how he was shot down, and ended up in Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp. From there, he was a key player in the famous Great Escape, when 76 POWs tunneled out of the camp and made a bid for freedom. He was recaptured, and shot.

photograph showing eight young, male swimmers in their one piece swimming costumes

1935 Manly Amateur Swimming Club, photograph courtesy of Manly Library.

Fittingly the book-launch was held at Manly Life Saving Club, very close to where the Williams family lived. Speakers, including Premier Mike Baird, spoke about Willy Williams’ heroism and tragic end. It was moving to see Manly beach at its most beautiful, complete with whales dropping by, and to realise how much Williams and others like him sacrificed in serving their country. The truth about the Great Escape is a better story than the Hollywood myth, and Peter Fitzsimons describes the book as ‘A riveting tale, superbly told’.

Willy was a popular figure on Manly Beach before the war, patrolling and competing in surf lifesaving contests with Manly LSC, and a photograph in the Manly Library collection shows him with team-mates in the Manly Amateur Swimming Club junior team who were NSW State Premiers in season 1934-35. The line-up in the photo: back row: Gilbert Swinburn, John Williams, Glen Radford, and front row: Keith Kennington, Jamie Jenkins, Bill Howard, Mort Cansdell and Fred Wentworth.

John MacRitchie, Manly Library


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