We are pleased to offer in our December 2nd 2015 Sale, a rare Rolex Chronograph and medals of a WW2 RAF Officer shot by the Gestapo in 1944.
A fine and rare 1940s black dialled ROLEX Oyster Chronograph wristwatch, together with its original guarantee card. Its RAF owner was executed by the Gestapo for daring to take part in the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III.
Also in the sale will be other personal effects including:-…
His WW2 medals, “Mentioned in Despatches” Oak leaf, Irvin Gold Caterpillar Club pin, RAF brevets, correspondence from Stalag Luft III POW camp, personal, original, wartime photographs and other related MOD and RAFA letters and copies of newspaper cuttings from the time.
Flt/Lt John Francis Williams, known as ‘Jack’ was the 67th Allied Officer to escape through tunnel ‘Harry’ during the Great Escape in March 1944. He was also one of the 50 selected and executed by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders. Jack’s Rolex was ordered whilst he was a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III and sent to him in the camp. It was returned to his family by a fellow POW Officer after the war.
His story follows……
After many months of meticulous preparation, Flight Lieutenant ‘Jack’ Williams finally tasted freedom as he fled through the Silesian pine forest on a bitterly cold night in March 1944. He and 75 other Prisoners of War had just taken part in, what was later called, the “Great Escape”. None of them could have known what fate had in store for them.
John Francis Williams, known as ‘Jack’ by his family and friends, was born at Clapham on the 7th July 1917. He was the only son of John and Bertha Williams and was educated at Battersea Grammar School. His father held a senior position in an Engineering firm whilst his mother was a school-teacher. After leaving school, Jack was employed by the Milk Marketing Board. Shortly before the war, he left the Milk Marketing Board and joined Thomas Headland Ltd, an engineering company involved with aircraft tool production and aerodrome equipment. By then, he and his family had settled in Ewell, Surrey. Keen on theatre, he was a member of the Lyric Players in Wimbledon and later the Epsom Players. His cousin, Sheila, remembered him as a dashing, charismatic man with a wonderful speaking voice, who drove a blue MG Midget sports car. As a young girl, she idolised him.
Although he was in a reserved occupation at the outbreak of war, against the wishes of his parents, Jack volunteered to join the R.A.F. His application was accepted and, in June 1940, he joined the R.A.F. Voluntary Reserve. He had hoped to become a fighter pilot but instead was selected for training as an Air Observer in Bomber Command. Upon completion of his courses, he was posted to 107 Squadron at Great Massingham, Norfolk, for duty in Douglas Boston light bombers. From there, the Bostons were used for daring, daylight raids into occupied territories.
On the 27th April 1942, at 14:22 hrs, Boston III, No.Z2194 took off from its base at Great Massingham, piloted by Sergeant Kenneth N Carpenter. The other members of his crew were Pilot Officer ‘Jack’ Williams (Air Observer) and Flt Sgt Gordon S G Black, R.C.A.F. (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner). Z2194 was part of a formation of 12 Bostons from 107 Squadron, accompanied by a fighter escort, detailed to attack the power station at Lille Sequedon. The official report states that the formation arrived over their target at 15:40 hrs and dropped its payload of 44 x 500lb bombs from a height of 14,000 ft. They were immediately attacked by enemy FW190 fighters and 4 of the Bostons were shot down. Z2194 was one of those hit and was reported as last seen going down under control. Sgt Ken Carpenter fought at the controls as his plane rapidly lost height. P/O ‘Jack’ Williams managed to bail out of the stricken aircraft at low altitude but it was, by then, too low for the others the follow suit. Sgt Carpenter crash-landed his ailing plane approximately 3 miles south of Dunkirk without serious injury to himself or Flt/Sgt Gordon Black. Jack Williams was saved by his parachute but was soon after taken prisoner. Sergeants Carpenter and Black were also captured.
They were each taken to POW holding camp Dulag Luft at Frankfurt-am-Maine to be processed. P/O John Francis Williams (RAF No. 106173), POW No. 216, was interrogated and sent on to Stalag Luft III which had recently opened. Sgt Kenneth N Carpenter (RAF No. 1283712), POW 225 and Flt/Sgt Gordon S G Black (RCAF No. R/65165), POW 222, were initially separated but ended up together in Stalag Luft 6.
Upon arrival at Stalag Luft III, Jack was housed in the East compound where he shared a room with five other officers. His family had been informed that he was ‘missing’ but, in late May, they learned that he was safe and was now a Prisoner of War. The following month, he was able to write to his girlfriend and advise her of his situation. Many letters were exchanged between them detailing the boredom of camp life as a Prisoner of War and how he missed life back home. A compilation of the contents of these can be found on the Bourne Hall Museum website at epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/… . He also wrote to his parents and his cousin Sheila. Accompanying one of these letters was a photo of him with his ‘hut-mates’ taken in the East compound. In the background can be seen tree stumps which were still waiting to be cleared, indicating it was early days in the construction of the camp.
Stalag Luft III continued to grow in size as more allied airmen were detained there. In March 1943 Jack wrote to say he was being moved to a new site, the North compound, where most of the British prisoners were being brought together with the Americans. It was here that he met fellow Air Observer Sergeant (later Warrant Officer), Donald J R Wilson. They grew to be good friends and together became embroiled in the plans for a mass-breakout orchestrated by Sdn/Ldr Roger Bushell, known within the camp as ‘Big X’.
About this time, Jack took advantage of the offer made by Hans Wilsdorf, MD and founder of Rolex, to supply British POW officers with one of their wristwatches, with payment deferred until after the end of the war. Jack wrote to Rolex ordering a top-of-the-range chronograph, Ref 3525. (Despite being Prisoners of War, British officers still received their salary which was being paid back home.) Hans Wilsdorf, however, was still taking a considerable risk with his offer. He was gambling on an Allied victory and the survival of the POW officers. He was also relying on his products reaching their intended customers. Letters exist (see copies below) that show that no less than three Oyster Perpetuals were sent to one Army officer in Offlag VIIB, to satisfy an order for one watch. A letter from Rolex sent on 28 Nov. 1942 shows that a second watch sent from them failed to reach the officer in question. In this letter, Rolex say they were “…sorry indeed to hear that the second Perpetual we sent you in May has also not reached you. This is really bad luck“. They go on to say “We have now put a third watch in hand for you, free of charge, and we sincerely trust that it will reach you“. In the same letter they confirmed his request for an order for a fellow officer for the same model watch. On the 30 January 1943 they wrote again to him to say that they had, that day, despatched his third watch along with another for his colleague. This letter was signed by Hans Wilsdorf himself. The third watch finally arrived along with its accompanying certificates and paperwork which still survive to this day. The fact that a total of three watches were despatched clearly demonstrates the commitment by Rolex to honour their promise to supply British POW Officers with watches, initially free of charge.
Jack Williams’s Rolex chronograph Ref 3525, s/n 186045, arrived at the camp in early August 1943. Its guarantee card, stamped with the camp’s “Geprüft 33” censor’s mark, is dated 5/7/1943. Its serial number is only 5 digits away from the same model watch that was delivered to Flt/Lt Gerald Imeson at about the same time and was sold through Bourne End Auction Rooms in November 2013 (See write-up elsewhere on this website). On 13th September 1943, Jack received a promotion to Flight Lieutenant Williams.
By the third quarter of 1943, plans for the mass-breakout had been progressing well. Three escape tunnels were simultaneously being dug and were code-named “Tom, Dick and Harry”. Jack Williams’s role in these preparations was that of a “Penguin”, secretly dispersing tons of soil that was dug from tunnel “Harry” through special pouches under his clothing. He had written home in June to say that he had taken up gardening and was growing vegetables to supplement their food rations. It is probable that he used his vegetable plot to hide some of the excavated soil. Meanwhile his friend Don Wilson was employed stealing documents from the German guards to be copied by the forgery department. By mid September though, things had taken a turn for the worse. Tunnel Dick had had to be abandoned due to camp expansion and tunnel Tom, in Block 123, was discovered by the guards during a search. Also, the Americans were being moved to the new South compound. After this, work on Harry was temporarily suspended. Demoralised but not defeated, they resumed work just after Christmas and tunnel Harry was finally completed in early March 1944.
Some 600 workers had been involved in the project but only 200 would be selected to break out, their running order chosen by lottery. The first 30 places would go to those considered to have the best chance of getting home; the next 70 to the more prominent workers, after which the final 100 places would be drawn. Jack drew lot 67 indicating he was one of the prominent contributors. The “escape” itself was planned for the moonless night of the 24/25th of March. That evening, Jack endured a long wait in Hut 104 before taking his place in the tunnel. He finally emerged to a covering of snow just after 4:00am on the 25th. He was one of the “Hard Arsers” who would have to rough it, travelling on foot by night and hiding during the day. Their biggest obstacle would be the weather with deep snow off road and freezing conditions at night.
Seventy six allied officers escaped before the tunnel was discovered but only 3 made it to freedom. Following a vast manhunt, the rest were slowly apprehended including Jack. No one was prepared for what happened next. The sheer size and audacity of the escape enraged Hitler so much that he ordered the Gestapo to execute all the recaptured prisoners. After pressure from his senior officers and for fear of reprisals against German POWs, this number was reduced to 50. Unfortunately for Jack, he was one of those ‘chosen’ for execution. Of those 50, 26 were RAF officers, of which 21 were British, with the rest made up of 11 different Nationalities. As the POWs were captured, they were taken to the formidable Gestapo Interrogation Centre at Görlitz. Witnesses stated that, after interrogation, they were seen being taken out in small groups and put into trucks with a heavy Gestapo armed guard. A few of these groups were returned to Stalag Luft III but most were taken to several remote locations and gunned down in cold blood. Their bodies were then immediately cremated to hide the evidence. Flt/Lt John F Williams was murdered by unknown Gestapo agents on 6th April 1944 and cremated at Breslau. His ashes, along with the 49 others, were returned to the camp where they were interred in a memorial just outside the camp, built in their honour by fellow POW officers. Their execution contravened the Geneva Convention and was deemed a war crime. Those responsible were tried after the war at the Curiohaus in Hamburg and 13 of the perpetrators were sentenced to death.
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post in April 2008, his friend and fellow Air Observer W/O Don Wilson told how Jack came to him on the evening before the breakout. He recalls that Jack said “ I know I’ll not get away, I couldn’t possibly get away so I’ll probably see you in the next fortnight” and continued, “ But if by any chance I do, would you kindly take my two wrist watches home and he also gave me a pile of letters from his girlfriend.” He goes on to say that when news of those shot was reported back during the following weeks, the atmosphere in the camp was terrible and everyone was in shock.
Don remained at the camp until February 1945 when he and his fellow airmen were evacuated by the German Authorities as the Russian Army approached from the East. He gathered together his and Jack’s possessions before being force-marched many miles in severe winter conditions, without adequate food or clothing, on what is now known as the Long March. Finally, Don ended up in Marlag-Milag Nord POW camp outside Tarmstedt. There he escaped death by ‘friendly fire’ when a couple of RAF Mosquitoes strafed the camp as the allied POWs were outside watching them. Don reported he had to dive for cover to avoid being hit. He was finally liberated in April by members of the Fife Yeomanry and repatriated.
True to his word, Don visited Jack’s distraught parents in Ewell after the war. There, he returned Jack’s watches and a few other personal effects. This meant a great deal to a family that had lost its only child. Considering the ordeal that Don endured, it was a wonder that Jack’s watches had even survived, let alone remained intact.
The present owner of Jack’s Rolex inherited it and other items, including his medals, from Jack’s mother in the early 1980s. As his third cousin, she said he reminded her of Jack as a young boy. He remembers that the watch was not working due to a broken mainspring. In 1984, almost exactly 40 years after the date of the Great Escape, he returned the watch to Rolex in London for repair. It was sent to their Service Centre in Bexley. In view of its amazing history, it was serviced and fitted with a new, period Rolex strap and buckle, free of charge. It was returned on 25/5/84. Since then, it has had very little use other than being worn by its present owner on his wedding day and a few other special occasions. In October 2014, Jack’s Rolex returned to Stalag Luft III when its present owner last visited the site of the camp at Zagan, now in Poland. He also visited the ‘POW Camps Museum’, the 1944 Memorial erected by his fellow officers, as well as paying his respects to Jack where his ashes now lie at the official war grave in the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery.
In 1999, he made contact with Don Wilson via the R.A.F. Ex-POW Association. He received a pleasant letter from Don who remembered Jack as a charming gentleman. Included was Don’s copy of the book ‘The Longest Tunnel’ by Alan Burgess, which he believed to be the most accurate account of the tragic event.
In several subsequent telephone conversations, Don recalled their time together in the North compound and his meeting with Jack on the evening before the escape. He told him how he visited Jack’s parents after the war, returning his watches as Jack had requested: he recalled that one of them was his pride-and-joy that he had ordered from Rolex whilst at the camp. The watch had incredibly survived the ravages of war even if its owner hadn’t.
Since then, Donald Wilson has recorded several of his wartime experiences on the BBC People’s War website as well as others. Some of these can be found at:-
yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/… where he mentions Flt/Lt Jack Williams’s watches.
Further information on Don can be found by searching the internet with his name “Donald J.R. Wilson” together with “BBC WW2 People’s War”.
For more information on Jack, see epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/…
MOST ITEMS PICTURED HERE ARE INCLUDED IN THE LOT (PLUS OTHERS).
1943 Rolex Chronograph Ref 3525 s/n 186045 in detail.
Below: Headlines and Details of a May 1944 Newspaper, printed after the report that 47 Allied Officers had been shot whilst trying to escape. A few days later, the total rose to 50. Flt John F Williams is mentioned among the forty seven.
Above: Memorial Poster with artwork by fellow POW Ley Kenyon now housed in the small RAF Museum at SLEAP in Shropshire. The museum also has a few more of Jack’s artefacts, including his certificate of “Mentioned in Despatches” and another picture by Ley Kenyon. (Not included)
Above: Ley Kenyon’s Memorial picture and Jack’s certificate in the SLEAP Museum, Shropshire. (Not included)
Below: Included is this copy of a letter to the sister of Flt/Lt Robert Stewart from a fellow Officer who was repatriated shortly after the event. Robert was another of the 50 executed. The Officer describes how he was speaking to the POWs as they were escaping and how it was reported to the Government who promised to take action against those responsible. Robert was shot down a year to the day after Jack!
The Schedule from the Memorial Service attended by Jack’s parents on 20th June 1944 in London, bearing the names of the 50 dead.
Researched and compiled by Martyn Perrin on behalf of Bourne End Auction Rooms, October 2015, with acknowledgements to the staff at Bourne Hall Museum, Ewell, Surrey for their kind assistance and the Wilson family for photos of Sgt Donald Wilson. Last updated 23rd Nov 2015