Great Escape 75th: Ex HOME RUN brings home a 33 Sqn veteran
The final occasion marking 230 Squadron’s Centenary year, following a series of celebratory events in 2018, was the consecration of their new Squadron Standard.
On the night of 24th Mar 1944 a daring mass escape was made from Stalag Luft III…known forevermore as ‘The Great Escape’.
Seventy-six Allied airmen broke from the famous tunnel ‘Harry’ but 73 were recaptured and of those 50 were executed on Hitler’s orders – one of those murdered was a former member of 33 Sqn.
Exactly 75 years later a team of veteran RAF Rugby 7s players honoured their endeavour by cycling back across Europe from the camp, near Żagań in what is now Poland, making a ‘home run’ of their own.
The Great Escape story has captured the national imagination ever since, being one of extraordinary ingenuity, teamwork, audacity and courage. As such over the past few years the Eagles Scheme has developed Ex PER ARDUA EAGLE and some of the Ex HOME RUN team joined this Staff Ride to examine not just the escape and the subsequent endeavours to bring those responsible for the executions to justice, but also the strategic bombing of Berlin and the Berlin Airlift.
The 75th Anniversary commemoration ceremony, held at the site of the escape itself and attended by CAS and many other dignitaries from numerous nations, was very special for all present. RAF personnel each carried a photo of one of the 50 murdered escapees, in tribute to their bravery and sacrifice. It was especially poignant for some of the team: Sqn Ldr Chris Pearson, whose uncle had been held in the camp, to carry that of Flt Lt James ‘Cookie’ Long – both of IX(B) Sqn; Flt Lt Nathan Jones carried Fg Off Dennis Cochran, also of 10 Sqn; and Sqn Ldr Nick Monahan carried Flt Lt Reginald Kierath, formerly of 33 Sqn like himself.
Reginald “Rusty” Kierath (20 February 1915 – 29 March 1944) joined the Royal Australian Air Force in Aug 1940 and graduated as a pilot in June 1941. Via No. 71 Operational Training Unit he was posted to 33 Sqn in mid-August 1941, at that time flying the Hawker Hurricane from Amriyah in Egypt. During his initial operational service he was once strafed while taking off and once had to crash land after being shot up by Me Bf 109s, but on 22 Nov 1941 he damaged two Luftwaffe Ju 88 medium bombers and in early Dec shot up an Italian Army transport column. On 20 Dec 1941 Kierath and a squadron mate shot down an Italian Air Force troop carrier aircraft.
In Jan’ 1942 he was posted to No. 450 Squadron RAAF and commissioned in May 1942. He trained as a fighter pilot instructor before doing a five-month instructing tour in Rhodesia. Promoted to Flying Officer, Rusty requested a return to operational flying – a decision which would cost him his life – and in Feb’ 1943 returned to No. 450 Squadron RAAF, still flying P-40 Kittyhawk fighters.
Rusty was flying with a flight of fighters on an anti-shipping strike on 23 April 1943, about 15 miles off Cap Bon, when they received heavy anti-aircraft fire from a German vessel and the strikes on his fighter caused the engine to seize. He had to bail out and landed in the sea where he was rescued two hours later and taken prisoner by the Germans. Having been checked by the German medical team he was placed in a temporary prisoner compound in Tunis and later shipped to Sicily for onward transit to Germany. He was eventually put into Stalag Luft III in the province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań, in Poland). In the camp he established himself as a ‘hide specialist’, constructing small hide-aways in the accommodation blocks to permit forged papers and other escape essentials to be hidden from the German search teams.
On the night of the famous mass break-out he was in the first group of ‘walkers’ which followed the initial group heading for the nearby railway station. They were led by Willy Williams and posed as a band of lumber mill workers on leave, and included Canadian Jim Wernham and Poles Tony Kiewnarski and Kaz Pawluk.
They headed east towards the railway lines and then south to Tschiebsdorf railway station where Jerzy Mondschein used a forged travel pass to buy tickets for the group of twelve, on the 6AM train to Boberrohrsdorf (3 hours south) from where they split up. Willy Williams and Rusty headed off and later joined up with “Johnny” Leslie George Bull and Jerzy Mondschein to trek through the Riesengebirge mountains, where they were arrested by a mountain patrol trying to cross into occupied Czechoslovakia and taken to Reichenberg prison.
The four airmen were handed over to the Gestapo at 4AM on 29 March 1944, believing that they were to be returned to a prison camp by road but near Jelenia Gorathen (then called Hirschberg) they were shot. Kierath was one of the 50 escapers who had been listed by SS-Gruppenfuhrer Arthur Nebe to be killed, as demanded by Hitler, so was amongst those executed by the Gestapo. His remains are now buried in part of the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery.
Retaining the pictures they had carried in the memorial service, Chris Pearson, Nathan Jones, Nick Monahan and the rest of team then just faced the small matter of cycling home with them – admittedly not strapped to the bikes themselves! From the infamous Great Escape camp, through a cold, wet Poland, across a hilly and windy Germany, via Colditz Castle and the Mohne Dam, to Arnhem in Holland, from Belgium to Dunkirk and back across into Kent…the home run was completed and Monners presented the picture to OC 33 Sqn, with a view to mount it in the Sqn’s History Room.
Sqn Ldr Nick Monahan