A few years ago, I received a letter from the past.
The single sheet of crumbling yellowed paper was dated Mother’s Day, May 14, 1944, and covered — unmistakably — in my grandmother’s handwriting.
The original envelope, likewise tattered by time, had been carefully addressed to Australian Prisoner of War No 838.
It’s almost 73 years since my grandmother lovingly sealed that same envelope and mailed it off to her eldest son John.
He was, she had thought, incarcerated in the Nazis’ supposedly ‘escape proof’ camp for Allied air force officers, Stalag Luft III.
But in those days of military censors and sea mail, news from behind enemy lines travelled slowly. By May 1944, as the Allied forces began to scent a Nazi defeat, John was long gone. And, eventually, the letter was lost.
My grandmother could not possibly have imagined that six weeks earlier John had crawled out of the now famous secret underground tunnel out of the camp, in what has since been known as the Great Escape.
Nor that John had made it, disguised as Czech worker, over the mountains and out of Nazi Germany, trudging in waist-deep snow with fellow POW and former Sydney schoolmate “Rusty” Kierath.
I am grateful that as she signed off with her prayers, she did not yet know of her son’s fate.
How pieces of the Great Escape puzzle fell into place
John was my dad’s eldest brother, so I grew up with the story of the Great Escape, and his role as chief carpenter on that extraordinary feat of engineering and subterfuge.
By any measure, it’s a fantastic story — a David versus Goliath tale, a triumph over (extreme) adversity and a tragedy, all rolled into one.
But the Hollywood blockbuster, featuring Steve McQueen, so thoroughly Americanised the escape — even though not a single US airman took part — that John’s story, and that of the other five Australian escapees, always seemed just out of reach.
No-one had ever pieced together John and Rusty’s incredible trek, nor solved the mystery of their final hours. So, about five years ago, I began to investigate in earnest.
Foreign Correspondent came along on my first trip back to Stalag Luft III, just as the first pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
A Czech commercial pilot and amateur historian, Michal Holy, had found a key original Nazi document in the Prague archives, by sheer chance.
It had fallen out of a manila folder when he was looking for something else. Realising its importance, Michal had tracked my family down on the other side of the world.