A lifelong interest in Air Force history prompted a Canberra-based officer to travel to Poland “under her own steam” in March to attend the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape.

Deputy Director Community and Industry Engagement at History and Heritage Branch - Air Force, Wing Commander Mary Anne Whiting, was one of 1500 participants who witnessed a poignant ceremony.

“It was moving to know that 75 years later we’re commemorating that ingenuity and heroism."

Wing Commander Whiting said she was humbled by the atmosphere.

“At one stage I found I was standing next to the exit of tunnel Harry, which had two Polish soldiers standing guard over it, and I felt quite emotional,” Wing Commander Whiting said.

“I thought this is where they came out that night and I tried to imagine the forest back then.

“It was moving to know that 75 years later we’re commemorating that ingenuity and heroism, and I found it a privilege and an honour to be there – it was actually quite humbling.”

Wing Commander Whiting said a large honour guard from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Polish Armed Forces, local citizens of the nearby town of Zagan, as well as families and friends of the former prisoners of war attended.

The commemorative ceremony was held near the pine forest on the site of Stalag Luft III, adjacent to the exit of tunnel Harry.

Australia's military representative to NATO and EU, Air Vice-Marshal Robert Chipman, rear and right, Wing Commander Lisa D'Oliveira, RNZAF, front right, and Mary Thurston, front left, New Zealand's ambassador to Poland at a wreath-laying ceremony.Australia's military representative to NATO and EU, Air Vice-Marshal Robert Chipman, rear at right, Wing Commander Lisa D'Oliveira, RNZAF, front right, and Mary Thurston, front left, New Zealand's ambassador to Poland at a wreath-laying ceremony.

Australia’s military representative to NATO and EU, Air Vice-Marshal Robert Chipman, laid a wreath on behalf of the RAAF, and Wing Commander Lisa D’Oliveira laid a wreath for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF).

The service started with a fly-past by Polish Air Force F-16s, and a Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 from RAF Brize Norton.

RAF Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said: “Today, we honour the courage and sacrifice of those who were imprisoned here and lost their lives trying to escape”.

“Today is also a celebration of the intrepid adventurers who sought to regain their freedom from here: their ingenuity, their daring and their spirit.”

Lieutenant Krzysztof Jedrys, of the Polish 11th Commanding Battalion, read the names of ‘the 50’ by service – RAF, RAAF, RNZAF, Royal Canadian Air Force, South African Air Force, Free French Air Force, the Royal Greek Air Force, Belgian and Czech airmen and Polish Air Force.

Roll of honour

Roll of honour for Australian escapees executed by the Gestapo:

  • Squadron Leader James Catanach, 455SQN RAAF, March 29, 1944
  • Squadron Leader John Williams, 450SQN RAAF, March 29, 1944
  • Flight Lieutenant Reginald Kierath, 450SQN RAAF, March 29, 1944
  • Flight Lieutenant Tom Leigh, 76SQN RAF, March 31, 1944
  • Warrant Officer Albert Hake, 72SQN RAF, March 31, 1944.