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MS 449

Reference code

MS 449

Title

Eric Williams literary papers

Level

Sub-fonds

Administrative / Biographical history

Eric Williams – known as Bill to his friends – was born on 13 July 1911 in Golders Green, Middlesex. He was the eldest of four sons and one daughter of Ernest Williams, an interior decorator and antique dealer, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Beardmore, a junior-school teacher. He was educated at Christ's College, Finchley, but left at the age of sixteen to become an apprentice to the building trade. He went on to join his father's business as well as designing and building the décor for some West End theatrical productions. In 1929-1930 his father went bankrupt and Williams went as a management trainee to Waring and Gillow, the furniture firm. In 1932 he moved to Liverpool to run the ‘design for living’ departments in the Lewis's chain of stores. On 20 April 1940 he had married his first wife, Joan Mary Roberts, who was killed in the Blitz two year later. During the Second World War he served as a RAF navigator for the number 75 bomber squadron (BK620). At some point between 17 and 18 December 1942, he was shot down over Germany and after two days on the run, he was captured and taken to Oflag XXI-B at Schubin, prisoner of war camp in Poland. While there he formed a friendship with Lieutenant Michael Codner and together they planned and executed an escape through a tunnel. However, they were recaptured and sent to Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland) – a highly escape-resistant camp. Williams, Codner and a third POW, Oliver Philpot, planned an escape through the means of a vaulting horse used to mask a tunnel entrance closer to the outer fence, while the other camp inmates vaulted over the horse to mask the vibration of the tunnelling work. Sand was carried back inside the horse and dried in the attic of the camp canteen before being distributed in the compound. The tunnel was completed by 29 October 1943 and by using a local railway, they quickly put distance between themselves and the camp, posing as French labourers as they went. They travelled to the Baltic before eventually gaining passage to neutral Sweden, where all three officers were repatriated to Britain. In 1944 they were awarded the Military Cross. Williams also fulfilled his promise to his fellow prisoners by visiting their families to give them news of their husbands and sons. When Williams returned to active duty, he was posted to MI9, where he was sent on a tour of RAF airfields lecturing on what airmen would have to face if they were shot down over enemy territory. He was then posted to the Philippines to lead a team to recover and rehabilitate Allied prisoners of the Japanese, where he remained until the end of the war. When the war ended, Williams immediately began writing about his experience, with his first short story, ‘Goon In The Block’, written during his sea voyage home. In 1949, he published ‘The Wooden Horse’, a reworked and extended account of the escape. This became his most famous work, and was subsequently made into a film in 1950, with Williams writing the screenplay. The book was followed in 1951 by ‘The Tunnel’, a prequel to ‘The Wooden Horse’, which described his escape from Oflag POW camp. Williams also published several anthologies of excerpts from his extensive collection of escape literature. After the war he had returned to Lewis's as a buyer for the book department, before deciding to dedicate himself to his writing. His works include: Goon in the Block, Collins, 1945 The Wooden Horse, Collins, 1949 The Tunnel, Collins, 1951. The Escapers: A Chronicle of Escape in Many Wars with Eighteen First-hand Accounts, Collins, 1953. Complete and Free; Travels through France & Italy, Eyre & Spottswoode, 1957. Dragoman Pass, Collins, 1959 The Borders of Barbarism, 1961 More Escapers: In War and Peace with Eighteen First-hand Accounts, Fontana, 1968 In 1948 he married his second wife (Elsie) Sibyl Maud Grain. A keen sailor, he spent most of the later part of his life living on his boat ‘Escaper’ and sailing around the Eastern Mediterranean with his wife Sybil and travelling around Europe in a Landrover. He died on 24 December 1983.

Date

1948-1959

Extent & medium

11 boxes and 1 oversize folder [2 series]

Content description

The archive covers his literary papers only, with no personal or family papers included. The bulk of the collection is made up of correspondence, written in the 1950s to various publishers as his book were written and distributed over the world. There are few drafts in the collection, with the exception being the typescripts for his travel- adventure book ‘Dragoman Pass’. This book, which was based on his own travel experience, is the most represented of his works in this collection, including drafts, research material and photographs of his travels. His other works are referred to repeatedly in the correspondence, but no other drafts or papers have survived.

Provenance

The letters were collected by Williams throughout his life. They were purchased privately by Nicholas Baker, presumably from an auction, in the early 2000s. No further details are known.

Associated material

The Imperial War Museum holds various items relating to the ‘wooden horse’ escape from Stalag Luft 3.

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