Eric Williams (writer)
Eric Williams MC (13 July 1911 – 24 December 1983) was an English writer and former Second World War RAF pilot and prisoner of war (POW) who wrote several books dealing with his escapes from prisoner-of-war camps, most famously in his 1949 novel The Wooden Horse, made into a 1950 movie of the same name.
RAF Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams was the navigator of a 75 Squadron Short Stirling bomber (BK620) shot down on a bombing raid over Germany on 17/18 December 1942. He evaded capture for three days, but was eventually caught and sent to Oflag XXI-B at Schubin in Poland. There he quickly formed a friendship with Lieutenant Michael Codner, who spoke French, and together they planned and executed an escape through a tunnel. However, they were quickly recaptured and, as punishment, sent to Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland).
The "Wooden Horse" and escape
As described in his novelization of the true events The Wooden Horse, Stalag Luft III was designed to be a highly escape-resistant camp. Tunnelling in particular was made harder by the use of numerous environmental and technological solutions: the perimeter fence was placed some distance from the huts, necessitating longer tunnels; the soil in the chosen location changed colour markedly when dry, making disposal of freshly dug tunnel soil difficult; and the Germans employed seismographs to measure vibration caused by digging.
Williams and Codner came up with the idea of constructing a vaulting horse and using it to mask the opening of a tunnel entrance closer to the perimeter fence, while the other camp inmates vaulted continuously 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. In fact, Williams was not the first to use a vaulting horse to disguise a tunnel entrance. This was originally thought of by two RAF officers, Peter Tunstall and Dominic Bruce (the 'Medium Sized Man') in Spangenberg in 1941.
With the assistance of a third POW, Oliver Philpot, the tunnel was completed by 29 October 1943 – an important factor, as the Escape Committee only had local railway timetables valid until the end of October. Williams, Codner and Philpot planned to use the local railway to quickly put distance between themselves and the camp, rather than the usual escape strategy at the time of travelling on foot at night and hiding in barns or haystacks during the day.
Posing as French labourers, the trio made their way by train to the Baltic; Philpot headed to Danzig, while Williams and Codner made their way to Stettin, where they eventually managed to make contact with the Danish Resistance and gain passage on a ship to Copenhagen and thence to Gothenburg in neutral Sweden. There they met Philpot, who had been able to travel more quickly to Sweden via Danzig. From Sweden, all three officers were repatriated to Britain.
After his return to active duty, the RAF immediately posted Williams to the Philippines, where he worked with American forces for the remainder of the war.
At the end of the war, on the long sea voyage home, Williams wrote Goon In The Block, a short book based on his experiences. Four years later, in 1949, he rewrote it as a much longer third-person narrative under the title The Wooden Horse. He included many details omitted in his previous book, but changed his name to "Peter Howard", Michael Codner to "John Clinton" and Oliver Philpot to "Philip Rowe".
Two years later, he wrote The Tunnel, a prequel to The Wooden Horse that described his and Codner's escape from Oflag XXIB.
Williams also amassed a substantial collection of escape literature and published several anthologies of excerpts from this collection.
Williams spent much of the time after 1962 living on his boat Escaper in the Eastern Mediterranean with his wife Sibyl.
- 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.
- Laplander, Robert J. (2014). The True Story of the Wooden Horse. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1-78383-101-2.