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Obit - Horace (Bill)Spencer Wills Fordyce

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Obit - Horace (Bill)Spencer Wills Fordyce

event date: 10-Apr-2013



Wartime pilot … Bill Fordyce in Wagga Wagga in 1942.

Sydney Morning Herald
20 February 2008

BILL FORDYCE was the last Australian survivor of the attempted mass break-out from a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II that was immortalised - even if inaccurately - by the Hollywood movie The Great Escape.

Fordyce's eventful wartime experiences ranged from a "Titanic" moment in the North Atlantic when his ship stuck an iceberg to being stalked by U-boats, shot down and strafed in the Mediterranean by a Messerschmitt Me-109, bombed by the RAF and having his own "great escape" from a vengeful Gestapo.

After the war Fordyce rebuilt his life as a commercial airline pilot with Australian National Airways, flying international services mainly to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and then carving out a business career as a marketing manager for a number of companies. He also became deeply involved in social work, including as chief executive of the Melbourne Lord Mayor's Charitable Fund.

Horace Spencer Wills Fordyce, who has died at 93, was born at home in Black Rock, Victoria, and educated at Melbourne High School, where his artistic ability shone. He went on to art school and qualified as a commercial artist.

He joined a militia searchlight unit before training with the RAAF on Tiger Moths at Essendon and Wagga Wagga, and travelling to Canada as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme.

After his training, his ship from Canada to Britain struck an iceberg but was towed back to Canada. He was transferred to another convoy and his ship completed the crossing, although others in the convoy were sunk by German boats.

After more training in England on Wellington bombers, Fordyce was posted to Malta, then to Egypt, when he and his crew found time between the serious business of war to have fun "buzzing" the caretakers of the pyramids, often blowing their tents away.

He returned to Britain in the battleship Archer, before going back to the Middle East via Gibraltar. Flying at low level at night off Egypt, his Wellington was attacked by two Me-109s and his tail-gunner shot one down. In turn, the Wellington was shot down, and the tail-gunner killed. When the rest of the crew clambered into their dinghy about 8 kilometres from shore, the remaining Me-109 pilot strafed them, sinking the dinghy and injuring some of the crew. The survivors swam to shore, where they were captured and made prisoners of war. Aware the German camp was likely to be bombed by the RAF, Fordyce and his crew dug a trench, but when the attack came that night some American POWs jumped into their trench, forcing Fordyce and others to leap into a latrine trench. After the raid, Fordyce emerged with his crew, filthy but alive; all the Americans had been killed by a bomb on their trench.
Lady Luck had not finished playing her hand. Fordyce, an officer, was segregated from his crew of enlisted men, who were put on a ship that was sunk by the RAF en route to a POW camp in Italy. None survived. Fordyce made it to POW camp CC78 at Sulmona in Italy, where he spent 18 months before being transferred in 1943 to Stalag Luft III near Sagan, now Zagan in Poland, 160 kilometres south-east of Berlin.

There, he used his artistic skills to make maps, forge documents and sew guards' clothing to be used by escapees. He drew No. 86 in the camp ballot that determined the 200 Allied airmen to make the escape, which began on the night of March 24, 1944. Soon after Fordyce entered "Harry" - the other two tunnels being "Tom" and "Dick" - he found himself trapped. By now it was about 5am on March 25, and a guard had noticed escaper No. 77 bobbing up out of the escape shaft; the tunnel had fallen short of the adjoining forest.

Fordyce spent a hair-raising time backing up in the 40 centimetre-square confined space of the 102 metre-long tunnel as German guards fired rifles and machine pistols down the shaft leading to the tunnel, and the tunnel itself. But the ingenuity of the design, with its slight curves, prevented him being hit.

Fordyce was the last man out of the tunnel. The team in the escape hut at the entrance to "Harry" were surprised by a tapping noise after they had replaced a stove above the shaft. He was quickly dusted down and returned to his hut; his captors never knew he was on his way out. Most of the others who went before him were not so lucky.

Of the 76 men who had crawled through to initial freedom, only two Norwegians and a Dutchman completed their escape. Hitler was so enraged that he ordered all the recaptured POWs be shot. His deputy, Hermann Goering, fearing reprisals against his Luftwaffe aircrew held by the Allies, intervened to save some - but not before the Gestapo had murdered 50 of the recaptured men, including five Australians. Fordyce was separated from his wife June, whom he met on a ship returning to Australia in 1945, and whom he married in 1946. He is survived by his son Christopher, who lives in France with his wife Violette and their son Ugo, and his daughter Jane and her daughter Lily.

Gerry Carman

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