60317 Flight Lieutenant Derek Lister D’Angers Willis; 37 Squadron, Bomber Command, R.A.F.
A few years back I bought my mother a caterpillar badge for Christmas and upon researching it, I found it to have been owned by a man with a most interesting war, despite having been captured quite early in his service. I do wonder if anyone he worked with as a chartered accountant after the war knew of his unusual past-time whilst in captivity………
A caterpillar badge for those who don’t know of it, is a pin awarded by the Irvin parachute company, to those airman who had had their lives saved by one of their devices. It is denoted by a small gold caterpillar (seen here on his Africa Star).
On the 17th of March 1941, Wellington MkIc R1837 took off from Paramythia in Greece, at 20.30 on a mission to bomb Tirana airfield, Albania. It never returned. It was presumed by bomber command to have been shot down was recorded on the 18th as such in the ORB (Operational Record Book) “Aircraft failed to return, and is presumed to have been shot down”. This was indeed the case, it had been brought down by two Italian Fiat CR.42 biplanes, from ‘160 group’, piloted by Sergente Maggiore Desideri and Sergente Maggiore Francesco Penna. Pilot Officer Willis and Sergeants Brett, and Smith were captured but Sergeant Murrell, Cherington and Newman were unfortunately killed.
P/O Willis was wounded slightly during his capture; he was taken to the Italian Air Force Headquarters, on the 19th near Tirana where he was interrogated, but gave no information to the enemy.
From the Air Force HQ he was taken to Camp 78 – at Sulmona Italy, where he resided from 8/4/1941 to 30/6/1942. He was assigned prisoner number 2990. Whilst at the camp he occupied his time helping to dig an escape tunnel, however this was abandoned in August of 1941. On the 1st of July 1942 he was moved to camp 35 at Padula where he superintended more tunnel digging, whilst a member of the escape committee, from October 1942 until August 1943, unfortunately both tunnels had to be aborted. On the 15/8/1943 he was moved to Camp 19 in Bologna, whilst there he attempted to escape again, this time hiding above the Italian officers’ quarters with Captain G.H.K.Rae RTR (POW No. 177 Regimental Number 126608) and Lieutenant G.Calambokides, but they were caught by the Italians on the second day.
On the 1st of November 1943, 2 months after the Italians had capitulated, Willis was moved to the now Infamous Stalag Luft III; Sagan Balaria, the camp made famous by the Great Escape. On the 2/2/1945 he was moved to Marlag und Milag Nord at Tarmstedt until his release on 10/4/1945.
It is not known whether or not he worked on Tom, Dick, or Harry whilst in Stalag Luft III, however it seems highly likely he would have had something to do with the tunnels having been a regular tunneller in other camps. After the war he became a chartered accountant (having taken his exams in the camps), and probably never mentioned his time underground.