Coleshill Church was packed to the rafters as over 400 friends, family members and former pupils paid tribute to the much-loved former Coleshill School headmaster Tom Wilson at a moving memorial service. Tom who died last month, just two weeks short of his 98th birthday, was well-known as the RAF officer who played the violin to cover the noise of preparations for the WW2 Wooden Horse escape from the Prisoner of War Camp Stalag Luft III in 1943. He helped to organise vaulting in the prison yard as cover for the ingenious construction of an escape tunnel, dug out from beneath the wooden vaulting horse and under the fence. He also led choir practices in the barber shop, designed to conceal the sound of the tunneler dispersing the piles of sand unearthed from the tunnel, beneath the hut.
Three men eventually escaped, carrying forged documents and civilian clothes sewn by prisoners who had been professional tailors in peacetime. After hazardous journeys across Europe, all three reached Sweden which was then neutral, before completing the ‘home run’ to England, providing a massive boost to British morale. Fortunately for Tom and his comrades, the Germans did not inflict reprisals on the prisoners left behind.
Tom was born in Erdington and attended Bishop Vesey Grammar School, learning of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews first-hand as, during the 1930s, he played with the children of Jewish refugees smuggled out of Germany to safety in Birmingham. During the latter part of his life he was closely involved with Coleshill and Maxstoke churches and the local community, as a lay reader, minister, chorister, charity volunteer and headmaster of Coleshill School between 1956 and 1982. Representatives of many of the organisations he served and supported, including the RAF, Fire Service, Coleshill Civic Society, Christian Aid, Birmingham (Lay) Readers’ Association and Mary Ann Evans Hospice, Nuneaton were among the congregation.
Former Coleshill Grammar School pupil and funeral director Sue Wallace, who became a Russian expert, thanks to Tom’s insistence on high-quality modern languages teaching to boost understanding between the nations, read a vivid passage from his memoir ‘In the Shadow of the Wooden Horse’. This recounted the searing experience of hunger and his humane decision to share scarce food resources with fellow-prisoners during their march to freedom in 1945. Two former teachers, mathematician John Hoyle and Mark Akhurst (History), recalled Tom’s inspiring personality and the lovable eccentricities that made him a uniquely memorable headmaster and preacher, including the way he welcomed Mark back into teaching after the historian suffered a severe nervous breakdown that he feared might end his career. Tom was also famous for cycling everywhere and once bicycled most of the way to Cambridge twice in one day, having found that he had left his food coupons behind.
Bob Wilson, Tom’s elder son, read the famous passage from Corinthians on how love is the greatest of the virtues of faith, hope and love, then explained that it summed up perfectly his father’s loving care and sympathy for all humankind. Coleshill School’s current head teacher Ian Smith-Childs also praised Tom for his enduring support and interest in the school he led for 26 years.
In his address, Reverend Nick Parker remarked on the congregation’s stirring rendition of several of Tom’s favourite hymns, including ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’, ‘Abide with Me’ and ‘Jerusalem’, observing how much Tom, himself the possessor of a powerful voice, would have appreciated the resonant singing. The recessional music, Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’ reflected Tom’s enjoyment of wartime jazz and recalled an endearing incident from his youth. He recorded in his memoir how at local hops during training in Aberystwyth “on principle I always chose a partner from the ‘wall flowers’, a different one each dance. I reckoned that every girl who bought a ticket deserved a dance and did my best to supply the lack of partners – a lot of my comrades spent most of the evenings round the bar, not having learned to dance.”
The reminiscing continued during Tom’s crowded wake at the Town Hall where everyone swapped stories and memories of an unforgettable man who hugely influenced generations of schoolchildren and people throughout the local community.
Tom Wilson Obituary
Tom Wilson, the much-loved former headmaster of Coleshill Grammar School and the RAF officer who played the violin to cover the noise of preparations for the WW2 Wooden Horse escape, has died just two weeks short of his 98th birthday. His role in the escape was featured in the 1950 film ‘The Wooden Horse’, and he later gave a number of fund-raising talks on this thrilling episode. He was closely involved with Coleshill Church as a minister, chorister and charity volunteer for the latter part of his life and lived in Coventry Road, Coleshill with his wife Gabi who survives him, together with their two sons and three grandchildren.
TOM’S ROLE IN THE WOODEN HORSE ESCAPE
October 1943: the classical strains of the violin drifted out into the compound where Allied prisoners-of-war were performing their final vaults after a gruelling 3-hour gymnastics session. Four lifted the vaulting horse and, staggering under the weight, manhandled it back into the barber shop of the German concentration camp Stalag Luft III, leaving one English RAF officer outside. As the officer put on his cap, the violinist inside made a sign to the vaulters who immediately prised up a section of floorboards and tipped up the horse. A naked man, exhausted and streaked with mud, clambered out from beneath it, and down into the aperture, while the vaulters handed down sackfuls of sand in knotted trouser legs to him from inside the horse. The violinist immediately struck up a medley of sea shanties, while the vaulters thundered out the words.
What the guards patrolling outside did not know was that the endless vaulting was merely a cover for the ingenious construction of an escape tunnel, dug out from beneath the horse and under the fence. The choir practices in the barber shop were designed to conceal the sound of the tunneller dispersing the piles of sand unearthed from the tunnel, beneath the hut.
Within days, three men, including the tunneller Eric Williams had wriggled along the claustrophobically narrow passage and emerged at night on the far side of the perimeter fence. They were 12 inches short of the target and right in the sentry’s path but fortunately for them, the night patrol was late and the trio, wearing black clothes and face masks, silently disappeared among nearby trees. They carried forged documents and civilian clothes sewn by prisoners who had been professional tailors in peacetime. After hazardous journeys across Europe, Ollie Philpot posing as a Norwegian quisling, Williams and Mike Codner as workmen, all three reached Sweden which was then neutral, before completing the ‘home run’ to England, providing a massive boost to British morale.
Thomas William Spencer Wilson was born in Erdington, Birmingham, on December 12th, 2018, the eldest of five children. His mother Florence, a New Zealander, was a gifted musician and piano teacher while his father William was a famously demanding and difficult engineer and head of research at the GEC factory in nearby Witton. Wilson, a bright, highly moral child, attended Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield, where he excelled at Science and engineering and became an accomplished violinist. By the mid-30s, Jewish friends of his parents, the Kahns, were already sheltering German-Jewish boys and as a child he learned first-hand about the growing persecution, through playing with the young refugees. As an evangelical Christian and Sunday School teacher, Wilson had initially considered pacifism but rejected it, revolted by the Germans’ appalling treatment of the Jews.
Wilson won a physics scholarship to Birmingham University and took an electrical engineering degree then began an apprenticeship at Nechells Power Station. His father considered engineers so important to the war effort that he forbade Wilson to join up and become ‘cannon-fodder’ in the Services. When his best friend’s brother, Bob Ayres, whom he greatly admired, was reported missing from a reconnaissance flight to Brest, however, Wilson resolved to defy his father and join the RAF.
Always sympathetic to the underdog and an enthusiastic athlete and dancer, Wilson recalled in his memoirs that at local hops during training in Aberystwyth “on principle I always chose a partner from the ‘wall flowers’, a different one each dance. I reckoned that every girl who bought a ticket deserved a dance and did my best to supply the lack of partners – a lot of my comrades spent most of the evenings round the bar, not having learned to dance.”
Wilson became a navigator on night fighters then in modified Wellington bombers with a top-secret role, to try to find out how the Germans were managing to jam British electronic navigation systems. On his 13th mission, in May 1943, his plane was shot down over the Hague, killing the pilot, while the rest of the crew parachuted down. Wilson was discovered unconscious beside a canal by a group of local farmers who were sheltering a Dutch resistance fighter. Unwilling to risk the life of the fugitive, Wilson immediately agreed to be handed over to the Germans and was taken to the officers’ compound at Stalag Luft III in Silesia, now part of Poland. As officers, the 1500 inmates were not required to do manual labour but Wilson was determined to keep up morale.
“The Entertainments Officer came to welcome us,” he remembered “and said ‘Gentlemen, my job is to keep 1500 officers here sane until the end of the war. If any of you can do anything at all in the entertainments’ field, it’s your duty to help.’ I signed up as a violinist in the prisoners’ orchestra and bought a battered violin, which I then restored, crushing almonds to make oil to clean it.”
When Eric Williams devised his escape plan based on the story of the wooden horse of Troy, Wilson volunteered as a vaulter while tunnelling operations began beneath the horse. He only began playing his violin to cover the sound of the sand disposal after a bad fall following a headspring left him limping with a torn Achilles tendon. Because the surface sand was a darker brown than the yellow sand beneath it, the same top layer had to be replaced each day above a wooden hatch and section of carpeting, to avoid alerting the suspicious guards to any tunnelling activity. When a section of the tunnel gave way, leaving a small hole in the surface of the prison yard, Wilson played his violin as loudly as possible to mask the sound of the desperate attempts to shore it up. The missing sand was replaced before anyone spotted the tell-tale aperture.
He later recalled with pride the ingenuity and teamwork shown during preparations for the escape.
“We even made ink for the forged documents by condensing the black smoke from burning cooking fat” he wrote. “We improvised tunnel lamps from can bases filled with cooking oil and used pyjama-cord as wicks while bed-boards and stolen planks were used to shore up the tunnel’s sides and roof.”
As German defeat became inevitable, Wilson and his fellow-officers were transported to the Moosburg camp in Bavaria, via a forced march from Nuremberg, bartering cigarettes for food as they were on starvation rations.
On April 29th 1945 Wilson realised that they had been liberated when American troops under General Patton drove a Sherman tank through the perimeter fence but there were still no rations for the 100,000 prisoners, so Wilson and a group of officers broke out of the camp and drove the former Kommandant’s herd of pigs back inside. The starving troops fell on the animals, and within minutes had torn them into pieces with their bare hands and begun wolfing down some of the meat. Wilson was furious because after a leg of pork was hung up in his hut to bleed prisoners from other compounds, too hungry to wait, broke in and began slicing it into strips. The following day, they tracked down a small deer in the forest and drove it into the camp. Wilson remembered the incident vividly, later writing
“The poor animal was absolutely petrified. Then it lowered its antlers and charged the crowd. It too was torn into chops by the famished prisoners, though no portion came our way that time.”
Once back in England, Wilson used his gift for languages to work for sustained peace. He gained a double First in German and Russian from Pembroke College, Cambridge then taught at the Royal Liberty School in Romford. He became headmaster of Coleshill Grammar School where every child studied either Russian or German rather than the Classics. He met his future wife, Gabriele Claessens, a young German intellectual in 1948 during an international student peace seminar in Berlin and the couple married two years later.
In 2009, he went back with fellow POWs to the site of Stalag Luft III during a reunion commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Great Escape which was staged in 1944 at a nearby compound. This was considered less successful than the Wooden Horse escape as Hitler had subsequently ordered 50 prisoners to be shot as reprisals. Wilson later noted that the site of the camp was by then covered in trees, with no trace of the compound or the tunnel remaining.
After retirement, Wilson became increasingly involved in the Coleshill and Maxstoke parishes, as a lay reader and fund-raiser for Christian Aid because of his personal experience of hunger. He cycled everywhere until well into his 80s when he broke his hip in a crashing fall while delivering parish magazines, though continued preaching and taking services until a couple of years before his death. He will be much missed throughout the area.