Flight Lieutenant Walter Morison D.F.C.
Born: November 26th 1919, Beckenham, Kent. Died: March 26th 2009 Age: 89
Flight Lieutenant Walter Morison, who has died aged 89, escaped from Stalag Luft III in June 1943 when he and a colleague attempted to steal a German aircraft to fly to Sweden; their audacious effort was thwarted at the last moment and he soon found himself imprisoned in Colditz Castle, where he remained for the rest of the war.
Morison’s path to captivity had begun on the night of June 5/6 1942, when he took off in his Wellington to bomb Essen. As he crossed the Dutch/German border his aircraft collided with another bomber. He was the only member of his crew able to parachute to safety, but on landing badly damaged his shoulder.
After a few weeks in hospital he arrived on July 28 at Goering’s “show camp” on the outskirts of Sagan, 100 miles south-east of Berlin. He soon discovered that the principal pastime was attempting to escape, and he described it as a game that was “like an English field sport played by the rules, which both sides understood”. These rules were to endure until March 1944, when, after the Great Escape, the Germans shot 50 prisoners.
By the spring of 1943, the escape organisation at Sagan had been placed on a formal footing under the control of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (known as “Big X”), one of those who would be shot a year later. Morison became a member of the “Gadget Factory”, making tools, ventilation systems and pumps to be used in the tunnels for the Great Escape. He and his team saw themselves as “subcontractors”.
He also hit on the idea of building a glider, and convinced Lorne Welch, a colleague who shared the same hut and had an excellent and imaginative engineering brain, that it was a feasible project. They approached Big X, but before the plan could be put into action, there was an opportunity to escape.
Welch and Morison were chosen to escape by “borrowing” a German plane, and homespun Luftwaffe uniforms were run up for the purpose. On June 10 they were among 22 prisoners who shambled out of the compound “guarded” by two of their number, both of whom spoke German and were dressed in the bogus uniforms. Once out of the camp, the party dived into the surrounding woods, where Morison and Welch exchanged their clothes for the Luftwaffe uniforms before heading for a nearby airfield.
While all the other PoWs were quickly recaptured, Morison and Welch made it to an airfield near Kupper after living rough for a week. Overnight they shaved and tried to make their uniforms presentable. The following morning they picked the lock of a security gate and strolled on to the airfield.
There they found a small training aircraft, a Junkers W34, parked by the control tower. They got on board, only to discover that it had to be started by an external handle. While Morison remained in the cockpit, Welch was about to start the aircraft when the rightful crew appeared.
The two RAF flight lieutenants saluted the approaching Germans, who assumed that they were ground crew and ordered them to start the aircraft. As soon as it had taxied away, Morison and Welch made themselves scarce. The following day they returned to the airfield and found a small biplane. But as they tried to start it, the pair were apprehended; the game was up. A few hours later they were welcomed back to Sagan by the commandant, who rewarded them with six weeks in the “cooler”.
They were threatened with a court martial and execution for wearing German uniforms and for espionage. Instead they were transferred to Colditz.
Walter McDonald Morison was born on November 26 1919 at Beckenham, Kent, and educated at Stowe. After a year at Trinity College, Cambridge, he volunteered for the RAF on the day the war broke out. He was already a glider pilot, and was soon accepted for pilot training. After being commissioned, he joined No 241 (Army Co-operation) Squadron in February 1941, flying the Lysander.
Morison’s time with No 241 was short, as he was transferred to a bomber training unit as an instructor on Wellingtons before joining No 103 Squadron in May 1942. His second operation was on Bomber Command’s first “Thousand Bomber Raid” when 1,046 aircraft attacked Cologne on the night of May 30/31. Six nights later he took off for Essen on his third and final operation.
The basic qualification to be in Colditz was to be a member of the “Prominente”, or an inveterate escaper. Morison’s escaping activities, however, were over, and he took on the job of running the canteen, participated in theatre productions and studied for accountancy exams. Compared to Sagan, he found Colditz a relatively comfortable place and the guards friendly; he did, though, express irritation at the incessant patter of the bridge players.
Finally, in April 1945, the American Army arrived and Morison and his fellow prisoners were freed. A few days later he was flown back to England, and in July was released from the RAF.
Morison qualified as a chartered accountant, and in 1960 he became the senior partner in Morison & Stoneham, where he remained until his retirement 21 years later.
He was a founder and long-time trustee of the Colt Foundation, a charity that promotes research into medical and environmental health problems arising from conditions at the workplace. He became the trust’s chairman, finally stepping down at the age of 88. He continued his gliding activities after the war, but then turned his mind to sailing off the south coast and across the Channel to Brittany.
Like many of his breed, Morison was quintessentially unassuming.
When asked what he had done in the war he replied: “Not a lot. Taught some people to fly. Dropped some bombs. Taken prisoner. Escaped. Tried to borrow an aircraft from the Luftwaffe. Caught. Sent to Colditz. That was all there was really. A very ordinary war.”
He wrote about his wartime experiences in Flak and Ferrets – One Way to Colditz.
Walter Morison died on March 26. He met his wife, Joan Devas, a physiotherapist, shortly after returning from Colditz. She died in 2005, and he is survived by their two sons and two daughters.