Posted in:

Escape Artist: The incredible Second World War of Johnny Peck

Johnny Peck was obviously born to be different, to accept that nothing sent to him to could not be overcome with a little thought, unswerving courage, a bit of good luck  and sheer determination. Peck grew up in a family that was struggling to cope with the after effects of the First World War, a father who was aggressive, often away on Navel duties. Growing up in Woollahra in Sydney’s east, close to the Garden Island Navy Base, life, in young Johnny’s eyes was not going to get better any time soon.

His father remarried after the death of Johnny’s mother, but family life did not improve all that much. He planned his first escape at the age of 13 years, from his then home at Crib Point on the Mornington Peninsula, stealing his neighbour’s bike early one morning and riding the 80 kilometres to Melbourne. There he slept under a fire escape until a Policeman discovered him, gave him some fatherly advice, two shillings and sent him on his way.

Four years later and considerably wiser, he enlisted in the Australian Infantry Services (AIF) becoming a member of the 2nd AIF and able to be sent overseas. He was just 17 years old but had given his date of birth as 16 February 1919, which would have made him legally able to serve.

He fought with valour as a member of the 2/7th but first, after being sent to Jerusalem, his true age was discovered. He had to serve as a batman to General Thomas Blamey, until he had reached a suitable age of maturity for infantryman duties. Once he returned to his beloved regiment he fought in Bardia against the Italians, saw service in the Western Dessert towards the Libyan boarder, Tripoli and finally Crete, where he was captured.

Crete was where he would begin the first of his many escapes which would eventually see him cover many thousands of kilometres across borders, torrid, inhospitable terrain and face almost certain death on many occasions. He depended on his wits and the endless courage and kindness of villagers on Crete, then later in Italy, to help him survive and on many occasions escape from the Germans.

He, along with many others who placed their lives and those of their families at risk, helped him establish what could almost be considered as a highway to freedom for so many men escaping captivity or internment in Germany; or if Jewish certain death in the infamous German ‘camps’. His story is remarkable in that he survived at all, but that through cunning, skill and determination made a positive difference to the war efforts in Europe as a subversive element.

Eventually though, his luck ran out and he was evacuated by the British to sit out the final years of the war in Britain.

His story almost reads like a Boys Own of derring-do, and yes, to an extent is it; the major and overriding difference is that this story is absolutely true, as are the stories of the other servicemen whose names appear on the pages of a life lived on the edge.

It is said that the greatest adventure known to modern man is to go off to War, perhaps this is the case, but in Johnny Peck’s case, as in so many other men of the time, it was also a chance to escape from the endless drudgery of trying to eke out an existence in the depression years leading up to the commencement of the Second World War.

His story remained largely untold until after his death in 2002, but thanks to the efforts of Peter Monteath this remarkable story about a young man of great determination and courage, lives on to become one of the many that go to make up the remarkable history, of not just Australian fighting forces overseas, but also reminds us of the caring and courage displayed by ordinary people when faced with extraordinary events in their lives.

AuthorPeter Monteath
PublisherNew South Publications
DistributorNew South Books
ReleasedSeptember 2017