He cheated death with two World War II plane crashes, interrogation by German intelligence officers, a bayonet wound, and near-starvation as a prisoner of war.

Basil Williams, who passed away last week (June 1) aged 94, was also the last New Zealand survivor of the infamous 800km forced march west across a frozen and defeated Nazi Germany in the winter of 1945.

"He never thought he wouldn't get home - he was an absolute survivor," his daughter Gill Neale told the Herald today.

Basil Williams was awarded the French Legion of Honour last year. He was diagnosed with blood cancer 18 months ago. Photo / Supplied
Basil Williams was awarded the French Legion of Honour last year. He was diagnosed with blood cancer 18 months ago. Photo / Supplied

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Mr Williams was working as a picture framing apprentice in Auckland.


He signed up to the Royal New Zealand Air Force and, in November 1941, sailed to Canada for further air training before RAF and gunnery training in the UK.

While stationed in North Yorkshire, he met Irene Sugden, who he would later marry.

He was then transferred to 51 Squadron as a Halifax bomber rear gunner.

After returning from one bombing raid on Essen in April 1943, the plane crashed and three crew were killed. Mr Williams escaped with concussion and cuts.

He changed to 431 Squadron, before joining 432 Squadron - a Canadian outfit where he was the only New Zealander, and nicknamed Kiwi.

As a flight sergeant on a Wellington bomber, he did 15 night operations.

But on September 22, 1943 while returning from a mission over Hanover, the plane was forced to ditch in the North Sea.

The crew survived four days and nights in a dingy before being "rescued" by Germans.

Split up and interrogated, Mr Williams was sent to Stalag Luft VI in Lithuania.

"Time was spent reading, playing patience, draughts and football and trying to thaw out," Mrs Neale wrote in Basil's Journey, a book covering her father's war.

By mid-1944, with the Russians advancing, the POWs were transferred to Stalag Luft IV.

In the chaotic move, Mr Williams was stabbed by a German soldier's bayonet.

He endured seven months of poor conditions before embarking on a "one week" march.

It turned out to last 86 days, cover more than 800km, and claim hundreds of lives.

The prisoners - including 25 New Zealanders - were starving and ate whatever they could scavenge or steal, including dead horses, leeks, and dried peas that "tasted better than peanuts".

"For his 23rd birthday, his mates gave him a potato," said Peter Wheeler of the New Zealand Bomber Command Association.

Liberation came on May 1, 1945.

He returned to New Zealand and continued to work as a picture framer. Top artists, including Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Louise Henderson, and Don Binney, entrusted him with their work.

In 1950, Irene joined him in New Zealand. They got married in Auckland and had two children, Alison and Gillian.

He suffered nightmares, Mrs Neale said, but nothing fazed him, not even a diagnosis of blood cancer 18 months ago.

"His philosophy was always, 'You just get up, and go'. He never slowed down," she said.

Mr Williams, who was awarded the French Legion of Honour last year, would've needed a "backbone of steel" to survive his war, Mr Wheeler said.

"People like Basil, really are national treasures. They are part of our heritage."