Title: Escaping Hitler: Heroic True Stories of Great Escapes in Nazi Europe
Author: Monty Halls
Pp: 307 including bibliography and acknowledgements
Price: £8.99 (paperback)
I've said here before more than once that I have been an avid fan of World War II escape literature since seeing The Great Escape when I was 10 or 11.
This book looks like a cracking addition to the canon. I dipped into it for a quick taste this morning and came across the following advice from MI9, the intelligence organisation established to help would-be and actual escapers.
Do not march in a military fashion, but adopt a tired slouch.
Try and 'collect' a bicycle.
Sling your haversack: French peasants commonly carry one in this way, but never a pack on their backs.
Village priests are likely to be helpful.
Every large animal in Europe is edible.
Some of this advice is obvious. Some is not. The combination of well informed tips and practical help must have been enormously helpful to the people at the sharp end of escaping. Here's a statistic: Germans were of course well aware of the escape ethos, notes the author. They were also aware of the existence of escape aids, in particular maps, 'but evidently not to the extent that they could intercept them as a matter of course. By 1944 they had uncovered nine escape maps, out of a total of 200 originals and 750,000 copies'.
I thought I might be not so keen on the accounts of following in the footsteps of escapers, but Halls very adroitly mixes the mundanity of the present with the tension of the underlying escapes, as with the escape of Len Harley from Campo 78 in Italy on September 8 1943, bursting out of the camp in the belief that the war was over as a result of the Italian armistice. Much very good writing follows as Len and his fellow escapees spend months making their way through the landscape.
The author is an ex-Royal Marine, marine biologist, documentary broadcaster, expedition leader and writer, his biography at the front of the book explains. What, this writer wonders, does he do in his spare time?
Seriously, I vaguely remember the Great Escapes series on BBC2. Thanks to the most cursory sampling of this book I'll be hunting it down on the iPlayer and/or YouTube. Any self-respecting fan of the genre will likely do the same.
I'm now going to break my own rule on premature use of the C-word, but as Waitrose is already selling magazines with special seasonal covers, I almost feel justified. If you know someone who likes reading escape literature, you have just found an excellent Christmas present.