Book Review: The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascomb

The Blurb:

In the winter trenches and flak-filled skies of World War I, soldiers and pilots alike might avoid death, only to find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s archipelago of POW camps, often in abominable conditions. The most infamous was Holzminden, a land-locked Alcatraz of sorts that housed the most troublesome, escape-prone prisoners. Its commandant was a boorish, hate-filled tyrant named Karl Niemeyer who swore that none should ever leave.

Desperate to break out of “Hellminden” and return to the fight, a group of Allied prisoners led by ace pilot (and former Army sapper) David Gray hatch an elaborate escape plan. Their plot demands a risky feat of engineering as well as a bevy of disguises, forged documents, fake walls, and steely resolve. Once beyond the watch towers and round-the-clock patrols, Gray and almost a dozen of his half-starved fellow prisoners must then make a heroic 150 mile dash through enemy-occupied territory towards free Holland.

Drawing on never-before-seen memoirs and letters, Neal Bascomb brings this narrative to cinematic life, amid the twilight of the British Empire and the darkest, most savage hours of the fight against Germany. At turns tragic, funny, inspirational, and nail-biting suspenseful, this is the little-known story of the biggest POW breakout of the Great War.

So have you seen The Great Escape? The 1963 film is a virtual who’s-who of ’60s movie stardom (including Steve McQueen (yay!), James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner). The movie is a dramatization of a real-life mass prison break from a Nazi prison camp during World War II. The Escape Artists tells the story of the men who laid the foundations of such escapes.

World War I brought warfare into a brutal, modern era. The trenches, the gas, the aerial dogfights were new and terrible realities of battle. In addition, the imprisonment of enemy soldiers occurred at a rate previously unheard of. The systems surrounding these mass incarcerations, and the rules of engagement between prisoner and jailer were new and largely untested.

It was drilled into British soldiers and officers that their duty, if captures, was to escape and rejoin the fighting force as soon as possible. Beyond bringing experienced fight men back into the fold, even unsuccessful escape attempts diverted critical enemy resources from the front lines.

Bascomb has given us a lively, riveting history of some truly remarkable men. The sheer ingenuity of their escape attempts (which were many) is something to behold. These men displayed bravery under pressure, creativity in the face of hardship, and an unflagging determination to escape from their captors. When WWII began, the most successful of these escape artists would go on to tutor a whole new generation of soldiers in the art of prison break.

This is a history book for military buffs, but also for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story. The fact that all this really happened only makes it that much more enthralling.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre

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Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben Macintyre

This book is utterly fascinating. In 1942, in the deserts of Northern Africa, a brutal war was being waged. The victor of this front would gain a great advantage in the overall scheme of World War II.

Enter a rather peculiar soldier. David Stirling was an aristocratic Scot with many Scarlet Pimpernel-esque traits. He hated discipline, could often be found enjoying the local alcohol or women, and was generally regarded as something of a dandy. But Stirling envisioned an entirely new way to wage war. Rather than the more conventional warfare practiced in WWI, where two large armies threw themselves at one another until a victor emerged, Stirling wanted to create a small, highly trained unit which could operate secretly behind enemy lines and cause maximum disruption to the Axis war machine. Old-school higher-ups viewed this as a unsporting, but with a combination of charm and family connections, Stirling was able to put together his very own squadron of rogues and misfits. Thus the SAS was born.

Macintyre used the war diary of the SAS, a compilation of primary documents about the unit from its founding in 1942 through 1946, for his source material for this book. This recently unclassified document has provided Macintyre with a rich canvas to write this history of the SAS, which he does with wry humor and masterful storytelling. The story of the origins of the SAS rightly belongs in the realm of legend, and Macintyre does their story justice. The primary players in forming the unit are realized as actual people, and vividly brought into focus by the author.

While this is a history book, the fast pacing and accessible narrative makes this a good choice even for those who normally don’t read the genre. Any one with an interest in military or WWII history will find this book fascinating.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Rogue Heroes is currently available for purchase.