Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb is a work of nonfiction subtitled A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War. It details a 1918 World War I escape from the German POW camp Holzminden by a group of Allied Airmen and David Grann on the book jacket describes it as "a remarkable piece of hidden history, told perfectly... brims with adventure, suspense, daring, and heroism.” 

The book starts out with the story of Jim Bennett, one of the escapees who then in WWII was working for British Military Intelligence, showing people how escapes could be made. Bascomb details many different escape attempts by prisoners, and then the ultimately successful one led by pilot David Gray, with twenty-nine men going through a dug out path that came to be known as the Holzminden Tunnel. 

The part after the escape, where the men travelled in small groups towards freedom, was the most engaging of the book. One group of three featured a former prisoner feigning being a patient from a lunatic asylum, and the other two his handlers. Of the twenty-nine, a number noted as the greatest breakout of the war, one in which 192K prisoners were held in Germany, ten men ultimately made it to safety. It's an interesting story, with the book description giving a good summary...

"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."