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Heroic true stories of great escapes in Nazi Europe
Monty Halls Pan, 5th April 2018
Monty is an engaging TV presenter, and this is the book from the work of his recent documentary series of the same subject. I tend to be sceptical about the quality of books with such a heritage, as too often they are an overtly commercial spin-off; likewise I was sceptical about the likely quality of writing from an ex-Marine! I was wrong on both counts: Halls’ latent humanity, ability to engage with others, not to mention obviously high levels of physical fitness, is manifest in writing of a high order.
The bulk of escapes were perforce of RAF aircrew; Halls gives some depressing statistics: only 13.2% of Lancaster crews survived after being shot down, 21.9% from the Halifax, and 24% from the Stirling. Anyone who has been inside the fuselage of a Lanc will appreciate the difficulty of emerging from that flaming chrysalis, probably under high G.
Some of the most emotional stories in the narrative are in Italy, where Halls meets a succession of gnarled natives who many years ago put their lives on the line to help Allied escapers and local partisans. Halls notes the morbid fact that four Italians died for every successful Allied escaper. His military background gives him an empathy for the arduous physical demands placed on most would-be escapers (particularly those in Italy and the Balkans), but he also notes the mental stresses of prison camp life, and then during the chase. Many escapers had not of course been in the British military for very long, and had therefore sometimes to develop the necessary physical and mental resilience in something of a hurry.
The author relates some amazing sagas of extreme courage and charity, usually from Italians, none more so than Silvio, a poor and lonely peasant on the margins of his village society. There are some very moving passages. He also relates a scene from one of the documentaries where he manged to reunite (for the first time since the escape), via Skype, an English airman and the Italian who was central to his escape – it made for very charged television.
The attrition of Italian escaper assistants was of course due to the terrible retribution exacted by the Germans; once on their Northward retreat they judged that only by terrifying the local population could they retain territory and discipline. The carnage at the village of Vinca is chilling indeed. In another episode a group of youths are machine-gunned, and village elders strung up from meathooks.
In the latter half of the book the relatively newly created SAS make an appearance, and Halls relates tales of their successful raids that would no doubt have made Churchill proud. So there is a degree of wandering off track – some of the stories are as much about waging war against Hitler, as escaping his thrall. This does not detract from what is a well-wrought book, which often pulls at the reader’s emotions.