Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre; The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland - review by Keith Lowe

Keith Lowe

Over Moats & through Barbed Wire

Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle


Viking 384pp £25

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World


John Murray 400pp £20

There is something comforting about a good Second World War story at this time of year. And particularly this year, when, alongside the traditional cold, damp and forced Christmas jollity, we have an energy crisis and the prospect of very real hardship for months to come. Stories of the war remind us that however bad things might seem now, they could always be worse. They give us the heroes we crave and the sense of adventure that is so often missing from our own lives.

Two of the very best Second World War stories published this year combine these escapist qualities. What is more, they have escape as their main theme. The first is Colditz by Ben Macintyre, an author who virtually reinvented the genre of wartime adventure non-fiction. The other is The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland, an award-winning journalist and bestselling novelist whose book shows off his talents as both an information-gatherer and a storyteller.

While there is not much that is new in Macintyre’s book, it is still worth reading, not least for the way the author’s mastery of detail brings the story to life. Colditz was the last stop for Allied prisoners who had been caught escaping from other, less secure camps around Germany. It was supposed to be escape-proof. The prison building itself had thick stone walls that were ninety feet high, through which there was only a single gateway. There were bars on every window, precipices on almost every side, several layers of sentries, floodlights and barbed wire, and a moat around the outside. Any prisoner who made it through these barriers still had to cross four hundred kilometres of hostile territory before they reached Switzerland.

Perhaps the most daring escape was carried out by a French cavalry officer who vaulted over the barbed wire using the cupped hands of a fellow Frenchman as a springboard. He then ran alongside the castle wall, dodging bullets until the guards were forced to reload their rifles,

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RLF - March