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The Great Escape.

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill. W. W. Norton & Co. (, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110, 2004, 304 pages, $13.95 (softcover).

Fifty-five years after its initial publication, Paul Brickhill's personal account of the mass breakout from the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1944 retains its appeal, both as a gripping narrative of Allied air officers' daring and as a chilling reminder of the Nazi regime's brutality. Most students of World War II, however, are more familiar with the classic 1963 film of the same name, which features Steve McQueen at the head of an ensemble cast that includes James Garner, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. Given the freshness and directness of Brickhill's prose, the book deserves a wide audience among new generations of readers.

The Nazis built Stalag Luft III outside of Sagan in eastern Germany (now Zagan, Poland) to detain officers of the Royal Air Force and other Allied air forces. The Germans hoped that the remote camp would better hold serial escapees such as the book's leading character, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, whom the camp's denizens called "Big X" for his role as the leader of the mass-escape effort. Under Bushell's direction, dozens of American, British, Polish, and Commonwealth sappers tunneled out from their prison barracks toward the Silesian woods beyond the camp fences. The conspirators' methods, especially in concealing the trapdoors that led down to their tunnels, involved many feats of ingenuity. Once construction of the tunnels was under way, Bushell and his subordinates faced the larger problem of disposing of the tons of sandy yellow subsoil they had excavated. Meanwhile, other teams fabricated disguises and false travel documents. Brickhill, himself a Stalag Luft III inmate and participant in the effort, provides many engrossing details about the planning, organizational discipline, physical bravery, and intense labor of the Allied tunnelers, forgers, tailors, and lookouts. The book's detailed diagrams, maps, and photos heighten the reader's understanding of the complex engineering-and-intelligence organization that supported the breakout.

During their years in the camp, the Allied air officers faced many setbacks, some of them logistical (e.g., tunnels collapsing) and others at the hands of camp guards and "ferrets," individuals charged with foiling attempts to escape. In Brickhill's telling, the prisoners come across not as supermen but as committed fighters governed both by their emotions and by thorough dedication to boosting Allied war aims from deep within the heart of the Third Reich.

POWs have a duty to try to escape. When the big breakout finally came, the Allied prisoners made the most they could of that duty. The Reich reacted brutally and illegally. The most somber part of The Great Escape is the "Aftermath" chapter, in which Brickhill describes postwar efforts of Allied investigators and prosecutors to find and punish murderers among the German soldiers who hunted down Stalag Luft III escapees. The chapter serves as a chilling reminder of the Nazi regime's contempt for the humanity of its victims. Not even Hermann Goring's longstanding solicitude for his fellow pilots could spare the escapees from Hitler's personal wrath. The Great Escape, although carefully researched and written, does not presume to be a substantial work of scholarship. Yet it stands as a durable marker of the depths to which the Third Reich had sunk in its quest for domination.

T. E. Walker Jr.

University of Texas-Austin
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Author:Walker, T.E., Jr.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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