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“To succeed would defy every odd against them.” – The Grand Escape
The Grand Escape: The Greatest Prison Breakout of the 20th Century
by Neal Bascomb
At the height of World War I, brave Allied and German forces battled on land, air, and sea. During these battles, captured Allied soldiers and pilots were sent to the dangerous web of German prisons where they were neglected, beaten, and robbed. The most troublesome prisoners of war were sent to
Holzminden – an inescapable landlocked prison designed to break prisoners. The prisoners are in the middle of Germany, locked down by armed guards and barbed-wire fences. The camp’s ruthless commandant, Karl Niemeyer, enforces the camp’s cruel rules. Escape seems impossible for the rag-tag prisoners.
Faced with a Herculean task, a group of determined Allied soldiers and pilots defy the impossible, daring to escape the prison by building a tunnel right under Niemeyer’s nose. Scraping away mere inches of dirt every hour, the team tunneled through the prison’s foundation underneath guard towers, dogs, barbed wire fences, and into a nearby farm. As Niemeyer becomes suspicious of a possible escape, the team of escapees works tirelessly forging documents, smuggling in supplies, and bribing guards. The hardest challenge of escaping Holzminden was yet to come for the 29 men—making it back home undetected through war-torn Germany.
The Grand Escape will leave readers on the edge of their seats as they read the true story of how a team of Allied prisoners banded together to escape Germany and became an inspiration for their fellow countrymen during World War I’s darkest hours. Bascomb does an extraordinary job bringing the story to life. His vivid details, page-turning suspense, and well-developed research alongside photographs, maps, and diagrams of the tunnel and prison camp make the reader feel like they are actually in the tunnel escaping with the prisoners.
The suspense will keep readers turning the pages until the very end. However, the book discusses some of the atrocities of World War I, including the intense violence and hatred between the German and Allied soldiers. Some descriptions are graphic; therefore, the book is not for the faint of heart. This book is aimed at older readers who have some pre-existing knowledge about World War I and the development of modern aircraft. Nonetheless, The Grand Escape is a terrific nonfiction book that will teach readers to persevere through hard times.
- When Cecil Blain and Charles Griffiths are sent on a mission to find warehouses in Germany, they are shot at by German artillery. “A shell rocked one plane on the port side of their formation, but its pilot recovered. Another cut confetti-sized slits into the wings of Blain’s plane, and shrapnel pinged against his engine cowling.” Although no one is injured, Blain and Griffith’s plane sustains heavy damage and they are forced to land behind enemy lines where they are soon held as prisoners.
- On a bombing run, English pilot David Gray and his machine-gunner are ambushed by Böelcke. A “close-quarter rake of bullets from Böelcke ripped through Gray’s engine and shredded an aileron. Propeller stopped, balance control lost, the plane plummeted into a spin.” Gray and his gunner are both severely injured, with broken bones and lacerations covering their faces, but they manage to survive, crash landing behind enemy lines.
- Holzminden’s commandant, Karl Niemeyer, is easily angered and loves to both psychologically and physically torture his prisoners. In one instance, he “ordered a guard to fire at prisoners in the barracks building who were mocking the Germans during their morning drill marches.”
- Private Dick Cash was “ordered across no-man’s land in an early morning assault on the strategic German stronghold at Bullecourt. The Australians faced withering heavy machine-gun fire in their approach to the enemy lines. During the attack, Cash was shot in the chest. The bullet punctured his left lung, but he continued ahead. A series of mortars threw him first skyward, then sideways. Shrapnel pierced his back, and many of his teeth were knocked out before he landed in a shell hole, boots first.” However, Cash manages to “survive the maggot-infested squalor” and is sent to Holzminden after recovering in a German hospital.
- At another camp, Harold Medlicott and Joseph Walter were murdered, but the German guards lie to prisoners, saying they were shot on the run. The guards return to camp with two stretchers covered in dark sheets and “while several British officers distracted the guards watching over the bodies, another officer rushed up and threw aside the sheets. Medlicott’s and Walter’s bodies were riddled with over a dozen bullets and stabbed with several bayonet wounds.” The British officers realize that Medlicott and Walter were not shot while escaping, but brutally murdered by their captors.
- While escaping to Holland, a border guard sees Bennet and Campbell-Martin and starts to fire. “The crack of a rifle echoed behind as they charged headlong into Holland. The first shot and the next missed. They ran and ran until they splashed into the Dinkel River in free Holland.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- On their way to a new POW camp, the guards and prisoners stop at a train station restaurant and form a temporary truce where “the British bought every bottle of wine behind the bar, some of them a lovely pre-war vintage.”
- During a Christmas party at Holzminden, “Douglas Lyall Grant, of the London Scottish Regiment, supplied a cellar’s worth of bottles that he joked cost more than a night out at London’s swanky Carlton Hotel.”
- On the night of the escapes, “A religious man, Butler muttered a short prayer before pushing his kitbag into the tunnel and following it in.”
by Matthew Perkey