FLYING IN, WALKING OUT

STORIES OF WW2 prisoner of war escapes have a lot going for them: the tension of wondering if the escapees will get away with it; the interest of reading about the ingenuity with which German uniforms, maps, compasses and other escape equipment was manufactured from odds and ends around the camp; and the thrill of knowing that it really happened. All this makes for a good tale.

STORIES OF WW2 prisoner of war escapes have a lot going for them: the tension of wondering if the escapees will get away with it; the interest of reading about the ingenuity with which German uniforms, maps, compasses and other escape equipment was manufactured from odds and ends around the camp; and the thrill of knowing that it really happened. All this makes for a good tale.

Furthermore there is the advantage of two contrasting but equally interesting settings. First there is the stiff upper lip, Boy's Own Paper setting of the camps (not, one imagines, unlike the boarding schools recently attended by many of the camps' inmates). And then Nazi Germany, and occupied Europe if the escapers are lucky enough to get that far. Thrilling stuff!

Most books in the WW2 escape genre were published soon after the war. Authors are less constrained now. Writing in the late nineties, Edward Sniders can refer to the way sand got under the tunnellers' foreskins. He also describes wading through the space under the prisoners' latrine, 'turds brushing against my naked thighs and stomach like gentle little fish'. Such descriptions would have been edited out in the fifties.

The author writes in a straightforward way that is easy to read, and suits the pace of the exciting stories that he tells. He also has a more lyrical style that he uses sparingly, but to great effect. For instance, after parachuting from his burning Mosquito into the German night, he recalls that there was 'nothing to be seen, not even my arm, nor heard, but silence as I drifted down. Then a lovely thing happened, from one moment to the next the darkness was full of the smell of trees and grass, the sweet scent of the countryside at night where there had been none at all.' He also at one point mentions 'high plane trees, their harlequin bark bright in the sun'. I liked 'harlequin bark'.

There are two poems by the author in the book, one about his wife, written in the prison camp, the second, undated, describing a coastal sortie. When not trying to escape he passed the time in the camp writing an epic poem as a contribution towards the university degree he planned to obtain post war. (He got his degree.)

I particularly liked his detailed account of what it was like to spend time in solitary confinement, exactly the kind of human interest material that earlier, more gung ho war stories were inclined to leave out.

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Flying reminiscences take up perhaps a quarter of the book, and relate mainly to Bostons and Mosquitos. (There is a thrilling crash when one engine failed in a landing Boston.) Most of it, though, is about escaping from German pow camps, in particular, from the camp where the events later filmed as The Great Escape and The Trojan Horse occurred. The author, who was there but in a different part of the camp, was involved in these only peripherally; his escapes were, to use the parlance of the time, sideshows, but just as interesting from today’s perspective.

I warmly recommend this book to anyone who likes a good tale. In many ways it is better than the earlier classics of the genre. Edward Sniders tells his story particularly well. His longer perspective these events took place half a century ago has many advantages. Nick Bloom.