A fine tale of great and not-so-great escapes, along with the ordinary business of surviving confinement in Hitler’s stalags in the final months of WWII.
The German stalag—or POW camp—system was never quite the well-oiled machine of lore; staffed by third-tier officers and men largely unfit for other kinds of military service, it was so badly organized and run that hundreds of prisoners were able to escape, others to engage in acts of sabotage and counterintelligence. After the Russian front began to collapse, however, and camps were moved farther west, Hitler ordered sweeping changes—including the imposition of a command structure headed by the much-feared SS and stricter punishments for captured escapees. Thousands of Allied prisoners, most of them airmen, died during forced marches from the east in one of the coldest winters on record; thousands more died as a result of starvation or disease. Still, write Britons Nichol (himself a POW during the Gulf War) and Rennell (Last Days of Glory, 2001, etc.), prisoner morale remained high, dampened only by the failure of mail from home to arrive or the occasional news of labor strikes on the home front (“Prisoners were enraged by such news, and many were doubtful that the spirit of the American people was high enough to win the war”); a mark of this good cheer were the ceaseless efforts of prisoners to escape, many successfully, some spectacularly so. Nichol and Rennell offer a superb account of prison life, enriched by numerous first-person accounts, and point to some of the curiosities and ironies of camp life—among them efforts by the SS general in charge of the camp system to ingratiate himself to senior Allied officers, recognizing that the war was going against Germany, and the evil ways of the bean-counters back home, who deducted wages whenever a prisoner escaped, reckoning that only in confinement was a prisoner “entitled to one dollar for every day that he had been a captive of the enemy—to be paid as a lump sum when he got home.”
A welcome contribution, full of untold stories, to the literature of WWII.