Friday, September 21, 2018

ARC Review: The Grand Escape by Neal Bascomb

The Grand Escape: The Greatest Prison Breakout of the 20th Century
Author: Neal Bascomb
Publication: Arthur A. Levine Books (September 25, 2018)

Description: Neal Bascomb, author of The Nazi Hunters, returns with his next thrilling work of narrative nonfiction about a group of Allied POWs who staged an escape for the ages during World War I. Illustrated throughout with incredible photographs and published on the 100th anniversary of the Holzminden escape!At the height of World War I, as battles raged in the trenches and in the air, another struggle for survival was being waged in the most notorious POW camp in all of Germany: Holzminden. A land-locked Alcatraz of sorts, it was home to the most troublesome Allied prisoners--and the most talented at escape. The Grand Escape tells the remarkable tale of a band of pilots who pulled off an ingenious plan and made it out of enemy territory in the biggest breakout of WWI, inspiring their countrymen in the darkest hours of the war.

My Thoughts: THE GRAND ESCAPE details the people and events around a major prison break from Holzminden during World War I. It begins by giving the reader some background on the events that led up to World War I including the  building of professional armies and diplomatic efforts that were either non-existent or ineffectual. It introduces the Hague Conventions that were supposed to legislate the ethical and humane treatment of Prisoners of War.

The British entered the war with enthusiasm and with the confidence that the war would soon be over with the Allies victorious. The book talks about the origins of the Royal Flying Corps which began as a rich man's club since they could afford the planes. It talks about the dangers of using this new technology in war where flying speeds were about 75 MPH and the ceiling for these open cockpit vehicles was 10,000 feet.

After setting the scene, the book focuses on a few men who were mostly RFC pilots and spotters who crashed in German held territory and who were taken to various prisons. After numerous escape attempts, the most incorrigible found themselves at Holzminden which was commanded by Captain Karl Niemeyer who delighted in tormenting his prisoners in both great and small ways.

The book details the some of the prisoners' plans to dig a tunnel out of the prison and then make their way to Holland where they would be out of German-controlled territory. It details the difficulty of the endeavor as men dug in claustrophobic conditions with bad air and the constant fear of tunnel collapse or discovery by the Germans. And getting through the tunnel was only the start of the ordeal. The escapees had to travel through hostile territory with very limited supplies and the constant fear of discovery.

The book is profusely illustrated with photographs, maps, and other documents. There is an extensive bibliography, detailed chapter notes, and an extensive index (not provided in the Advanced Reader Copy I read.) I especially liked the Epilogue which followed up on a number of the men who managed to escape and make their way back to England and told how the lessons learned escaping from Holzminden helped POWs during World War II survive and escape.

Favorite Quote:
What kept them going? Many things. The shame, unwarranted though it was, of being shot down and captured. Imprisonment - in one camp after the next - months, years, stolen from their lives. Their separation from their squadrons and their families. The narrow escapes. The recaptures. Solitary confinement, sometimes pushed to the brink of madness and death. Holzminden. Its petty annoyances, its waiting, its drumbeat of theft and deprivation. The endless hours of tunneling, the terror of the dark, the fear of collapse and suffocating in the bowels of the earth. All the setbacks and the stubborn effort. And Niemeyer. His venomous harangues, his never-ending abuses. The thought of Niemeyer, of besting him, was reason enough to continue. Above all, they wanted to be free, to be masters of their own lives again, to simply take a walk where and when they pleased.
I received this one in exchange for an honest review from Scholastic. You can buy your copy here.

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