In his latest work, Bascomb (Hunting Eichmann) recounts the dramatic escape of British POWs from a German prison camp during World War I. The story bears similarities to the mass breakout of World War II POWs commemorated by the 1963 film The Great Escape. The Holzminden POW camp was established to manage escape-prone prisoners; escapees tunneled their way out of the compound before a harrowing journey to safety. Most of them were pilots, and Bascomb attributes their daring exploits to the daredevil nature of the airmen. He eschews a linear narrative to tell how the men ended up in Holzminden, sometimes making the story hard to follow. The text also often gets bogged down in minutia, with the author describing clothing or the contents of breakfast before transitioning to overly dramatic verbiage. In addition, there's often a lack of wider context; for example, it's not until nearly the last chapter that we learn that out of nearly 200,000 POWs only 573 escaped during the war. VERDICT Still, this detailed account will appeal to readers of military and adventure history.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
Bascomb (Hunting Eichmann) unfurls a cracking good adventure in this upbeat retelling of the largest Allied prison break of WWI. By way of introduction, he recounts the backgrounds and the captures—in no-man’s-land between the trenches, at sea, and crashing behind enemy lines—of some of the major characters in the drama, such as pilots David Gray, Cecil Blain, and Caspar Kennard and poetry-minded lieutenant Will Harvey. In 1918 they all ended up at Holzminden, a German POW camp so notorious for punitive brutality that inmates referred to it as Hellminden. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, 29 men tunneled out of the camp on July 23 and 24, 1918, and made their way covertly over 150 miles toward Holland; 10 succeeded, while the others were recaptured. But the relatively posh conditions in which officers were kept, the raffish élan of the breakouts, and Bascomb’s focus on the escapees’ cheer and determination soften the horrors of the Western Front’s savage industrialized slaughter; it’s not until a third of the way through the narrative that the mortal consequences of trying to escape become clear. Bascomb draws on unpublished memoirs, official histories, and family papers to spin this action-packed, briskly paced tale. Agent: Eric Lupfer, Fletcher & Co. (Sept.)
Bascomb has unearthed a remarkable piece of hidden history, and told it perfectly.The story brims with adventure, suspense, daring, and heroism.” —David Grann, New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon “Through careful research and unusual insight, Bascomb takes his readers inside not just the terrors of an infamous World War I POW camp but the minds of the men who were determined to think their way out of it. It’s riveting reading, but more than that, it’s inspiring.” —Candice Millard, author of Hero of the Empire “From a master of narrative non-fiction, the amazing and utterly gripping story of the greatest prison escape of the First World War. A ripping yarn—timely and beautifully told.” —Alex Kershaw, author of The Longest Winter and The Bedford Boys “A rousing story of resilience and courage . . . Just when you think there are no more terrific war stories that have gone untold, along comes The Escape Artists. Bascomb has achieved that rare combination of impeccable research and a page-turning narrative.” —Tom Clavin, author of Dodge City, Halsey's Typhoon, and The Last Stand of Fox Company (with Bob Drury) “Thrilling, jaw-on-the-floor stuff. . . ‘The Great Escape’ of WWII remains the best-known POW breakout, but Bascomb brilliantly brings its forgotten forerunner into the light with this fantastic, true-life tale of the prisoners who outwitted their cruel captors at Holzminden, the toughest German camp of them all . . . thanks to Bascomb’s intrepid detective work, maybe we should start calling it the Greater Escape.” —Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies and Men of War “Don’t wait for the movie. You’ll feel like you're in one by the second page . . . In the midst of history’s cruelest war, a band of Allied POWs brilliantly combined their unique talents, wit, and boundless grit to pull off the greatest breakout of the Great War. Equal parts Downton Abbey, The Great Escape, and The Shawshank Redemption—The Escape Artists is an inspiring tale of humanity’s best defeating its worst.” —John U. Bacon, author of The Great Halifax Explosion “Paul Brickhill’s The Great Escape (1950) is widely considered the best nonfiction book about escapes from wartime prison camps.This gripping new volume gives Brickhill’s classic a run for its money . . . Based on extensive research, including documents written by the escapees themselves, the book is intensely detailed and written with a prose style that puts readers right there in the camp with the prisoners: when the prisoners hold their breath, terrified of being discovered in a secret activity, the reader will hold his or her breath, too. In the ever-expanding genre of prison-escape sagas, this one joins the top ranks.” —Booklist “Fast-paced account of a forgotten episode of World War I history . . . Stirring . . . Bascomb's portraits of the principals are affecting . . . Expertly narrated, with just the right level of detail and drama.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “Bascomb (Hunting Eichmann) unfurls a cracking good adventure in this —
Fast-paced account of a forgotten episode of World War I history.
Say what you will about the Jerries: They knew how to mount a flying circus—and how to shoot down brave Britons in the skies over France. One of those brought abruptly to ground was a 19-year-old named Colin Blain, one of the heroes of Bascomb's (The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb, 2016, etc.) stirring tale. Determined to get back to his own lines and pick up the war where he had left off, Blain was eventually dispatched to a camp called Holzminden, a nasty bit of maximum security work designed for British officers who had a penchant for legging it when the guards weren't looking. Holzminden was headed by a foul-tempered commandant named Karl Niemeyer, who greeted his new charges with a ration of acorn coffee and the promise that any attempt to escape would be severely punished. Naturally, Blain tried—and with him a company of like-minded prisoners. "Shorty Colquhoun, all six and a half feet of him, wanted to dig a tunnel," writes Bascomb. So the men of Holzminden did, with the engineering mastermind behind the plan taking advantage of unforeseen weaknesses in the prison's infrastructure. "They wanted to keep their cabal small, twelve officers at most, to ensure the tunnel stayed secret as well as to limit the number of individuals going in and out of the building," writes Bascomb, but in the end 29 prisoners escaped, 10 of them traveling the 150 miles to the border of neutral Holland and returning to Britain against all the odds (and Bascomb reckons that of the 10,000 attempted British escapes from prison camps during World War I, less than 6 percent succeeded). Bascomb's portraits of the principals are affecting, Niemeyer among them—and though he became unhinged following the escape, the commandant was sound enough of mind to slip away at war's end to avoid being tried as a war criminal, another great escape in itself.
Expertly narrated, with just the right level of detail and drama.