Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
Rhidian Brook (Viking: £14.99; e-book £8.99)
Based on the experience of his grandfather, who as a British officer in 1946 was provided with a requisitioned house in Germany, Brook has provided a fabulous narrative of the tensions that existed both within the beleaguered German population and their occupiers.
The book highlights the occupying forces’ strict policy of non-fraternisation, and the destruction of the German industrial estate in the western sectors, reflecting the Soviet policy of dismantling the factories and railways and moving them east. Colonel Lewis Morgan is joined by his wife Rachael and son Edmund, his wife traumatised and deeply equivocal towards the German population, given the death of her son in an air raid in England. She is contrasted by the avaricious and socially adept Mrs Burnham, whose husband is responsible for interrogations of Germans who seek their “Perseilschein” certificate that demonstrates they were non-Nazi and able to regain rights. Within the requisitioned house, the owner Lubbert and his daughter live on the upper floor, both believing Frau Lubbert died in the firestorm wrought by Operation Gomorrah, when in the last week of July 1944 Allied bombing led to 42,600 civilian dead and 37,000 wounded in destroying the city of Hamburg. Essentially the book is one of hope and reconciliation.
An Englishman in Madrid
Eduardo Mendoza (MacLehose Press: £16.99; e-book £8.22)
Anthony Whitelands is requested to travel to Madrid, ostensibly to evaluate the art collection of the Duke of La Igualada, and becomes acquainted with a previously unknown work of art by Velázquez. There then follows almost a comedy of errors as he encounters a number of women intent on securing his affection for a variety of conflicting reasons, becomes embroiled with the Duke's daughter (who holds a candle of the leader of the Falangists, José Antonio Primo de Rivera), and in so doing ends up being pursued by Russian spies and Spanish security forces, set against the background of Spain heading towards civil war. The narrative weaves from the deeply serious of the broiling tension in Madrid as the political plates shift, to the comic of a lovelorn, aficionado of Spanish art, lost amidst the turmoil. A satisfying read.
The Real Great Escape
Guy Walters (Bantam Press: £20; e-book £11.39)
Towards the end of this absorbing, well researched book, written with an easy style, Walters poses his essential question: “What did Bushell hope to gain by launching the Great Escape?” Walters' view is that by force of personality, charisma, even daring, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, “Big X”, was the mastermind behind the plan for up to 600 prisoners of war to tunnel out of the Luftwaffe-run camp at Sagan known as Stalag Luft III in March 1944.
Walters suggests a number of answers to his question, including Bushell’s belief that such a mass escape would tie up the Germans and impact on the war effort. Drawing on books written by prisoners of war (also known as Kriegies), post-war trials and the official RAF enquiry, Walters demonstrates the utter ingenuity and determination of those within the camp, who removed and concealed the sandy soil from three tunnels, including the means by which, in one two-hour period, over two tonnes was distributed while 12 Kriegies manufactured, amongst other items, six pairs of workman’s overalls, 12 German uniforms, 200 jackets, 200 pairs of trousers and 100 suits, together with over 350 documents in preparation for the breakout, as a result of which 76 escaped with three making a home run. The corruption of some camp guards, as well as the benign, almost compassionate, approach of the camp commandant towards the men, is a revelation.
Walters does not seek to undermine the story we all know from our watching the famous film, but he does provide a convincing argument that, despite everything that was done to seek to achieve a successful escape, it was in many ways almost doomed before it began, whether through the unforgiving weather, the necessarily inadequate clothing, the sheer geographical challenge of escaping from deep in Poland, and the ability of the German authorities to effectively find the men through an integrated system of agencies. While a myth that every POW had a duty to escape, it is beyond doubt that it took enormous courage, and the bravery of these men against such odds is clear, which makes the murder of 50 of their number all the more tragic. Essential reading.