Patrick Bishop
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Thanks to the film The Great Escape becoming a Christmas TV staple Steve McQueen’s character “The Cooler King” has probably become one of the most famous movie figures from world war two. Most viewers are aware that the film is a fictionalised amalgam of several true stories. This excellent book tells the tale of William Ash, whose escapades and repeat escape attempts as a POW in Stalag Luft 3 and elsewhere earnt him an awful lot of time in solitary confinement.

The book is impressively researched, which is unsurprising given its authors record. What is a delight that, in what is essentially a work of non-fiction where we know the outcome, he manages to maintain tension and build excitement throughout. It is very well written.

The central character is William Ash who was born a Texan. Poverty and a dislike of fascism led him north to joining the Canadian Air Force (thereby losing his US citizenship). Thence he came to the UK, ended up in the RAF flying Spitfires until he was shot down over France in March 1942, which is when he reluctantly began his involuntary career as a POW. The book follows his experiences until the end to the war. As the book is not a biography other characters have more space than they would otherwise have which is a great benefit.

The author also succeeds in portraying the reality of incarceration, stripped of the glamour of Hollywood. He manages to convey the mind-numbing tedium of life in a cage and provides plenty of opportunities for thought and possible further enquiries. Why was it that 5% of POW actually sought to escape? Why did so many of them persist in spite of the obvious perils and the low probability of success? Why did the Germans incarcerate aircrew (who were disproportionately officer heavy and young) together?

There are some illuminating comments from those involved. Ash, who became a bit of a connoisseur of POW camps, was particularly struck by the difference between the differences between soldier POW camps, where the British organised themselves with representatives who were elected and the officer camps, which worked on seniority. Given the amount of time that he spent in solitary confinement he had plenty of time to reflect upon his various experiences of mankind. There is far more depth to this book than just the true story of The Great Escape, or indeed the life of the Cooler King.

The book is to be released in early September, a few months before yet another Christmas showing of the film. Anyone who watches the film would enjoy this book. My advice is for you to get them a copy. Read it yourself before you wrap it up.

5 out of 5.
First release
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4.00 star(s) 2 ratings

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