I take great pleasure in reading, everything from philosophy to fiction. When I was a boy, World War II was where heroes were made, and I developed an interest in history of that period.
On the excellent podcast "Morning Meeting" from Air Mail, I heard a recommendation for a book on the infamous Prisoner of War camp, Colditz Castle.(Colditz by Ben MacIntyre). Sign me up, I thought.
First, a word on Airmail. It's a website/newsletter out of New York that I picked up from Stephen Fry. Some excellent writing there. I subscribe.
Anyway, back to the book. It's a well-researched, even-handed look at life in the camp. Most of my generation know the "Boys Own" version of Colditz, where stiff upper lip Tommies outfoxed heartless dopey German guards. I loved the board game. This book is not afraid to puncture some of that bluster, giving a more sanguine appraisal of the prison and its inmates.
First, I learned that Douglas Bader, the famed double amputee fighter ace was indeed an inspirational man. He was also a horrible fellow. I mentioned this to a friend with whom I golf.
"Oh yes. My mother-in-law knew him and described him as "challenging", which is about scathing as that generation were prepared to be."
I'm not sure which shocked me more, that the hero of "Reach for the Sky" was in fact a flawed human being or that I regularly play golf with a man whose mother-in-law knew him.
"Huh." I thought.
I laughed like a drain at the story of Pierre Marie Jean-Baptiste Mairesse-Lebrun, French cavalry officer, Olympian and polo player. During exercise, he got a boost from a compatriot and vaulted the wire, stole a bicycle and headed for Switzerland. Challenged by a German soldier, he belted him with his bicycle pump and sauntered through the woods to safety. Back in his cell, the Germans found his suitcase with a note attached.
"I would be grateful if you would arrange for my personal possessions to be sent to the following address..."
That, my friends, is style.
Guess what? The Germans complied with the request. Fantastic.
The book mentions a prisoner called Micky Burn. He sounded quite a hoot. Casually, notes were dropped in. A well to-do Englishman he'd admired Hitler and met him before the war, retaining a signed copy of Mein Kampf. After a stay in Barnsley with a mining family, he'd turned away from Fascism to fervent Marxism. War declared, he became a commando, and was captured during a daring raid on St Nazaire. Some guy, huh? He was bisexual (not easy at that time) and went on after the war to grow mussels in North Wales. He counted Guy Burgess among his lovers. In between times, he wrote poetry, a play or two and was a journalist for the Times in Austria and the Balkans.
I have to say, I was smitten. I vowed to find out more about this guy.
Then, at the end of the Colditz book came this...
"In October 1945, Micky Burn received a letter from his one-time lover, Ella van Heemstra. Her family had suffered grievously under Nazi occupation and Ella’s daughter Audrey, who had dreams of becoming a dancer, was suffering from jaundice, anaemia and an infection caused by malnutrition. Ella asked Burn if he could help her obtain penicillin, a wonder drug that might save Audrey’s life. Burn sent thousands of cigarettes, which Van Heemstra sold on the black market and bought the medicine. The girl recovered and went on to become an actress: she is better known as Audrey Hepburn."
That's making a dent on the universe. Fortunately, someone had the good sense to make a documentary about him.