After his first capture in North Africa in November 1941, Cram, a peacetime solicitor from Edinburgh, began a long odyssey through 12 different prisoner-of-war camps, three Gestapo prisons and one asylum. A serial escapee, he fled his captors no fewer than 21 times, including his final, and finally successful, escape from a POW column in April 1945.

Perhaps the most dramatic of his attempts was from Gavi, known as the "Italian Colditz", although it was said to be even more impregnable than the German one. This maximum-security prison in a 1000-year-old fortress near Genoa was for the "pericolosi", those inmates considered the most dangerous because of their perpetual hunger to escape.

It was here that Cram met David Stirling, the legendary founder of the Special Air Service (SAS) in 1941, and devised the plan for what would become the "Cistern Tunnel" escape, one of the most audacious but hitherto little-known mass escape attempts of the entire war.

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Lt. Alastair Cram

Guss recounts: "The cistern tunnel was one of the most daring and complex escapes of not only the Second World War but of any war. The escape was an extraordinary engineering feat. For nearly eight months the tunnellers descended into the cistern every day, swimming through freezing water, climbing up a rope to a small platform, cutting through 30 feet of solid rock, and coming out exactly where they planned, on top of the ridge pole of the Carabiniere's barracks. They then slid down ... and descended the ramparts on a rope tied to an ancient olive tree."

Cram's various plans and escape attempts brought him his fair share of punishment. He spent long periods in solitary, was threatened with execution and was beaten to within an inch of his life on at least two occasions. In later life, he never spoke in public nor wrote or published anything about his experiences, being very private and something of a stoic.

A self-confessed student of escape literature, Guss first read of Crams' exploits through the stories of other escapees. He recalls: "Cram was a legendary figure in the camps due to his many escapes. Known as 'The Baron', I had read of him in books such as George Millar's 'Horned Pigeon' and Jack Pringle's 'Colditz Last Stop', but he had no book of his own."

"I wanted to know more. It wasn't until I found his journals, however, that I decided to write a book. Alastair was one of the greatest escapers of all-time. Receiving his journals was not only an extraordinary gift, it also created an obligation to tell his story. "

"To do so was an act of love. It also represented a completion of sorts; not simply for Alastair, who, according to his wife Isobel, 'deserved credit for his deeds,' but for me as well, who after reading escape literature for more than 50 years, was finally given the opportunity to write about it with one of the best stories of all."

Cram would jump from speeding trains, slither through half-submerged tunnels and scale the walls of medieval castles. He spent hours studying and copying maps, and taught a course in German for escapers. He was awarded the Military Cross for his "outstanding persistency and ingenuity in repeatedly attempting to escape", and was dubbed the Harry Houdini of the Second World War.

Guss' book gives the remarkable man his due, telling the fascinating tale at a lively clip.


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