Other daring prisoner-of-war escapes have been famously documented in books such as "The Great Escape", "The Wooden Horse", "Horned Pigeon: The Great Escape Story of World War II" and "The Colditz Story". The Budapest Times’ book section featured "The Cooler King. The True Story of William Ash: Spitfire Pilot, P.O.W. and WW II’s Greatest Escaper", published in 2015. But Cram was an intensely private man, reserved and modest, who barely spoke about his experiences to family and friends, let alone made them wider known through interviews or publications.

What he did do was detail his various wartime exploits in a collection of journals, and these were retained by his widow Isobel after his death in 1994. David Guss, an American, had been devouring escape literature since his age 12, but found that when it came to books, Cram was missing in action. He tracked down Mrs Cram in Edinburgh in 2006 and she told him he was welcome to see the journals, but warned him that they were nigh impossible to read.

Guss visited Isobel Cram at her home in the Scottish city where her late husband had been a solicitor, and over the next nine years they talked about Cram’s life and studied the journals. "Alastair was a modest man," Mrs Cram wrote to Guss. "But he does deserve credit for his deeds and it is reassuring to know he will receive it." Unfortunately, she died in January 2016, aged 96, and thus never saw Guss’ book, published in 2018.

When Guss examined Cram’s papers more than 60 years after the war ended, some pages were missing, some torn and others misfiled. Cram had written them in pencil with little punctuation and words often running into one another. They were the work of a man possessed with the need to get it all down. Guss found them all nearly illegible, and even with the help of an amateur cryptologist, took several years to decipher them. Finally, Cram’s astonishing story was revealed.

His 21 escapes or attempted escapes were more than any other prisoner of war. Captured in North Africa in December 1941 when the German Afrika Corps overran the Allies in a big tank battle, Lt. Cram of the Royal Artillery was handed over to the Italians. Before he had even embarked at the Libyan port of Benghazi for the Mediterranean voyage to Italy, he had already made two escape attempts.

At 32, Cram was somewhat older than most of his captured comrades, and with a law practice back in Edinburgh he might have been mistaken for a sedentary professional. Nothing was further from the truth for the avid mountaineer and distance runner who had performed a demanding exercise regime daily since childhood.

Cram was in perfect physical condition to crawl under barbed wire, squirm through tunnels and windows, scale walls and fences, jump from moving trains and descend ropes. He had hoped to join an attempt on the unconquered Mount Everest in 1939 but that dream vanished, like so many others, with the advent of war. His survival skills allowed him to live in the wild while cold, half-starved and perhaps injured, on the run from his pursuers.

Some POWs were content to sit out the war in the camps. "Why escape?" he was frequently asked. "It’s very dangerous. Stay here, eat, drink, sleep. After the war you’ll return to your home. You’ll see your mother, you’ll have a beautiful girl. If you die, it will all be over." As one prisoner observed, it was an irony that the camps, in a way, provided unprecedented freedom: unlike at home, there were no obligations, no decisions, no financial responsibilities, no job.

However, the camps could be cold, damp and crowded, with the inmates hungry and bored, with no amenities such as a library, theatre or playing field. So for others it was a duty to escape and get home to Britain to rejoin the war effort.

Cram was aware of the damaging physical and psychological effects of being imprisoned. He wrote of the peril: "Hopes, dreams, ambitions crumbling to bitter dust turned inward, remorseless. Humiliations and physical hardships were but small inconsequential things before the true spectre of physical decay, mental ruin and moral collapse. Those who did not succumb even temporarily were fired by a wild urge to regain all, by the one means left – escape."

Obsessed with a burning desire to do just that, he spent hours copying and studying maps, teaching a course in German for escapers and pumping guards for as much local information as possible. When caught and punished with solitary confinement for 30 days, it gave plenty of time to think out the next attempt.

After injuring his knee during one escape, Cram convinced the doctors he needed pills to sleep. He accumulated them and drugged the drinks of his two guards, who nodded off. He was just about to flee when a change of guard appeared and he was knocked to the ground with a rifle butt.

On one escape in Sicily, "By now he had been walking for over a week, with each day bringing him closer to that magical zone he would inhabit so often while on the run – the exhilaration of freedom, the threat of danger, the electrified senses of the fugitive, the unfiltered smells and sounds experienced when alone in nature, even the delirium caused by lack of food and sleep combined with physical exertion."

He took on many disguises, jumped from trains, cut through barbed wire, scaled fortifications, crawled through tunnels — which he hated — and, in an attempt to be repatriated, feigned illness. Some of his escapes were curtailed after just a few hours, others after several weeks.

Cram endured a long odyssey through 12 prisoner-of-war camps, three Gestapo prisons and one asylum. He finally escaped from a POW column in April 1945, reaching the safety of the Allied lines just weeks before the German surrender.

Lt Alastair Cram we offer you a belated salute, and to David M. Guss also for his determined efforts to bring us the exciting but previously untold tale of this singular man and his particular brand of derring-do and "great escapes".


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