29 October 2018

Escape: The Best Sport Ever - Frank Gatland DFM

Read wartime books for long enough and you’ll invariably get stuck into a prisoner of war story. The bread and butter of these are titles like The Wooden Horse, Reach for the Sky and, of course, The Great Escape. Scratch the surface and the Colditz series and a plethora of aircrew tales can be found. Aircrew prisoners certainly seem to have been the most prolific of authors. Escapers were, relatively speaking, a small percentage of the men incarcerated. Many helped behind the scenes and even more were content to make the best of their situation and improve their lot through education and other worthwhile pursuits. Frank Gatland was one of the keen escapers and he had the benefit of, initially, and while it was of use to his plans, being a non-commissioned officer. Escape stands tall in this class as the tale of an irrepressible man who liked a challenge.

Having learnt to fly in New Zealand, Gatland sails for the UK and after time on Oxfords doing the usual navigation and blind approach training, as well as marking time ‘building Scotland’, he is sent to a conversion unit in late July 1942. Stirlings are on offer and he joins No. 214 Squadron in early September. Awarded the DFM in mid-October for a low-level attack on Genoa, getting the job done, he and his crew are shot down just over a month later. Captured after being on the run for a little over a week, Gatland spends some time in Fresnes Prison in Paris before finally being deposited in Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, Poland. 

His initial evasion is an immediate indication of his initiative, naïve as it is at the time, and it is not long before he begins to switch identities with Army personnel so as to get out on work parties, away from the camp, and wait to pick the right time to escape. The initial attempt in February 1943 fails due to, more than anything else, poor preparation. However, during this time, Gatland is particularly observant of their errors, lack of planning and, importantly, the time of year, as they spent much of their time trudging through snow. This shows an analytical mind, one that is finely tuned to being on the run and surviving. A later working party, based at a wood-chipping mill, has Gatland and his mates away from the camp for seven months. During that time they befriend the local Poles, perform some intelligence work and basically have a free rein while benefitting from the foundations of cooperation built by the previous working party. It’s all very elaborate and seemingly implausible, but there is little doubt they were that brazen. Gatland’s eventual escape fails at the last step.

Several other escapes follow, with requisite periods in solitary confinement upon recapture, until he is moved to Stalag Luft III in mid-September 1944, having been an officer for some time, but assuming the identity of a NCO for escape purposes. In January 1945, as expected, The Long March begins and the column eventually ends up in Lubeck where the prisoners are finally liberated by advancing Allied forces and repatriated. Frank returned to New Zealand, his English bride following shortly after, and raised a family while continuing to put his best foot forward in business and pleasure.

Irrepressible. That’s one way of looking at the character of Frank Gatland as presented in this book. It’s not that he couldn’t sit still. Indeed, he relished his time in solitary as it was, quite literally, time to himself, his own space, and there would be a Red Cross box waiting upon his release. It was his positive attitude, always looking ahead, despite the known risks, that kept him going. Of course, he spent a lot of time out of camp, either as part of a working party or on the run. No chance of going wire happy here. Camp life, as detailed in many memoirs and biographies before, and currently being thoroughly examined by far more scholarly types than me, was a completely different life to what Frank led while he was a prisoner. He did spend periods living as such, but there is relatively little of that detailed. Much like his time on ops, it’s the highlights of his incarceration that are remembered at length. Fair enough too. Days and weeks and months of camp routine would be hard to differentiate and place in some sort of timeline. It’s the escapes, the time outside the camp, when Frank was at his best and these long-burning highlights of his POW time would be infinitely easier to remember and record. 

They’re also the most interesting, particularly the time spent at the wood-chipping mill. Besides assisting a regimental sergeant major, who was neck deep in intelligence gathering, Frank was heavily involved in cloak and dagger work with the local Underground movement. The weird thing is that everything, including his planned eventual escape, seemed to be common knowledge. The few Germans around mostly turned a blind eye once plied with enough contraband. Whether it was Frank’s personality or that most people, despite their circumstances, are somewhat decent (I suspect a bit of both), a long list of ‘good guys’ who happened to be batting for the other side is accumulated. Throughout his adventures, Frank is mostly treated fairly by the ‘enemy personnel’ he encounters and some go out of their way to help despite holding him captive. For the most part, it’s remarkably civilised and lends some weight to the tagline of the book: The Best Sport Ever!

It would be wrong to assume this is a light and bouncy read, however. There is no doubting there is a war on, of course, it’s just that Frank doesn’t dwell on the obvious risks and threats. It’s another angle to the ‘press on’ attitude, but it’s not ‘we’ve got one engine out, let’s continue on’, it’s ‘I will survive if I look after me first’. This extends to The Long March, perhaps the epitome of the prisoner’s lot to survive. Frank, better conditioned than most due to his escape activities and better organised to an extent, still contributes heartily to the combine he is a part of, sharing the burden and foraging and bartering for food, but takes any opportunity to enjoy ‘normal’ human interaction with the locals encountered on the way. While there is little doubt he would have recalled those hectic and dangerous times during his post-war life, he must have known that, through personality, cunning and attitude, he certainly had a better run at it.

This remarkable story, at a little under 200 pages, does not take long to get through. The main reason is that the style Frank employed over the years it took him to record his experiences skips along, beckoning the reader to keep up, but, interestingly, there is a fair whack of heavier material. It is all told matter-of-factly and, like the familiar coping mechanism, once told, the narrative moves on. In doing so, it is very clear that Frank’s story is not all about him. He follows up on his crew, those that survived, and he ensures fellow escapers and other fine men and women emerge from the shadows of history. No more is this evident than in the appendices. While there is sadly no index, the appendices detail the fates of those Frank served with either in training, on ops or in the camps. He shines a light on RNZAF aircrew who were honoured for their escape attempts (Frank received a MiD for his work). Indeed, several, including fellow authors Woodroofe and Croall (GeTaWay and “You! Croall!” respectively), pop up from time to time in the main narrative.

While the book does not launch itself with abandon, rather a series of somewhat tedious diary entries reflecting the slow boat to the UK, it is one to savour (if you get the chance to take a breath). Self-published, the photos are the only let down of the entire package. Some are clearly low resolution downloads from the internet. A bit more work on this front and better scanning, if possible, of some of Frank’s own collection, will lift future editions (and there will be further printings) to the summit of self-published memoirs. 

Like Frank, this is a book that is always moving forward and always positive. We know this genre of books can be unpleasant and even uncomfortable, but the human spirit, more often than not, gets the subject through, for better or worse. Escape is the perfect example of the strength of this spirit.

ISBN 978-0-473-4043308