Edinburgh’s great escape artist of World War II

An image from the book  The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram.
An image from the book The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram.
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IN a period of four years, Lt Alastair Cram mounted 21 escapes from 12 POW Camps, three Gestapo prisons and one asylum before finally ensuring his freedom by liberating himself from a POW column in April 1945.

The amazing story of the Edinburgh solicitor who became a serial escapee has now been told in a new book, The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram, by American author David Guss.

David Guss

David Guss

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.”

A young Alastair Cram with his mother and father on the family holiday

A young Alastair Cram with his mother and father on the family holiday

That book, published this week by Macmillan, tells how Cram, who followed in his father’s footsteps by studying law at Edinburgh University before continuing his training as a solictor with Balfour and Manson, on Frederick Street - a firm that can be found there to this day - became one of World War II’s great unsung heroes.

“Alastair was one of the greatest escapers of all-time,” says Guss.

“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.”

Lieutenant Alistair Lorimer Cram

Lieutenant Alistair Lorimer Cram

That story started in North Africa when Cram was taken prisoner at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, part of Operation Crusader, waged to relieve Tobruk in November 1941.

No easy tale to piece together, the book is the result of 10 years research by Guss, who faced many “wonderful” surprises along the way.

Those included “the number of family members and other relatives of ex-prisoners, who were all anxious to have this story told and could not have been more generous and forthcoming in sharing their memories, journals, photos and other materials,” he says.

Another surprise was the fact that “the sites where the escapes occurred were almost all intact,” Guss continues, “Gavi, Padula, Capua, Castlevetrano, the Petschek Palace, and Mahrisch Trubau... where the caretakers of these prisons, castles and fortresses were only too happy to share their own stories.”

However, it was Cram’s determination to ‘do the right thing’ that really captured Guss’ imagination.

“He was an incredibly disciplined and resourceful person; introverted and reserved, yet expansive and spiritual, thriving alone in the natural world,” the writer reveals.

“At a certain level mountain climbing [his greatest love in life] and escape were part of the same inner quest for him.

“Utterly fearless, he was his own man in everything he did. ‘I have never been hampered by the orthodox,’ he wrote. ‘I usually try to do the right thing unhampered by convention’.”

That ethos was never more evident than in Cram’s most extreme escape plan - The Cisten Tunnel.

“The cistern tunnel was one of the most daring and complex escapes of not only the Second World War but of any war,” declares Guss.

“It took place in Gavi, the Italians’ high-security camp, which was located in a 1,000 year old fortress, commonly referred to as “the Italian Colditz,” although it was said to be even more impregnable.

“In fact, no one had ever escaped from it. The escape was an extraordinary engineering feat.

“For nearly eight months the tunnelers 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, crossed the mezzaluna and descended the ramparts on a rope tied to an ancient olive tree.”

It was while working on this escape that Cram met David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service (SAS), of which he himself would later become a member.

However, such plans and escape attempts didn’t come without punishment of which Cram certainly had his fair share.

“He definitely didn’t escape punishment,” agrees Guss.

“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, Cram never spoke in public nor wrote or published anything about his experiences.

“He was very private and something of a stoic,” says Guss.

“At the same time, his decision to join the War Crimes Group and track down and prosecute Nazi War criminals was certainly a result of his own suffering as a prisoner, and his implacable quest for justice.”

The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram: A compelling story of courage and endurance in the Second World War, by David Guss, is published in hardback by Macmillan, £18.99