“A prisoner who has received a course of instruction should be alert from the moment of capture to seize every opportunity for escaping. He ought to have concealed on his person a map, compass, emergency food and have a water bottle.”
These words were written by Alastair Cram, a remarkable Scotsman who, as far as it is possible to know, holds the record for the most escapes ever made by a British prisoner of war.
I first came across Cram while reading about the experience of Bill Murray, who was interned with him in Oflag VIII F (Mahrisch Trubau) and Oflag 79 in Brunswick during the Second World War. In ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’, Murray had described Cram as being one of the toughest nuts to crack, a dedicated die-hard who believed that not only was it a soldier’s right to escape, but it was his duty. Something about him made me want to find out more.
Alastair Lorimer Cram (1909-1993)
“A good all-round man”
Alastair Cram first experienced the Scottish mountains at the tender age of four, when his parents took him on walking expeditions in the Cairngorms. As a teenager, he would camp with friends in the Rothiemurchus forest, exploring the remote and trackless parts of the Highlands and learning the skills of survival which would stand him in good stead in future years. He had climbed all the Munros – Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet – by the age of 28, and was invited to join the Everest team for 1939, but this expedition was cancelled with the outbreak of the Second World War. Instead, being a crack shot, Cram volunteered for the Royal Artillery, and was sent to Africa where he joined the Long Range Desert Group.
“Escape, he said, was easy. The difficulty came in staying out, especially at a border crossing.”
Captured at Sidi Rezegh, Alastair became a prisoner of war – but it seemed that nothing and no one could hold him in. He escaped from prison camp at least 23 times (the exact number varies according to the source), using his language skills and mountain training to cross unknown countryside by stealth, often in the dark. No matter how many times he was re-captured, he took his duty extremely seriously, and honed it almost into a science in itself: in the National Library of Scotland are some of his papers, typewritten and annotated in pencil, which he may have been intending to use as the basis of a book on how to escape from captivity.
“The most favourable opportunities for escape,” he writes, “occur within the first few hours of capture… Enemy front line troops can devote only part of their attention to prisoners.” Should this prove unsuccessful, “Feigned sickness may lead to transport. Sick men are less strictly guarded than fit…” It even seems as if Cram regarded an escape from the highest security prisons as the pinnacle of achievement, and he was fully aware that bare-faced bravado was often the surest ploy of all:
“The most amusing escapes are those which follow a route through the quarters of the enemy. These need a full recce of enemy movements but often very little physical preparation such as cutting bars or the removal of a few stones from a wall. Cheek and coolness may overcome even a meeting with a sleepy guard.”
Extract from Cram’s notes, National Library of Scotland
Bill Murray and Alastair Cram were both held at Moosburg prison camp for a time, before being moved to Brunswick. During the transfer, Murray recalls that “The train was so slow and halts so long that prisoners were thrice allowed out on to the line. One such chance of escape presented an irresistible temptation to Alistair Cram*. Before we had crossed the Czech frontier into Germany, he and Tommy Wedderburn contrived to get away unseen. In face of the known Gestapo threat, that was an act of boundless audacity. I never expected to see them again.”
*Throughout his book, Murray spells Cram’s first name ‘Alistair’ rather than ‘Alastair’. It seems that the second version is the correct one.
Murray was mistaken, however: Cram and Wedderburn were caught and returned to Brunswick a few weeks later. In the meantime, they had been taken to Dachau, a notoriously grim compound of unspeakable atrocity, which they were lucky to leave with their lives. The truth was that the Gestapo guards there had initially believed them to be British spies, and on finding that they weren’t, they had to obey orders and send them back to Brunswick. Murray described Cram as a broken man, in no condition for further prison life, and shortly afterwards he was moved into Brunswick’s mental hospital. But the hospital was hit in a bombing raid, and Cram – for the last time – made good his escape. He reached Allied lines, and was taken to safety. Was he really ill, or – as his advisory notes suggest – was he faking it? There’s no way of knowing, and I for one would not be surprised either way.
Alastair was persuaded to join the SAS by its founder, David Stirling, who was his friend and fellow escaper. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1945. After the war, he resumed his professional career as a lawyer and moved to Africa, where he rose to become a high court judge in Malawi. He married Isobel Nicholson in 1951, and after his retirement the couple returned to Scotland to live. Aged 79, Cram ascended Mount Ida, which, at 8,058 feet, is the highest mountain in Crete.
“A man of great integrity and courage… he was loved for his gentle humour and his courtesy.”
THE MAGIC OF ILLUSION
This really all began when I read on a friend’s blog about her visit to the Cumberland Pencil Factory, and in particular the museum there which has some very interesting wartime exhibits. Among these was a hollow pencil which concealed a small rolled-up map and a tiny compass in the top, beneath the rubber. Apparently this was one of the ingenious devices used by the British government to smuggle information into prisoner-of-war camps; and far from being a one-off flash of genius, it was just the tip of a very well organised iceberg. How clever, and how fascinating!
In 1939, as the western world prepared for war, the British government set up a new department called MI9, under the control of the War Office. Part of its remit was to facilitate the escape of British prisoners, and in particular “to collect and distribute information on escape and evasion, including research into, and the provision of, escape aids…” Into this hive of cerebral activity stepped an extraordinary man who could have been born for the task.
Christopher Clayton Hutton
MI9 was divided into five sections, known as D, W, X, Y and Z. Section Z focused on the design and production of escape tools, and at its head was a man called Christopher Clayton Hutton.
Hutton, known as ‘Clutty’ to his colleagues, was an eccentric genius.
“His fascination for show business, particularly magicians, was apparently regarded as sufficient qualification for the post he was given as the escape aids expert in MI9.”
‘Great Escapes’ by Barbara Bond
In his youth, Hutton had watched the escapologist Harry Houdini perform on stage, and he had become completely absorbed by the art of illusion. He had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, but in 1940 his formidable intelligence found a different outlet altogether. ‘Escape-mindedness’ was the attribute which MI9 sought to cultivate in the British armed forces, and there could be no better word to describe Hutton himself. He was soon applying his intellect to the design and production of all kinds of devices that could either be concealed in an officer’s uniform or smuggled into prison camps. Tiny compasses were hidden in the hollow heels of RAF flying boots or secreted inside jacket buttons; innocent-looking bars of soap contained maps, compasses and money.
By far the most brilliant deception – stunning in its simplicity – was the use of board games. After all, the prisoners needed entertainment, and by this time a few charities such as the Red Cross were successfully sending a steady supply of items to lessen the suffering and boredom of captive British soldiers. Of course, these were all subject to rigorous inspection; but once he knew that they were getting through, Hutton realised that he was ‘in’.
(How did he know they were getting through? Coded letters, of course… I’ll tell you more in a minute!)
Because MI9 did not wish to endanger the efforts of the Red Cross, they set up a number of bogus charities, one of which was ‘The Prisoners’ Leisure Hours Fund’. A letterhead of this apparently respectable institution, reproduced in Barbara Bond’s brilliant book, ‘Great Escapes’, shows that the chosen address was ’66 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, London’, which is quite appropriate in itself; and beneath the heading is the wise adage: “The treasures to be found in idle hours – only those who seek may find.”
Meanwhile, Christopher Clayton Hutton was busy making some important contacts. Among them was Ian Bartholomew of the famous Edinburgh map-making family, whom Hutton approached for permission to reproduce a series of small-scale maps of Europe. Bartholomew was a WWI veteran who had served at Ypres and been awarded the Military Cross; without hesitation, he allowed the use of his maps and waived the fee as a gesture towards the war effort. At the time, Ian Bartholomew kept the matter so secret that he mentioned it to no one, including his sons.
Hutton’s other important contact was Victor Watson of John Waddington Ltd, the makers of Monopoly and many other popular board games. This was Hutton’s master-stroke: he commissioned Waddington to print the maps on silk, because silk was far more durable and crease-resistant than paper, and then he asked them to design a game board that would conceal not only a map, but a compass and a small metal instrument such as a saw or a file. The items were fitted into die-cut holes in the board, and the printed paper was glued over the top. With a touch of genius, some French francs were included in the Monopoly money. Absolutely brilliant!
Of course, not all Monopoly sets carried these precious ‘get out of jail free’ aids. Hutton needed to find a way to distinguish the special sets so that the British servicemen would recognise them. He hit on just the thing: a coloured dot, made to look like a printing error, strategically placed on a particular square of the game board. He honed this still further, so that a dot on a certain square meant that the board contained a map of, say, Northern France, or Italy, or Germany. I’m not going to tell you the whole story! But if this intrigues you as much as it does me, I can wholeheartedly recommend that you treat yourself to a copy of ‘Great Escapes’, which is a fascinating read. And afterwards… I bet you’ll be looking at every vintage Monopoly set that you come across!
CODING AND CIPHERS
Using the best brains at its disposal, MI9 devised a system of encrypting letters which, on the face of it, appeared to be entirely innocuous messages to family and loved ones. Before being sent overseas, officers were hand-picked and taught how to use ciphers. They were also given a unique key which both they and the recipients had to know in order to work them out. Decoding an encrypted letter involved an intricate but logical process by which a grid of numbers and letters was set up – its number of rows and columns defined by the opening words of the letter – and then it was a matter of taking the first letter of certain words and translating them, via a number system, into different letters of the alphabet.
Coded letters could be immediately identified if the date was written in numbers, for example 14/5/42 instead of 14th May 1942; similarly, if the closing line contained the word ‘very’, or the sender’s name was underlined, as in ‘Your very loving John’, then the recipient knew that the letter was encrypted. Bill Murray had obviously been trained in the use of ciphers, and he had given his mother the key. In this way, he managed to get a much-needed delivery of army boots sent to the camp in Chieti:
“The Italians had taken our army boots away ‘for repair’. They did not come back. I made a brief report by code in a letter home. My mother took the letter straight to the Glasgow branch of the Red Cross. They instantly informed the War Office, who released a cargo of 2000 boots to the Red Cross – speedily delivered to Chieti.”
‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’
Murray was also quite creative in his messages to friends who had been climbing with him in Glen Coe. For them, no coding was necessary. To Archie MacAlpine in September 1942, he wrote:
“Many thanks for sending invalid parcel. Food is as plentiful as on Garrick’s Shelf.”
Few people other than MacAlpine would have grasped the meaning of this: Garrick’s Shelf is a particularly challenging section of the Crowberry Ridge on the Buachaille Etive Mor, a vertical climb on bare rock. It is a miracle that any of these men survived at all.
Although Murray could not have known about all the cloak-and-dagger stuff that was going on back in London, something of the spirit seems to have percolated through to his prison camp. He wrote:
“By the close of 1942, the British had shed their peace time lethargy. I began to think that this war might yet be won.”
While MI9 could supply the equipment and the information, the will to be free had to come from the men themselves. I am sure that both Cram and Murray would agree with the sentiments of Airey Neave, who famously escaped from Oflag IV-C, otherwise known as Colditz, at the third attempt:
“The real escaper is more than a man equipped with compass, maps, papers, disguise and a plan. He has an inner confidence, a serenity of spirit which makes him a Pilgrim.” ‘Great Escapes‘ by Barbara Bond
The RSGS has a number of ‘secret’ wartime maps in its collection. They are printed on rayon, a man-made silk substitute which was used when silk was hard to come by. There is a nice link here because Ian Bartholomew’s father, John George Bartholomew, was one of the founders of the RSGS. Both sides are printed, and you can see why there were sometimes problems with ‘show-through’ in the first maps that were made.
The man responsible for designing the ingenious Cumberland pencil was Charles Fraser-Smith of MI6. He was a bit of an inventor himself, and he called his ideas ‘Q gadgets’ after the Q-ships, heavily armed vessels disguised as merchant ships which were deployed to engage enemy submarines during both world wars. Ian Fleming, who later penned the series of James Bond novels, worked on a number of projects with Fraser-Smith and no doubt his naming of ‘Q’, the long-suffering gadget designer, was inspired by him. A boxed replica of the pencil, complete with map and compass, is available from Derwent.
‘Great Escapes – The Story of MI9’s Second World War Escape and Evasion Maps’ by Barbara Bond
This new hardback book offers a fascinating and detailed insight into the production of secret wartime maps by MI9. Over 30 years ago, Barbara Bond was a map researcher in the Ministry of Defence, tasked with identifying and recording all of MI9‘s escape and evasion maps. This ignited a passionate interest, and ‘Great Escapes’ is the culmination of her research. Not only does it contain colour photos of many of the maps themselves (and a comprehensive list of them in an appendix), but it gives a detailed history of MI9 and the characters that helped to forge its reputation. It also tells the stories of several escapees and explains how they managed to reach safety; it describes the process by which a cipher is set up and used to code – and decode – a letter; and it reveals the innocent-looking items that were designed to assist an escape (the Monopoly set is just one of many!) There’s such a wealth of information here, but it’s well structured and meticulously presented. You can see that this was a labour of love, and the writing is both authoritative and very readable.
Sources and more info:
- ‘Great Escapes’ by Barbara Bond
- ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’ by W H Murray
- Quotes by Alastair Cram, including opening quote, from papers in The National Library of Scotland
- Cumberland Pencil Museum
- The National Ex-Prisoner of War Association
There are no freely available photos of Alastair Cram (I can find no photos at all, in fact.) If you knew him, or have any information about him that you wouldn’t mind sharing, I’d be delighted to hear from you.
Photos of maps and other items in the collection of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society © Jo Woolf and RSGS. Other photos via Wikimedia.
Find out more about Bill Murray in this post on Explorers of the RSGS.
Postscript, 6th August 2018:
David M Guss had written a new book, ‘The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram’, which traces the extraordinary wartime escapes of the ‘Harry Houdini’ of the Second World War. Using previously unpublished journals, it gives a new and unique insight into this remarkable man’s bravery, his formidable intellect and self-discipline, and his unquenchable belief that it was his duty to escape, regardless of the odds. Highly recommended!
Published by Macmillan, RRP £18.99