Book Review: The Greatest Escape

Review by Geoff Simpson

The Greatest Escape

Martin Barratt

Review by Geoff Simpson

Pen & Sword Military 2023

ISBN 9781399075275

268 pp

This is an excellent, well written and moving book. Martin Barratt’s recounts the story of his father, Harry, a Halifax navigator with No 102 Squadron in Bomber Command.

We learn about Harry’s Black Country childhood, his training, crewing up, operations, shooting down and imprisonment. All intense and horrifying experiences, in war or otherwise, leave  marks on the person concerned and the author’s sympathetic account of the father he knew, shows that Harry Barratt was not an exception. For the umpteenth time I am left wondering how aircrew in Bomber Command kept going.

In many years of research, Martin Barratt also got to know the stories of other crew members and he creates pictures of the lives and personalities of Harry’s comrades.  

On the night of 4/5 May 1943 Halifax II JB869 DY-H took off from Pocklington bound for Dortmund. The aircraft bombed the target, turned for home and shortly afterwards was fatally hit. It has never been established whether the cause was flak or a night fighter. Besides Sergeant Barratt, Sergeant John Brownlie, the wireless operator and Sergeant Tommy Jones, the rear gunner, escaped by parachute and became PoWs. It is suggested that Flying Officer John Baxter, the bomb aimer, also left the Halifax but may have been killed under his chute when the aircraft exploded. Sergeant Gordon Bowles (flight engineer) and Sergeant Duncan McGregor (mid-upper gunner) were killed, as was the pilot, Sergeant Bernard Happold, last seen fighting to keep the aircraft airborne so that his crew could get out.

We are told that, “Like so many veterans the author’s father chose not to speak about his wartime experiences until quite late in his life and it was only after his death and the chance discovery of an archive of letters, logbooks, accounts and other material that the full story ……came to light.” 

The author has made impressive use of this trove which fell into his hands. If your interest is Bomber Command, the PoW experience, or the impact on ordinary men of the horrors of service as aircrew in the Command, then I commend his work.

Could any improvement be made? I did wonder about the amount of space devoted to the broader canvas, the activities of Churchill, Chamberlain, Hitler and so on. However, the reader is given a picture of the issues that men and women in the street were reading and talking about at the time. I  noticed a few errors but most of them were trivial. The book seems to have been very well proofed, not always the case these days. A different title might have better conveyed the flavour of the work.

Greatest Escape
Inside the Halifax - Harry Barratt's office
Greatest Escape
Route of the Death March

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