Excerpt from Zero Night by Mark Felton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Zero Night

The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape

by Mark Felton

Zero Night by Mark Felton X
Zero Night by Mark Felton
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  • Published:
    Aug 2015, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
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Prologue

A shilling coin jangled insistently inside an empty tin can, followed by someone whispering 'Get out, Doug!' in an urgent hiss. Muttering a stream of oaths under his breath, Doug Crawford quickly reversed out of the narrow tunnel, its wet clay walls lit by a single guttering carbide lamp near the tunnel face.

'Doug, hurry up, the Jerries are on their way!' hissed Captain David Fielding, sitting on the wooden floor of the deserted 'silence hut' next to the camp library. The tunnel was almost finished and Crawford had been working on the vertical shaft below the exit hole when the alarm was given. Somehow, the Germans had found out about the tunnel and were racing towards them across the huge camp, hoping to capture the diggers and their escape hole.

Several other members of the digging team crouched by the tunnel entrance, their faces masks of apprehension. By the window one man was 'stooging', acting as a lookout. Beyond the hut several other stooges kept watch for Germans, using prearranged signals. 'They're coming', hissed the stooge by the window. 'Maybe three minutes!' Fielding frantically pulled the long piece of string attached to the rudimentary tin can alarm, his heart racing and his guts in nervous tumult. He yelled down the dark shaft: 'I'm sorry Doug, it's every man for himself!' Seconds later the digging team dispersed into the compound, striding off in different directions to confuse the Germans.

Emerging from the tunnel entrance into the room like a mole coming up for air, Captain Crawford presented a dreadful sight. Dressed incongruously in long white underpants tucked into long socks, a balaclava helmet and a long-sleeved woolen singlet, he was covered in mud from head to toe. But there would be no time to clean up – he had to get out of the hut and back to his accommodation before the German guards arrived, or face a lengthy spell in solitary confinement for his trouble.

A great pile of wet dirt lay on the hut floor, feverishly excavated with homemade tools, tin cups and bare hands. They had been doing what the prisoners called a 'blitz' – a fast breakout limited to a small handful of escapers.

Alexander 'Doug' Crawford of the Royal Australian Artillery caused quite a stir as he and Fielding attempted to stroll nonchalantly through Oflag VI-B after the rest of the diggers had scattered from the silence hut. He looked like he was on his way home from a long day at the coalface, and expected instant arrest. Two Germans came running towards him, and to his horror he saw that one of them was Hauptmann Rademacher, the camp security officer, with a shorter private puffing along behind him, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Crawford tensed, expecting to be staring down the barrel of a Luger in the next few seconds. But, incredibly, the Germans just jogged past on their way to the hut containing the tunnel, not even glancing at the Australian. The prisoners often joked that their captors were single-minded in the extreme, and Crawford's lucky escape seemed to confirm this view. Not keen to push his luck any further, Crawford ducked into the nearest accommodation hut to try to make himself more presentable before slipping back to his own billet.

It was the second 'blitz' tunnel that Crawford, Fielding and their small team had lost to the Germans in the past few weeks. Their first effort had almost reached the perimeter fence. 'The air in the thing was foul', recalled Crawford. 'It was twenty inches base, twenty inches upright, and oval in shape, because we were digging in clay.' When the Germans discovered Crawford's first tunnel 'they filled it in, from the edge of the building out to the wire'. The second effort was an attempt to quickly dig into the loosely filled-in old tunnel, the last thing the Germans expected. It was a perfectly good escape route, so they had decided not to waste it. Crawford and Fielding were under pressure. 'The Escape Committee have agreed that if we get one man out they will give us all a high priority on a future escape', Fielding had told Crawford the night before they began.

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Excerpted from Zero Night by Mark Felton. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Felton. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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