There is something about the generation that fought in World War 2 that seems so alien to more recent generations. Perhaps it was the fact that the war was so all-encompassing that made men more resourceful, more cognisant of their sense of duty, and more capable of (and prepared to conduct) acts of derring-do. If this is something we have lost for good, we are the worse off for it. Tom Carver’s “Where the hell have you been?” is one such tale of overcoming the odds in the face of adversity, in a typically “British” fashion.
We are generally more familiar with the legendary escape stories from seemingly impregnable locations such as Colditz Castle than perhaps we are with escapes from Italian prisoner of war camps. Tom Carver has presented us with a prisoner of war escape drama with a difference. The drama here is centred more around the escapee’s connection to a certain General Montgomery than around an audacious and elaborate escape scenario involving disguises, forged papers or even hand-built gliders. Richard Carver – the author’s father – was Monty’s step-son, and there was no sophisticated escape plan required; following the Italian surrender in 1943, the camp commander simply had the wire at the back of the camp cut, and his 600 prisoners released into the Italian countryside.
Having been captured in Northern Africa whilst Rommel was being routed, Carver had been shipped to Italy. Having enjoyed what can only be described as a seemingly very comfortable existence at the hands of his captors; he and his fellow prisoners were released into the countryside rather than handed over to the advancing German army once the Italians were effectively out of the war.
Stranded more than 400 miles behind enemy lines, with Allied forces having only just landed in Southern Italy, Carver and his companion made the decision to head south, rather than attempt to cross the Alps into neutral Switzerland.
Carver tells us that his father’s diary provides very low key descriptions – for it was not the nature of the man to over state his case – and his narrative reflects this.Indeed, save for a close call with a German patrol, there is very little contact with the enemy – Carver himself likens the journey to a walking holiday. His safe return however cannot be underestimated – many in the same position never saw home again.
But this is more than simply an account of the escape, and Carver’s subsequent journey to freedom. Fortunately so – the account of the escape itself is lacking the pervading sense of fear of discovery (despite Carver’s identity) that perhaps other similar tales of flight often rely upon. It is as much an assessment of the impact that Carver’s relationship with the iconic General had on the man and his relationships with those closest to him; most notably his mother and his own son (the author) and also the man who was undoubtedly the keystone of his escape’s success. It is perhaps this aspect of the book that provides the most compelling and poignant reading.
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