Author Interviews

Churchill’s Great Escapes

From #1 internationally bestselling author, war reporter, and award-winning historian Damien Lewis, the thrillingly-told stories of the seven most daring WWII escapes executed by the legendary British fighting force known as the Special Air Service or SAS, a unit that specialized in raids and answered to Churchill.

No food. No water. Out of ammo. Hunted and on the run. The dreaded certainty of discovery looming between recapture and safe haven. What would you do? Give up? For the seven heroes of Churchill’s Great Escapes the answer was simple: keep moving against all odds. These are the extraordinary stories of the bravery and endurance of the men of SAS, legendary pioneers of escape and evasion who, through the darkest of days and nights of World War II, endeavored and succeeded in slipping through the clutches of the enemy.
From the earliest years of the war to its explosive closing stages readers are plunged into the dark heart of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, held captive in a heavily fortified POW camp in Greece and in the coastal fortress of Tobruk in Occupied Libya. Whether scaling the treacherous war-torn Vosges Mountains in France or crossing one hundred and fifty miles of the sun-blasted Sahara Desert crawling with General Ernst Rommel’s fearsome Afrika Korps, it took cunning, incredible courage, and die-hard fearlessness to pull off these exhilarating escapes. Based upon in-the-moment personal diaries and notebooks, mission reports, debriefings, and letters, Damien Lewis recounts the most terrifying and adrenaline-fueled days and nights in the lives of men for whom survival was the only option. We follow every desperate step, facing unknowable threats and death around every corner, and share in the breathtaking endurance that brought them freedom against the most formidable of threats: the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine.

An authentically gripping roller-coaster ride, Churchill’s Great Escapes extols the uncommon bravery of these heroes who epitomize the esprit de corps and daring of Britain’s finest elite fighting forces. It is a true-life white-knuckle adventure of the highest caliber.

Congratulations on your new book “Churchill’s Great Escapes” Can you tell me a little about your book

Churchill’s Great Escapes tells the stories of seven of the most dramatic and daring escapes executed by members of the Special Air Service (SAS) regiment, Britain’s special forces in WWII. I chose seven, as these are the ‘magnificent seven’, in my mind, but there are scores of similarly incredible escape feats from WWII. In June 1940, even as the Nazi war machine crushed Western Europe, Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, called for the formation of ‘special service volunteers’, to execute ‘butcher and bolt’ raids deep behind enemy lines, to spread fear, chaos, and terror amongst the enemy ranks. The SAS – Churchill’s favored special forces warriors – answered that call magnificently.

What inspired you to write Churchill’s Great Escapes”?

During the research for several previous WWII books – Churchill’s Shadow Raiders, Churchill’s Hellraisers, Churchill’s Band of Brothers; all of which tell incredible stories of SAS operations in WWII  – I had come across any number of the most extraordinary escape stories, executed by members of the SAS who would not bow down to enemy captivity, and risked all to return to the fight, in freedom’s cause. They settled in my consciousness, and in time seven emerged as the standout stories and I was determined that that had to be told so that we commemorate and remember

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?

Yes. The last one, chapter seven – ‘Across Enemy Lines’. That’s because it concerns a North American (Canadian) hero who became an honorary member of the SAS deep behind German lines after his heavy bomber was shot down during a raid over Germany. Airman Lew Fiddick was the only long-term survivor of the bomber’s crew – some were captured, injured, by the Gestapo, and murdered – and he was taken by the French resistance to the secret SAS camp deep in the heavily forested Vosges Mountains. Some 500 miles behind enemy lines, the SAS had been wreaking chaos and havoc – aiming to ‘cut the head off the Nazi snake.’ Their means? They used US-made Willys jeeps, dropped by parachute to them deep inside enemy territory, to ambush German columns, heading to the front lines, where General Patton’s forces were fighting tooth and nail to drive back the enemy. The highly mobile jeeps were mounted with light and heavy machine guns, and were perfect for ‘shoot n’ scoot attacks’ – hit and run missions, to take out the top-ranking enemy commanders, and then high-tail it out of there. Fiddick – a navigator and pilot with no elite forces experience – had been a woodsman back in his home, and he proved a natural at hit-and-run raids from the forest shadows. Even as the SAS unit was faced with certain death or capture, he executed one of the most daring and dramatic escape missions of the entire war, crossing some of the most heavily fortified and garrisoned German and Allied lines, to reach safety. More importantly, he and his SAS colleague – Captain Henry Druce – had volunteered for this do-or-die mission, as they were carrying captured enemy documents of vital importance to General Patton, for his coming offensive.

Do you have a favorite “escape” from your book?

In a way, it’s story number six, ‘Defeating Hitler’s Commando Order.’ That’s because the individual whose story it is, Jimmy Quentin Hughes, should never have survived, and in executing his escape he was able to bring back to London crucial intelligence. Hughes and his commanding officer had carried out a suicidal raid on an airbase in central Italy, in support of the coming Allied amphibious landings. Though all the rest of their parachuted patrol had been killed or captured, the two went ahead with the mission, blowing up a string of enemy warplanes that would otherwise have menaced the January 1944 Anzio landings. But Hughes was terribly wounded as one of their explosive charges blew up prematurely, and his commander, Major Anthony Widdrington, was killed. Captured by the enemy and nursed back to health by German medics, Hughes was told by the Gestapo he faced only torture and execution under Hitler’s ‘commando order’ – something that supposedly decreed that all captured Allied ‘saboteurs’ would be given no quarter and wiped out. In executing his miraculous escape, Hughes was able to report back to SAS headquarters about the existence of Hitler’s illegal murder order, which at least meant the British and Allied special forces were forewarned and forearmed.

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from “Churchill’s Great Escapes”?

When liberty needs to be fought for, and the survival of the free and democratic world is at stake, the most extraordinary figures step forward, who otherwise might have seemed unremarkable in civilian life. In the burning desire to defeat Nazism and to stand firm with their brothers, these men were willing to risk everything and endure seemingly impossible physical and mental treatment, to return to the fight, for freedom’s cause.

What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?

The ethos of the SAS was that it was a classless institution, wherein rank had to be earned on merit and respect, not demanded by superiority alone. That is what made the SAS – and similar units – so unbeatable, and bequeathed to it such a unique and unsurpassed esprit de corps. It also meant that every man on a patrol, no matter his superiority, was empowered to execute the mission to its very conclusion, even if he was the lowest rank and the last man alive. Such an ethos made these soldiers unmatchable and meant that small, four, eight, or twelve-man units could wreak havoc behind enemy lines and have an effect seemingly far in excess of their actual numbers.

What are you reading now?

Right now, I’m reading Gauntlet – Five Friends, 20,000 Enemy Troops, and the Secret That Could Have Changed the Course of the Cold War, by Barbara Masin.

What books do you recommend which influenced your thinking on leadership?

Churchill: Walking With Destiny, by Andrew Roberts.

Churchill & Son, by Josh Ireland,

Defeat Into Victory, William Slim.

Uncle Bill, by Russell Miller

The Second World War, by Winston Churchill (all six volumes!).

Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.

I’ve never really had a traditional job as such. After studying for a Bachelor of Arts at The University in the UK, I organized an expedition with college friends to drive to Central Africa, in a 4×4, during which we crossed the Sahara Desert twice, once from north to south, and once the opposite way. I was lucky enough to be awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and became a Churchill Fellow for life. I was also fortunate enough to be given my Winston Churchill Trust medal and fellowship personally by Her Majesty the Queen. As matters transpired, that terrain that we crossed – the North Africa desert – and my early association with Churchill, would become one of the future passions and driving themes of my WWII books, for this was the very terrain in which the SAS was founded and first learned to perfect the art and the craft of behind the lines raiding missions. Indeed, there are still to this day wrecks of SAS Willys Jeeps and larger trucks that litter the remote tracts of the desert, along with other war debris. After that expedition to Africa, I became a war and conflict reporter for two decades, filing dispatches from across Africa, the Middle and the Far East, and elsewhere. It all naturally seemed to lead to what I do today, in my books which aim to bring WWII and more modern military history alive. I firmly believe you need to have experienced war and conflict to write about it in a compelling and powerful way. I hope that is what I achieve with my WWII books!

What advice would you give to an aspiring military author?  Is there any advice they should ignore?

Read widely about the subject and learn from what other – good – authors have done before you. Seek lessons, inspiration, and ideas from what has been written before.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a new WWII book right now, about an incredible series of elite forces operations and stories that are blessed with a fabulous cast of characters. Very exciting!

Purchase Churchill’s Great Escapes Here

Damien Lewis is a number one bestselling author whose books have been translated into over forty languages worldwide. For decades he worked as a war and conflict reporter for the world’s major broadcasters, reporting from across Africa, South America, the Middle, and the Far East, winning numerous awards. His books include the WWII classics Churchill’s Secret Warriors, Hunting The Nazi Bomb, SAS Ghost Patrol, SAS Italian Job, SAS Band of Brothers, and Churchill’s Great Escapes. A dozen of his books have been made, or are being made, into movies or TV drama series and have been adapted as plays for the stage. He raises considerable support and funds for charitable concerns connected with his writing.

Lewis is a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. He is a Founder Member of the Irish Film and Television Agency (IFTA) and The Frontline Club. He is a member of the Society of Authors, the National Union of Journalists, the Director’s Guild of Great Britain, the Victory Services Club, the Royal Overseas League, and 21 SAS Artist’s Rifles Clubhouse. He is also a Patron of several charities related to his writing. He talks widely to audiences about his work, including at the Theatre Royal Bath, the National Army Museum, The Royal Geographical Society, and Speakers Festivals worldwide.

You can reach Damien Here

Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society:

Fellow of the Winston Churchill Trust:

Founder Member of the Irish Film and Television Society (IFTA):

Founder Member of The Frontline Club:

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