When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the World War II books of Paul Brickhill dotted the bookshelves of our den – The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and The Great Escape most notably. The sparseness of the books’ spines stood in contrast to the more embossed books on our shelves, suggesting that the former belonged to my father, a veteran of that war.
In Adelaide this year, I was curious to hear Paul Brickhill’s biographer, Stephen Dando-Collins, announce that Brickhill was not only Australian, but had been a prisoner of war (POW) of the Germans, as had been my father and uncle. No wonder they forced us kids to watch every late night TV re-run of Reach for the Sky, the film about the indomitable British fighter pilot and real life POW Douglas Bader.
As a prisoner of Stalag Luft 3 himself, Brickhill was fascinated by heroes, underdogs ‘struggling against impossible odds’. He determined that his first novel, The Great Escape, would be based on the events of the break out from his own prison camp, wherein fifty escapees were shot dead. Brickhill knew that his novel needed a hero to focus the story. He chose real life escapee Roger Bushell, or Big X as he was known. Steve McQueen played the lead role in a later movie, somewhat sensationalising the actual escape but cementing Brickhill’s career as a successful author.
Stephen Dando-Collins believes that Brickhill hit upon the need for heroes in a post-war Britain that was reeling from a broken economy and cities in ruin. There was little evidence to the British in the 1950s that they had actually won the war. Brickhill kept his Australian identity quiet so as not to jeopardise his authenticity as a storyteller. The objectivity of his ‘outsider’ status may have helped him shape Britain’s post-war view of itself by creating heroes for posterity.
Dando-Collins says that Brickhill was drawn to other hard-drinking, chain-smoking, driven men like himself. These days he would be described as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In those days he was just part of the norm. But this is a subject for another time.
The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill
Stephen Dando-Collins (Vintage)