It's still not widely known that all British POWs below the rank of corporal were required to work for their German captors during World War Two. The bestselling books The Wooden Horse, by Eric Williams (1949), and The Colditz Story, by Pat Reid MC (1952), both of which were made into highly successful films, fixed forever the terms by which the British public understood the Prisoner of War experience: as the near-exclusive preserve of a tight-lipped, quick-witted and courageous officer class.

In the confined, claustrophobic spaces of Stalag Luft III or Colditz Castle, urbane Majors, Flight Lieutenants and Lt Commanders displayed all manner of wit, ingenuity and plucky courage while tunnelling, forging and bluffing their way to freedom. That's the template for a thousand and one postwar books and movies.

Those heroic contours of life ‘behind the wire’ were true enough for the small minority of officer POWs. But for the Other Ranks it was different: long back-breaking shifts, in factories, mines, railway yards and all manner of other heavy industrial plant left little time to plan escapes. Effectively they were slave labour. The Other Ranks had more more freedom of movement and escapes were consequently very common but, in a German police state in which suspicious eyes and ears were everywhere and good counterfeit papers hard to find, few Other Ranks got very far.

The Password is Courage is the story of one such Other Rank, Battery Sergeant Major Charles Coward, Royal Artillery, (Army number 2043391, 1905-76), from Edmonton in north London, who was taken POW in France in 1940. As a Sergeant Major, Coward was not required to work himself but, like many other senior NCOs, he volunteered to oversee working parties.

The author takes great care to capture the slang and cheerful impertinence of an Other Ranks life behind the wire in which brute force often counts for as much as military discipline, which in the camps often hardly existed. Coward comes across in the book as a chancer, but also as a brave and resourceful soldier for whom the war definitely does not end on the day he was captured.

Camp E 715 Auschwitz

For a while in 1943-44, after spells and several escape attempts at other camps, Coward was the 'Man of Confidence' (in other words the camp leader, responsible for all official dealing with the Germans) at the British POW work camp E 715, which was very near to the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

In 1947 he testified before the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal in the I G Farben case, in which several of the senior employees of that company were accused of being complicit in the systematic murder of the Jewish immates of Auschwitz. Later, in 1953, he testified on behalf of former Auschwitz inmate Norbert Wollheim who successfully brought a case for compensation against I G Farben.

Coward's testimony in 1953 which garnered national press coverage, must have been the spur for 'John Castle' (apparently a pseudonym for Ronald Charles Payne and John William Garrod) to set about writing this best-selling account of his war service.

Written in the third person but successfully conjuring Coward's wily, live-wire personality, the book is structured as a fast-paced adventure story. At every stage, the crafty Cockney outwits and gets the better of his German captors. While lying wounded as a POW shortly after capture, a German officer inadvertently award him the Iron Cross ('A story good for a pint for many a long year.').

He then bamboozles a German intelligence officer with an increasingly ludicrous yarn about a secret RAF bomb sight. And then, when he gets into the POW camp system proper in Germany and Poland he sets about organising a subtle campaign of sabotage in which the reluctant British POW workers do their best to disrupt their part of the German war machine. He's always one step ahead of the Nazis and he always has the gift of the gab, a quick mind and a sharp sense of humour.

And then he arrives at Auschwitz, and his secret war with the Germans suddenly becomes much more serious. He claims to have 'traded' in dead bodies, swapping corpses for those of living Jews to save their lives and he helps smuggle explosives and weapons into the Jewish camp--according to the book the many photographs of the British POWs at E 715 were taken by a Polish civilian photographer couple who help smuggle in the explosives. See this page of my website for one such photograph.

And he even claims to have smuggled himself into the Jewish compound overnight in a bid to find a British doctor whom he had heard was held there.

The book is written with verve and energy throughout. Conversations are reconstructed, but they're done so with wit and skill:

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The Password is Courage, by John Castle, first published 1954, Souvenir Press