‘You shut up or I'll do you!' 'Wish me luck, Cock.' 'Nice geezer, that.' are typical snippets of the bantering dialogue.

The London vernacular helps make the rough-hewn comradeship of the British Army Other Ranks leap off the page. But the book also often conjures a mood of wistful contemplation, as in these lines:

'He gazed at the men exercising outside, the Jocks and Taffies and Paddies, the Nobby Clarks and Darkie Smiths and Dusty Millers who comprised every collection of servicemen.'

And then there's this hugely evocative panorama of the scene awaiting Coward at Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf:

'Imagine a vast plain, flat as a deal board, bounded on one side by a seemingly limitless coniferous forest, covered with deep snow in winter and alive with swirling dust storms in summer. Imagine a hige bite taken out of that forest as it joined the plain and into the area spawned a great mass of barrack huts. This was Lamsdorf, Stalag VIIIB, the home for six years for Britishers from all parts of the Commonwealth, where Palestinians lodged in friendship with lean Australians, husky Canadians rubbed shoulders with swarthy Arabs, and graceful Sikhs shared their meagire space with agile Gukhas. English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, New Zealanders, South Africans all mixed in one mighty hotch potch, their outside feuds and misunderstandings lost in the boredom and comradeship of the immediate present.........Six compounds, each of six barracks, made up this gigantic caudron of monotony and fortitude.........'Here they lived and slept and ate. Here they read, shuffled the cards, talked argued, planned escapes, yawned away their existence. Here were spent precious years of young lives. Men who had entered the war willing to fight as hard as they could....never contemplating for a moment the possibility of being made prisoner by the enemy....'

To my mind that is that is great writing--and, of course, it’s from a time when memories of the war were still very fresh, both for Coward and for the original 1954 readers of the book.

Six Degrees of Separation and Two Other Books about Camp E715

I first read this book in 1982, in a battered secondhand Corgie paperback edition which I still have, and was very impressed. I reread it again in 2011 and found it to be even more rewarding and insightful second time around. The reason? One highly intriguing tangent from my research into my father's war service in the 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry was to discover that at least one of his 16 DLI colleagues, Pte Ronnie Hamilton, B Company, ended up at E 715 in late 1943, coming there via Italy after capture in Sedjenane, Tunisia on 2/3/43.

For more on Pte Hamiliton, see this page of my DLI POWs website.

Using Hamilton's POW number, 222076, as the starting point, I compiled a consecutive listing of POW numbers on either side of it

To see the listing click here.

This soon established that his POW number was quite near to that of two other E 715 inmates, Pte Arthur Dodd (POW number 221925), who was the subject of the 1998 book Spectator in Hell, and Rfn Denis Avey (whose POW number, depending on the source, was either 220243 or 220543) who co-wrote the book The Man Who Escaped into Auschwitz in 2011 with BBC journalist Rob Broomby.

I quickly sought out and read both of these later books (particularly as I remembered from my first reading that Coward had also claimed to have ‘escaped into Auschwitz’) and will be reviewing them in due course here. And that bought me back to revisit The Password is Courage. Coward's POW number by the way, is 25801 and his number also now features in my consecutive listing.

What all three books have in common is that they see the horrors of Auschwitz from beyond the wire and from the comparative luxury and safety of the British compound. As Coward puts it, 'This is the Ritz in comparison.' Several of the same E 715 incidents are covered in all three books, too: the murder of a Corporal Reynolds, shot out of hand for refusing to work for the Germans; the assassination of the stool pigeon and fake Green Howard 'Miller from Durham' in the camp latrine; and the US bombing raid on Auschwitz of 20/8/44 in which over 30 British POWs died.

The Password is Courage is still an essential starting point, both to an understanding of the general experience of British Other Ranks POWs in 1939-45 and of the specific British POW experience of Auschwitz. It has an epic sweep and scale that both the later books lack. Unlike the later volumes, we never lose the sense of the POWs always being in a very crowded place: a place chock-full of characters, incidents and intrigue. They’re young men bursting with energy.

The later books, both written over half a century on from the events described, tend to present their apparently friendless heroes in a social vacuum. Coward is always with and talking to his fellow POWs, cajoling them, disagreeing with them, scheming and laughing with them. Many fellow POWs are mentioned by name in the book, including Eric Doyle, Richard Ferris and Douglas Frost, who also testified at Nuremberg.

NEXT PAGE, continued