Airey Neave’s They Have Their Exits is a Second World War memoir quite unlike any other. After being wounded and captured in Calais in 1940, Neave became a prisoner of war and, amid escape attempts, was shuffled between various prison institutions before ending up a captive at the now-notorious Colditz Castle where he plotted his third and final bid for freedom.
The book details Second Lieutenant Neave’s two-year ordeal both inside and outside the prison walls. He describes his first failed escape attempt, dressed in makeshift guard uniform, which prompted his removal to the inescapable Colditz – the holding place for the most slippery prisoners of war. Here, Neave offers a unique insight into the communities which formed within the castle, a place where getaway plans were group activities, the digging of tunnels was organised in structured shift patterns, and the prisoners wrote and performed Christmas pantomimes. He writes of his time at Colditz, despite it’s obviously traumatic circumstances, with unexpected warmth.
This warmth, however, does not extend to the rest of the memoir. When, having made his escape, he is hiding in snowy roadside ditches from Nazi officers or being interrogated by the Gestapo, Neave offers facts rather than emotions. When terror and panic must have been pulsing through his veins, Neave describes the pain of his blistered feet. He allows the reader to try to imagine how he felt; he does not confirm it. But They Have Their Exits was first published just eight years after the end of the war when the English stiff upper lip was perhaps more prevalent than ever. And so it seems all the more authentic that Neave refrains from offering much sentiment.
Reading this memoir in hindsight adds yet another dimension to the tale. Now, in 2013, we are aware of the later events in Neave’s life, we are aware that in 1979 an IRA bomb would cut his life short. And as he laments the prison comrades who would escape only to be killed, there is a deeper sadness to his words in the present day.
They Have Their Exits is the story of an incredibly brave man with an enduring spirit and an unwavering desire for freedom, but beyond that it is the unlikely tale of a man once held captive for months on end who went on to play a key role in the prosecution of his captors, serving indictments to the likes of Wilhelm Keitel and Rudolf Hess. Airey Neave’s experiences are important, they offer an awareness of the wartime conditions right the way across Europe, and to read about them first hand is as fascinating now as it must have been sixty years ago when they were first written.