Lieutenant Alastair Lorimer Cram MC

During the Second World War, escaping from enemy capture was a remarkable achievement. Lieutenant Alastair Lorimer Cram MC, once referred to as the ‘Harry Houdini’ of WWII managed to achieve this feat 21 times, finally succeeding in April 1945. During the war, he was imprisoned in ten Prisoner of War camps and three Gestapo prisons.

In 2018, the author David M Guss was given access to Alastair’s personal papers and wartime journals and subsequently published, The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram (Pan Books, 2019) recounting Alastair’s astonishing wartime exploits. Alastair Cram was a truly extraordinary, modest and incredibly brave Perth man who endured great hardship, pain, torture and starvation during his years of captivity. This article can only tell part of the amazing story of this largely unknown Perth war hero.

Alastair was born on 25 August 1909 at ‘Fernlea’ Craigie Road, Perth, the son of solicitor Duncan Buchanan Cram and Annie S Jackson Cram. He was educated at Perth Academy and the University of Edinburgh where he graduated LLB in 1934 and spoke excellent French, German, Italian, Russian and Czech. As a student, he was an outstanding athlete, gaining a double blue for cross-country and track running. In 1933, he was the Scottish AAA half-mile champion. Alastair was apprenticed to Messrs Balfour and Manson, SSC solicitors, Edinburgh, and then joined his father’s firm, Messrs Mitchell & Cram, 29 South Methven Street, Perth. The family later stayed at ‘Tayview’, St Magdalene’s Road, Perth.

At the young age of four, Alastair started climbing the hills of Scotland ascending Craigellachie, near Aviemore, learning the skills of survival that were to come in handy during his many escapes from captivity. He became a member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and, in 1930, founded the Perth branch of the Junior Mountaineering Club. By the age of 28, he had climbed all the then listed Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet). In 1939, at the peak of his mountaineering form he won himself an invitation to join a team of climbers attempting the reach the summit of Mount Everest. This expedition was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Alastair volunteered to join the Royal Artillery and was soon commissioned, and it was during the war that he was to become a legendary escaper. During Operation Crusader, which started on 18 November 1941, the British Eighth Army launched a surprise attack on the Axis forces leading to the ending of the Siege of Tobruk. During combat at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh (Libya, southeast of Tobruk), 23 November 1941, Alastair was captured and taken prisoner.

Alastair made several attempts to escape – some in north Africa, most in southern Italy – before he was transferred to his first proper POW camp, the impressive sixteenth-century moated ‘Il Castello’, the Forte Spagnolo (Spanish Fort). Today, the castle hosts the Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo. Forte Spangnolo was luxurious compared to his previous camp incarcerations: good food, wine, and company.

Unfortunately, a stolen uniform was discovered in Alastair’s room which resulted in his transfer south to the monastery of Certosa di San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) in Padula (in the province of Salerno), today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, Alastair and a fellow prisoner, Captain Jack Pringle, became the camp’s first escapees: a raucous diversion was created by a work party, and they were off, but quickly caught – they were back in the monastery by nightfall.

At 1 am that night, just 48 hours before they were due to depart for a punishment camp at Gavi in the province of Alessandria (just north of Genoa), they were off again. Unfortunately, while travelling through the small farming community village of Marsico, they were questioned by policemen. Jack was caught. Alastair was found the next afternoon hiding in a bush.

In July 1942, a hot train ride to the next prison in Gavi meant that the train windows were all open. Sleeping tablets that Alastair obtained from a doctor, he claimed he was not sleeping well, were dissolved in a bottle of Chianti with some lemonade for the guards. Alastair waited for them to doze off and was halfway out the train window when a change of guards appeared. He was pulled back and knocked to the ground with a rifle butt.

Gavi was different to the other prisons, a 1,000-year-old castle encased in a seventeenth-century fortress. No one had escaped from this fortress in over 800 years. Gavi later became known as the Italian ‘Colditz’ for here was housed the ‘Escape Academy’, where almost everyone was dedicated to escape. Most had already tried many times, while others had been identified as dangerous or repeatedly insubordinate. Having been a prison during the Great War, Gavi’s potential escape routes and its weak spots, had already been exploited and comprehensively secured.

By October 1942, the POW’s cistern escape tunnel was three-quarters complete. The tunnel required the sinking of a 60 ft shaft and digging a 30 ft tunnel through bedrock, and the escape, a crossing of the remaining distance past the guards’ quarters undetected. At the end of February 1943, a new arrival to the camp changed the plans slightly. This new arrival was David Stirling, (Keir House, Lecropt, Perthshire) who was already a legend amongst those serving in North Africa and was later the founder of the SAS. The senior British officer in the camp, Colonel Fraser, decided, ‘that the most valuable service we could render would be to return David to England’. Alastair and Jack Pringle’s plans were to walk over the Ligurian Alps and cross into Switzerland.

On Tuesday, 20 April 1943, no sooner had the escape started than Alastair’s rope broke with 30 ft to go. He landed face down on a crop of rocks. Alastair had two broken ribs and was captured a few days later by a patrol of an Alpini unit, a specialised Italian army mountain troop known for their distinctive olive felt hats with black raven feathers. Jack made it to within five miles of the Swiss border before being recaptured. David Stirling being 6’ 5” was slow getting through the tunnel and became entangled in wire.

On 9 July 1943, the Allied forces invaded Sicily and Benito Mussolini was deposed. Mussolini was freed by the Germans and reinstalled to govern northern Italy. The prisoners at Gavi were loaded into trucks and busses with only an hours’ notice on 13 September 1943. Fifty-eight of the prisoners, including Alastair decided to hide in the fortress, thinking that the Germans might think they had successfully escaped when the roll call was made.

The no-nonsense and brutal Feldgendarmerie German military police with their distinctive shield (gorget) hung around their necks had taken over escorting the other prisoners. By the time their train arrived in Spittal an der Drau in Austria, about 40 had escaped. The prisoners who had hidden in Gavi were later transferred at Mantua in Lombardy to a train with 50 cattle cars, interspersed with flatbeds on which machine guns were mounted. Alastair decided when the train reached Bolzano about 50 miles from the Brenner Pass, he would have another attempt at escaping.

Feigning appendicitis, Alastair successfully managed to summon the British doctor. It was a short drive to a military hospital where upon arriving Alastair managed to convince a German doctor of the seriousness of his condition. Alastair was scheduled to be operated on in half an hour, but a ‘miracle’ happened, a German soldier was injured and was taken straight away into the operating theatre. Alastair was moved to a ward to await treatment. At well past 2 am, when everyone was asleep, Alastair was off again, heading north towards San Genesio Atesino.

Passing the Great War Alpine Front (Fronte Alpino) on his fifth day after going through a local war zone, ‘the Valley of Terror’, Alastair broke one of his own rules and started walking before it was completely dark. A young boy herding goats spotted him and screamed for help, two men arrived, one with a shotgun and a younger one with a revolver who wanted the other to shoot Alastair.

Alastair was marched until midnight to the local police and placed in a cell. A drunk German soldier burst in and beat Alastair, mainly about the head. The next day Alastair was taken to a railway siding at Bolzano and put in another cattle truck. At a stop near the Brenner Pass, near the Austrian border, he was transferred to a carriage with twenty other prisoners, mostly Italians who had been part of a mass surrender on the island of Elba.

Near the city of Moosburg (about 25 miles northeast of Munich), Alastair his head swathed in bandages was taken to the Stalag V11A camp. It was not long before Alastair was off again, heading east this time towards Yugoslavia. His plan was to reach Passau on the River Danube and somehow gain passage on a barge heading south. This plan failed after a couple of narrow escapes, at one point being pursued by two armed groups of Hitler Youth. He stole a bicycle and headed for Vienna. Alastair in fact stole three bicycles, the first two had mechanical problems so he dumped them in the river. About halfway – at Linz – he purchased a railway ticket and within a few hours he was walking down the Mariahilfer Straße in Vienna.

Alastair was approached by a friendly Czech who advised against Alastair’s plan to head to Budapest and then Romania, he suggested heading south to Yugoslavia to join the partisans who were fighting at their northern border with Austria. Alastair boarded another train, splitting the journey in two and traveling only by night. Unfortunately, the partisans had withdrawn and there was now a twenty-mile-wide very dangerous no-man’s land area he would need to cross. He decided to return on the train and come back another day, timing it so that he could cross the no-man’s land at night.

Again, he split the return journey in two. At Bruck an der Mur, he fell asleep and by the time he woke up he was nearly alone on the platform, a perfect target for the station police. Two Austrian soldiers took him to a train southwest to Klagenfurt where they found a first-class carriage to spend the night. As soon as his guards were asleep and snoring, Alastair could not resist the temptation, it seemed to him irresponsible not to escape. Just outside the station he grabbed another bicycle, only this time the owner was standing nearby and started to shout. A crowd quickly formed and might have turned nasty if the two guards had not arrived to save him. Alastair was later escorted back to Moosburg by a middle-aged sergeant who was captured at the Somme during the Great War and spoke English with a Scottish accent.

Alastair’s escape attempts did not end there. Many more attempts were made resulting in more solitary confinement and interrogation by the SS and he endured many days at the hands of the Gestapo. At a special interrogation camp located within Stalag IIIA he was given a crude truth serum. It is perhaps surprising that Alastair was never sent to Colditz, the German’s special camp for serial escapers and other enemies of the Reich, he certainly passed the entrance exam.

Alastair later met up with Jack Pringle and David Stirling at Oflag VIIIF. In April 1944, the POWs learned of the execution of 50 escapees from Stalag Luft III following the ‘Great Escape’ which took place on the night of 24/25 March 1944. Flight Lieutenant Alastair ‘Sandy’ Gunn from Auchterarder was among those executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler.

After the war, Alastair was stationed in Germany serving with the War Crimes Commission. He also served with SAS, the Intelligence Corps and the Commandoes. On 28 January 1946, Alastair was gazetted for the award of the Military Cross. He later claimed his citation was only for his battery’s action at the retreat from Sallûm (in Egypt near the Libyan border).

In 1948, Alastair was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh and was later appointed a resident magistrate in Kenya, rising to a Senior Resident in 1957 and Puisne Judge of the High Court of Nyasaland in 1960. Once Nyasaland gained its independence, as Malawi, in 1964, he became its acting Chief Justice and, briefly its Governor-General during the first year of Dr Hastings Banda’s long rule. He retired as an Appellate Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal of Malawi in 1968.

Alastair Cram passed away on 25 August 1994, aged 84 in Edinburgh.

Additional escapes, in Sicily and Italy, not published in the Perthshire Advertiser

During Operation Crusader which started on 18 November 1941, the British Eight Army launched a surprise attack on the Axis forces leading to the ending of the Siege of Tobruk. During combat at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, Libya (southeast of Tubruq (Tobruk)), which commenced on 23 November 1941, Cram was captured and taken prisoner.

It was on the fourth day of the battle; the Germans had overrun his position and as he was trying to make his way back to his lines when an explosion knocked him out cold. He awoke to find a teenage boy in an Afrika Corps uniform clutching a Luger pistol standing over him. Three days later he was handed over to the Italian forces for interment as a prisoner.

Alastair tried to escape twice before he was embarked at Benghazi on an Italian destroyer bound for Scilly. One attempt was at Derna, he was discovered crawling under the barbed wire of the compound he was being held in. He barely avoided being shot.

On board, Cram along with another Australian senior officer, ‘Skipper’ Palmer they devised a plan to take over the ship and sail to Malta. This was to be accomplished by rushing the manned twin barrel machine gun on the deck and overpowering the Italian guards. Finding healthy volunteers to a dangerously charge the gun proved to be a problem. Most of the 300 hundred prisoners on board were suffering from dysentery and sea sickness, they were just too ill to help take over the ship. The opportunity soon passed, the Italians had become aware that something was afoot and handed out extra weapons to the crew and the escape attempt was aborted. A storm which they were sailing in was worsening and the ship’s captain decided to head back to Libya, docking at Tripoli.

For the next three weeks Alastair was imprisoned in a camp at Tarhuna. On the 24December 1941 a fleet of ambulances arrived to take them back to Tripoli. They were loaded on board Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero (Sparrowhawk) three-engine bombers. They took off for Sicily flying at a very low altitude to try and avoid RAF fighters based in Malta. They landed at Castelvetrano in Sicily and were taken to a seventeenth-century former convent which was being used as a prison.

On 28 December 1941 after assessing his escape route, Alastair Cram slipped away, climbing a wall, and disappearing into the night. Alastair avoided capture by pretending to be a German soldier and eventually made it close to the sea where he intended to sail to Malta. Alastair had learned to sail as a boy growing up in Perth. Going back to the hills to forage for food for the journey he was captured by a police officer in the village of Racalmuto, thus ending his fourteen days of wandering about Sicily.

Escorted by five Carabinieri (Paramilitary Police), Cram was transferred a transit camp at Capua just north of Naples. After a few weeks he was sent to L’Aquila, further north in the Abruzzo region. Travelling in an old and very cold inside, train they came to a stop blocked by snow drifts. Alastair made a break for it again but had only gone a short distance when the alarm was raised. He was transferred to another train and finally arrived at the impressive sixteenth-century moated “Il Castello”, the Forte Spagnolo (Spanish Fort). The castle nowadays hosts the Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo.

Forte Spangnolo was luxurious compared to his previous camp incarcerations, good food, wine, and company. A stolen uniform was discovered in Alastair’s room, and he was transferred south to Padula in the province of Salerno.What is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the monastery of Certosa di San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) was to be his new prison. Along with a fellow prisoner, Captain Jack Pringle they became the first escapees from Padula. A raucous diversion was created by a work party, and they were off. Either their footwear or their large backpacks raised suspicion and they were back in the monastery by nightfall.

Forty-eight hours before they were due to depart for a rumoured punishment camp at Gavi in the province of Alessandria, just north of Genoa, at 1.00 am they were off again. In a small farming community village called Marsico, they were questioned by policemen. Alastair managed to escape, but Jack was caught. Alastair broke a leg jumping over a stone terrace but continued and the next afternoon was found hiding in a bush.

• In August 1943, Alastair spent his second birthday in Gavi and was sent from his father a half-pound of Capstan Original Navy Cut pipe tobacco through the firm of Charles Rattray, Tobacconist, 160 High Street, Perth (opposite Perth Theatre). They traded from 1915 to 1981 and many will fondly remember the figures on display outside the store’s first-floor windows. The brand still exists today having been taken over by the German tobacco blending master, Kohlhase & Kopp.
• David Stirling’s family’s ancestral home, Keir House, in the Parish of Lecropt, Perthshire (from Glasgow on the M9, just before the Dunblane/Keir Roundabout, Keir House is hidden by trees just to the north).
• Mount Everest was not officially conquered until 1953 when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to reach the summit.

Research by Ken Bruce

Lieutenant Alastair Lorimer Cram MC
Lieutenant Alastair Lorimer Cram MC
Daily Record story 2 June 2018, Alastair and Isobel climbing Mt Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites, during their honeymoon.
Daily Record story 2 June 2018
Daily Record story 2 June 2018 Alastair climbing on Aonach Dubh buttress, Glencoe, Scotland 1928
THE SPECIAL AIR SERVICE (SAS) IN NORTH AFRICA DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (E 21340) Portrait of Lt Colonel David Stirling DSO. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
THE CAMPAIGN IN NORTH AFRICA 1940-1943 (E 21338) The Axis Offensive 1941 – 1942: A Special Air Service jeep patrol is greeted by its commander, Colonel David Stirling, on its return from the desert. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
In 2018, the author David M Guss was given access to Cram’s personal papers and wartime journals and subsequently published – The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram: A Compelling Story of Courage and Endurance in the Second World War
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Pan (13 Jun. 2019)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 448 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1509829598
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1509829590
Historic figures from Perth business come under the hammer
Opened in 1903 Charles Rattray opened “The House of Rattray” in Perth which soon became one of the largest tobacco companies within the United Kingdom. The blending skills of Charles Rattray are legendary and his expertise at having excellent pipes made by master craftsmen earned him another well deserved reputation.