IN late December 1941 Lt Alastair Cram slipped un-noticed out of the Castelvetrano PoW camp in Sicily. His audacious plan was to head for the mountains then for the coast, where he would steal a fishing boat and sail the 125 miles to Malta.

The Perth-born officer spent two weeks on the run in Sicily, and was fed and given shelter by several friendly locals. At one early point, disguised by a blanket over his head, he even attracted the attentions of a lovelorn young man, who mistook him for his girlfriend, Maria.

But Cram’s luck eventually ran out and when he was recaptured, in the small mining town of Racalmuto, he was treated almost as a celebrity by the townsfolk. They queued outside the police station where he had been detained to give him enormous platefuls of food. Even the mule driver who had been responsible for his capture begged his forgiveness.

The daring escape bid by Cram was one of an astonishing 21 he would make during his years as a prisoner of war. Before long, his dauntless efforts would lead to him being given the nickname of ‘The Baron’.

His remarkable story has now been told in a book, The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram, by David M Guss, professor emeritus at the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The book, put together partly from Cram’s own, closely-written war-time diaries, details his escape bids from trains and from a range of notorious PoW camps in Italy and Germany. One mass escape, made via a cistern tunnel from Gavi, the ‘Italian Colditz’, included not just Cram but also David Stirling, founder of the SAS.

In other camps, Cram feigned appendicitis, or mental illness, as a means of escape.

Cram, who served with the Royal Artillery, had become a prisoner of war in November 1941 after being knocked unconscious and left for dead during Operation Crusader, the Eighth Army’s plan to relieve the garrison at Tobruk.

But from the outset he willed himself to return home to Scotland. He was recaptured after each attempt and on occasions was treated brutally by Gestapo thugs or camp commanders. He was also sentenced to lengthy spells in solitary confinement.

But in April 1945 he made his final escape, from a PoW column in Germany, bringing to an end three-and-a-half years of captivity.

Cram, a lawyer by training, was a highly experienced mountaineer and distance runner, as well as a dedicated keep-fit enthusiast. After his final escape he began parachute training with the SAS, and was later employed as a prosecutor with the War Crimes Group in Germany.

He also served as a resident magistrate in Kenya and as a judge in Nyasaland, later Malawi.

Cram’s war-time diaries include the observation that the mentality of PoWs who longed to escape “was different from the others quietly living, studying, talking. We sometimes envied them, occupied with the very real discomforts of food shortage, bad accommodation, fuel and water shortage, small arguments and disagreements. We seemed to live at a higher, a more vibrant pitch than they. Never is living so valuable, so meaningful as to those who undertake hazard.”

“When you look at war-escape literature, there’s a point where everybody talks about a kind of high once they get out,” said Mr Guss. “It’s an endorphin-type rush. I never met Alastair. He was a very introverted person … but I think he was a little bit of a junkie in the respect that he had been a climber. He talked a lot about pushing yourself to the limit, and what that did to you, physically and psychologically and spiritually.

“He continued that mountain-climbing idea in prison, as an escaper. He constantly makes comparison between the two. That idea of the higher pitch is absolutely correct. It’s another way of talking about that life of danger, on the edge. He put himself there his entire life.”

“Alastair had incredible inner resources, which enabled him to withstand brutal interrogations and periods of captivity. I credit a lot of that down to his years of climbing and solitude and being outdoors. He was very driven indeed.

“But he was also a very modest and private person who disliked drawing attention to himself.” When Cram died in 1994 it was only from his obituaries that his friends knew anything of his “daredevil” escapades from PoW camps run by the Axis powers, half a century earlier.

Mr Guss added: “One prisoner who was in Gavi and Colditz said that of the two, Gavi was a lot tougher. The German prisons, and the German stories of PoW camps, have dominated the literature. Colditz alone has had between 80 and 100 books written about it. There’s also the Great Escape, from Stalag Luft III.

“But the escape literature from Italy is equally fascinating. If this book does one thing, it opens people up to this whole other world of PoW escape literature, which is so rich.”

• The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram, Macmillan, hardback, £18.99.