Researching ‘The Great Escape’

First posted on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 on the

I’m a huge animal fan and love writing about them, so when Puffin commissioned me to write a book set in World War II about three animal heroes, I was delighted. The Great Escape started off as just the working title but ended up being the final one



The animal characters in the book are two dogs and a cat, plus some heroic homing pigeons, and it was really important to me that I got these animal characters right. Fortunately, I’ve got a friend who has six rescue collies (one of them was just left tied to her garden gate late at night and she found him there in the morning). They became the inspiration for Rose in the book. My neighbour’s cat, who I fed while they were on holiday, helped with my research for Tiger. I usually meet two feisty Jack Russells when I’m walking my own dogs down by the river (my two are huge compared to them but the little dogs usually tell my two off!) One of them getting stuck down a fox-hole and needing to be rescued by the local fire-brigade helped me bring the impish Buster to life.

This is the only story I’ve written that I needed to do some historical research for, and I loved visiting the museums and chatting to the people at Twinwoods Airfield, home of the annual Glenn Miller Festival, where I found out about Mosquitoes and Spitfires and Blenheim planes. I never realized how cold it was inside a World War II plane, or how cramped, or how vital homing pigeons were, until then.

My favourite part of the research was when I got to take my own dogs Traffy and Bella on a steam train like the pets in the book do. Traffy and Bella liked looking out of the window very much but they liked it even more when the train stopped and they got to play on the beach.


I used to help out at a charity that trained dogs to aid disabled people so I wasn’t surprised by the amazing things dogs and cats did in the war, but I was horrified when I learnt about all the pets that were put down at the start of World War II, and desperately wanted to save some of them – even if I could only do so in a story.

In the end, though, the animal characters in the book saved themselves – or that’s how it felt. And just like the many animals and birds awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery during World War II, they also played a vital part in saving human lives.