Bob Acraman is a former British army paratrooper with sergeant’s stripes to prove it, 3,500 free-fall jumps to his credit and a 41-year-old body that could easily play both parts in an Arm and Hammer commercial. Even his best friends call him a “typical airborne animal.” But not even they dare suggest he would be everyone’s first choice as a holidaymakers’ guide. Nonetheless, Acraman, who already runs an adventure camp on the bleak acreage of Salisbury Plain, is in the holiday business. Last week, he was busy screening applicants for a package that is more Colditz than Cook’s tour—a weekend blitz (Nov. 21-23) in which vacationers will be incarcerated in an imitation Nazi POW camp.
For $85 it sounds like a bargain in
deprivation, and it may be the first holiday scheme that demands that vacationers not only have their hair cut, but undergo a psychological screening for mental toughness. For the 48 who qualify, Acraman’s “dream vacation” will go something like this: prisoners will arrive in cattle cars on a railway spur. They will be greeted by gun-toting guards in authentic Wehrmacht uniforms, who will eye them from watchtowers with revolving searchlights. Barbed wire will be as ubiquitous as cotton candy on a midway. Guard dogs will prowl. “We’ll defang them,” said one camp employee. “They won’t bite, but they’ll give a nasty suck.” Accommodation will consist of a red-brick hut with an uncompromising concrete floor and steel cots with straw sacking for blankets. The fare would not rate a falling star in the dimmest of gastronomic firmaments. Porridge, thin soup and stale bread will be served and that’s only if Acraman is feeling particularly generous. As he puts it: “What do they expect for 30 quid? The Savoy?”
To maintain historical accuracy and
ensure that the weekend is not one endless round of interrogations, starvation diets and delousing, prisoners are expected to try to escape from the stockade, which sits menacingly in the Hampshire flatlands and once served as an army isolation hospital. The sport of escape is indeed the selling point of the weekend. And although Acraman admits the holiday could draw “perverts and masochists,” he maintains that of the hundreds of inquiries he has received, most have been from honest adventurers “willing to have a go at something a little different.”
Acraman smiles devilishly at the thought of people trying to escape and promises there will be a very low success rate. For one thing, he plans to infiltrate the paying POWs with a few handpicked informers and, for another, he has left few places for the escapees to escape to. “The neighboring farms will report anyone who comes running to what they might think is a safe house,” said Acraman. But his principal weapon will be “total demoralization.” “I don’t plan to feed them for the first day,” he explained. “The huts will be freezing cold in November and they won’t be getting much sleep because of the nighttime searches and interrogations.” Added authenticity will be provided by Acraman’s artful rendering of a competent Colonel Klink, but his principal recruits in this area will come from among the 300 members of the Second World War British Re-enactment Associate (BRA), grown men who replay the battles and collect memorabilia. They will supply all the necessary props in this military pantomime, from acting as Nazi prison guards to handing out Red Cross packages. Prisoners will have their pick of Allied forces uniforms and Mike Ross, president of the BRA, promises that Tommies will be authentic right down to their underwear, GIs to their boots and 1943 matchsticks.
Apart from Ross’s Lord Kitchener moustache, the only obvious historical inaccuracy is that women will be tolerated, if not welcome, as bit players in the drama. “But they’ll be kept in a separate compound,” says Acraman. “I’ve only got three days to crack these guys and if a woman’s around they’ll hold out longer. You know, puff up their chests and try to be brave.” For those who don’t manage that, the ignominy will just be beginning. Acraman plans to tape all the proceedings and play back any pertinent performances. “We’ll listen to those who crack and have a few laughs,” he said. Should the holiday prove a ripping success, Acraman’s already planning his next venture—a three-month POW camp with all the aforementioned options. It’s probable that most people would rather be in Philadelphia. Jane O’Hara
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.