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Brickhill, Paul Chester (1916–1991)

by Craig Wilcox

This article was published online in 2014

Paul Chester Jerome Brickhill (1916–1991), writer and air force officer, was born on 20 December 1916 at Balwyn, Melbourne, third of five sons of Tasmanian-born parents George Russell Brickhill, journalist, and his wife Izitella Victoria, née Bradshaw. After the family moved to Sydney, Paul attended North Sydney Boys’ High School and then enrolled as an evening student at the University of Sydney. The dark-haired, slightly built teenager soon abandoned his studies. A son and grandson of journalists, he valued real life and real stories; by 1936 he was a copy boy on the Sydney Sun. He became an eager if obsessive reporter, missing one first edition deadline to file a story about a minor robbery, based on careful interviews.

‘Silly damn show,’ Brickhill scoffed when World War II began (AWM PR03099). Yet he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 6 January 1941. After attending flying training schools in Australia and Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, he was commissioned as a pilot officer on 1 September. Posted to Britain that month, he served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force (RAF). On 1 March 1942 he was promoted to flying officer and on 17 March 1943, while piloting a Spitfire over Tunisia, was shot down. Taken prisoner, he was sent to Stalag Luft III in Germany. There he gathered stories of combat and capture from other pilots. He assisted in an elaborate but failed attempt at a mass breakout in March 1944, although claustrophobia prevented him from entering the escape tunnel. Back in Britain in May 1945, he was as keen as the RAF to publicise the story. His account of the affair appeared in newspapers, on radio, and as the climax to Escape to Danger (1946), a laconic book written with a fellow former prisoner Conrad Norton. Brickhill’s RAAF appointment terminated on 8 April 1946 and he went back to journalism, working as a foreign correspondent in Europe and the United States of America before returning to Sydney in 1948.

Negotiations began for making the story of the breakout into a film, or at least a longer book of its own. In May 1949 Brickhill took a ship to England—‘a wizard place,’ he had decided during the war—and dashed off The Great Escape (1950) (AWM PR03099). The book’s balance of pace and detail, its half-polished style, and above all its inspiring message that men can achieve almost anything if they work together generated enormous sales as well as adaptations for radio, television, and, eventually, cinema (1963). Suddenly he was famous, and Sydney’s People magazine remarked on the ‘plum-colored waistcoat with pearl buttons which he wears without a blush’ (People 1953, 20).

On board the ship to London, the ‘shortish, dark-haired, dynamic’ writer (Hetherington 1960, 17) had met Margaret Olive Slater, a tall, willowy art student from rural New South Wales. They married on 22 April 1950 at St Michael’s Church of England, Belgravia. Brickhill urged ‘Margot,’ as she called herself, to work as a fashion model; she encouraged him to accept an RAF contract for a squadron history centring on a 1943 precision bombing raid in the Ruhr valley. The Dam Busters (1951) sold more than one million copies and inspired a hugely popular film (1955). Its success was repeated with Reach for the Sky (1954)—a sometimes stark portrait of a dogged, disabled RAF pilot called Douglas Bader, which he later considered his real contribution to literature. Less worthy was EscapeOr Die (1952), a bag of prisoner-of-war stories hastily crafted to support an RAF charity.

‘Brickhill, at 36, has got pretty well everything,’ People conceded just before he returned to Sydney in 1953 (People 1953, 20). There was no question of going back to his old desk at the Sun or even of telling another story about the air war. He wanted to escape the rush of celebrity and relax after three years of furious writing, yet at the same time chart new literary territory or even write the great Australian novel. He wanted to make Sydney his home again, but not pay income tax to Canberra as well as Westminster. The result of these contradictory yearnings was an escape to Tuscany in 1955. But instead of yielding a new book the exile brought on physical conflict with Margot, and a kind of nervous breakdown variously attributed to wartime trauma, writer’s block, and faulty medication. A move to Surrey, outside London, brought husband and wife back from the brink of divorce, and in 1959 they returned to Sydney once more. He had been invited by the Commonwealth government to write a novel about migration, the Sun-Herald announced. But he was unable to determine the book’s form and plot, and his literary powers finally evaporated during disputes with Margot and in the desperate crafting of a novel set in Paris. When The Deadline appeared in 1962 it was a humdrum thriller which its author later dismissed.

Neither evangelical Anglicanism nor electro-convulsive therapy slowed Brickhill’s decline into isolation and depression. After he and Margot divorced in 1964, he moved into a flat at Sydney’s Balmoral Beach to spend the final third of his life swimming, ‘walking a mile or two,’ and ‘sitting by the window’ (Langsam 1982, 59). Survived by a son and daughter, he died of myocardial infarction at the flat on 23 April 1991, and was cremated. If he died ‘a broken man,’ as Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported (Ellis and Langsam 1991, 21), his memorial was a clutch of exciting books that helped make comforting sense of the slaughter of World War II, of the eclipse of the British empire, and sometimes of the human condition. His writing rarely rose above the ‘competent feature journalism’ (Kee 1951, 7) that another writer and former RAF pilot detected at its core, but it ‘set a standard in the telling of popular war stories,’ the Times (London) conceded in a balanced obituary, ‘which has never been surpassed’ (1991, 24).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial, PR03099, Letters to Del Fox 1939-45
  •  Ellis, John, and David Langsam. ‘Inescapable Fears of the Wartime Hero.’ Guardian (London), 27 April 1991, 21
  • Hetherington, John. ‘War Launched an Author.’ Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 August 1960, 17
  • Hetherington, John. Forty-Two Faces. Melbourne: Cheshire, 1962
  • Kee, Robert. ‘Per Ardua ad Astra.’ Observer (London), 25 March 1951, 7
  • Langsam, David. ‘Stalled for 25 Years.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 9 May 1982, 59
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Brickhill P. C. J
  • National Archives (UK). AIR 2/10147
  • People (Sydney). ‘Mountain Out of a Brickhill.’ 20 May 1953, 20-23
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney). ‘Author’s Wife Is No “Model Mum”.’ 29 November 1959, 116
  • Times (London). ‘Paul Brickhill.’ 26 April 1991, 24.

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Citation details

Craig Wilcox, 'Brickhill, Paul Chester (1916–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brickhill-paul-chester-14647/text25780, published online 2014, accessed online 11 December 2018.

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