December 1917, Lt Caunt of the RFC has been shot down over the trenches and captured.
At 2am we reached the headquarters of the German Flying Corps at Landelade, this was housed in a large red house surrounded by a garden. After much knocking on the door a grumpy sergeant appeared who took me to a large bedroom and then proceeded to lock me in. The windows were heavily barred, but I was not feeling very inclined to make an attempt at escaping, all I wanted after such an eventful day, was some sleep and plenty of it. I was not disturbed until 10 o’clock in the morning when a soldier came in and offered to shave me. After a good clean-up I felt decent enough to meet the officer who had invited my presence at breakfast.
He was a Lieutenant, he spoke excellent English and proved an excellent companion and host. During my stay he took me to see some interesting personalities. I gave my parole and was allowed to walk about Landelade but could not enter into conversation with the local Belgian villagers. The weather became Arctic and with so much snow about any ideas of escaping seemed very unwise at that time, although I had not lost sight of the idea of escaping at the first convenient opportunity.
Lietenant Muhlerbech asked me if I cared to give an account of myself and where I came from. I declined saying we were forbidden to give such information to the enemy. ‘Come with me’, he ordered, and took me into his office, on the wall of which was a large map. He pointed out that every allied airfield, every anti-aircraft battery, every searchlight section, were all clearly indicated. He pointed out my airfield and read out my squadron and CO’s name. He was correct in every instance, but I didn’t tell him so. He told me quite candidly that his job was to entertain captured Flying Officers and extend them the same courtesy that England extended to German Flying Officers. There was a great feeling of chivalry between the two Air Forces and I was certainly treated kindly and courteously when I was captured.
Next morning my host informed me that we were going to the Belgian town of Courtrai to visit an anti-aircraft battery. We went in a grand, chauffeur driven Mercedes. It was interesting to pass German batteries in action against my own friends, and they appeared to put every effort into their shooting to try to bring an English plane down whilst I was there, but failed to do this, much to my unconcealed delight. They didn’t seem to mind my showing pleasure, in fact the Commanding Officer laughed and said “We haven’t shot down any of your friends recently as it is the ‘Close Season’ for Englishmen this month.” All his men roared at his witty retort.
Next morning there was an invitation to lunch with German air ace, Von Buelow’s squadron. I readily agreed to go as it was Germany’s most famous squadron at the time. I shall always remember entering the mess, for immediately every officer jumped to attention and von Buelow bade me welcome and shook me warmly by the hand. He told me that his squadron had had a great fight that morning with a squadron of RFC Camels, four were shot down, to one of theirs. This was quite true for later I was to meet two of the Camel pilots who had been taken prisoner.
One of the aces of Von Buelow’s squadron was a Lieutenant Bongarty, he had shot down 28 of our machines. I gave him my heavy flying boots, my goggles and gloves in exchange for a pair of ordinary boots, much more suitable for a getaway. He was delighted with the gloves which were far superior to their own, but the goggles did not bring him luck as shortly afterwards he was involved in a dogfight and shot in the eye. He recovered from the wound and, I leaned after, eventually flew again, but what happened to the goggles I never learnt.
I left the squadron with a very warm affection for the German Flying Corps, their courtesy to a fallen foe was very chivalrous and touched me deeply. But the fighting in the air was noted for the feeling of camaraderie which existed between pilots of the two opposing services. This feeling certainly did not exist between the field forces.
Next morning I was to meet Baron Von Richthofen, the greatest pilot of them all he, also, was very courteous and gentlemanly. When he took me into the mess I was again greeted with every officer standing up to salute me. We had a drink and then went out onto the airfield to watch a flight take off. There was an albatross ticking over on the tarmac, warming up its engine. I was gazing at the machine, thinking how possible it might be to make a dash for it and be away, when the Baron broke my chain of thought by saying, “No doubt you would like to try out our Albatross aeroplane mein Herr?” I turned to him with a smile and said, “A British officer never breaks his parole Herr Hauptman, “but you are a very good thought reader.” We both laughed heartily together.
It caused a deep feeling of regret amongst the Allied Flying Corps when this gallant airman was killed, but as events turned out, he surely would have preferred a soldier’s death in preference to witnessing the humiliation of the German Flying corps in defeat.
The time came when Lieutenant Muhlerbech regretfully informed me that I had to go to Courtrai jail, prior to being moved to a large POW camp, but before leaving he wished to do me a little and kindly service, so if I cared to write any letters home he would he would deliver them whilst flying over English lines by dropping them attached to a small parachute. I wrote two letters and these were dropped but my people never got them, so seemingly they were lost in the Flander’s mud and trodden underfoot.
He took me to Courtrai in a staff car, and on arrival he gave me a package which contained cigars and cigarettes. After a firm handshake and saluting each other we finally parted, never to meet again, but wherever this German officer is, I shall always remember him warmly, for although I was a prisoner, and virtually in his power, he never allowed me to think so, but treated me as a gentleman and gave me every consideration and comfort his situation allowed him to.
The sound of the large iron gates clanging closed behind me sounded like a death knell. Criminals must have these same feelings, but, they know what sentence they have to face, whereas POW’s have to serve for the duration and this may be several years yet.
After my particulars were recorded and I had been photographed I was allowed to go to the officer’s quarters, and there, to my great joy, were two English Infantry and one Belgian officer. It was good to see some of my own nationality again and to learn how the war was progressing. They told me that they had found a dictaphone hidden in the room, and had smashed it, but a further intensive search had found nothing else with which our enemies could glean any military information.
Next morning I was taken down to a reception room where two ladies were waiting to see me. They were both English, married to well-to-do Belgians and they had undertaken the task of providing comforts for the POWs passing through the jail. Once a week they visited and on this day they brought me shaving equipment, pyjamas, shirts, socks, and a field grey overcoat. Hidden in the overcoat’s pockets was a bottle of wine, a white loaf and a small pack of butter. They were splendid ladies and words of mine cannot thank them enough for what they did, and for the risks they ran of smuggling forbidden articles.