After courteously being looked after by the German Flying Corps squadron who had shot him down Lt. Horace Caunt is entered into the German prisoner of war system.
The Belgian officer spoke good English and we soon became friends. It wasn’t long before he confided in me an escape plan he had devised. He was a native of Courtrai and if we could get out of the prison his relatives would hide us and eventually smuggle us over the nearby frontier into nearby neutral Holland. Prior to my arrival he had surveyed a possible escape route and had found that a stable in the exercise yard contained a small window, which, if his reckoning was correct, led out onto an outer wall of the prison from which we could drop into a quiet street, provided we evaded the attention of the sentries.
We needed a good disguise and here my grey overcoat would prove useful, and with some old material we fashioned a couple of presentable hats. We established a line of communication with the Belgian relatives via our brave English ladies, who also smuggled in various pieces of apparel to complete our disguise as civilians. During exercise hours my Belgian companion, under the pretence of fastening his bootlace, would try the stable door, making sure it would open easily. Some fellow Tommy prisoners were taken into our confidence and asked to create a diversion by staging a fight at the time of our proposed departure.
The great day arrived, I must confess my heart was beating rapidly, but the Belgian was completely calm. Two Tommies started quarrelling, others joined in and whilst the guards’ attention was focussing on the fight we quickly slipped through the door, a Tommy slipping the latch back after us. Outside we could hear the row of the fight and the shouts of the guards clearing everyone back to their rooms, so we had to work quickly before our escape could be discovered. We had to climb into the roof beams which was a struggle without a ladder, climbing awkwardly over the rafters we managed, with great effort, to push open the rusty skylight. I shoved my colleague up towards it but his ample proportions became stuck in the window frame and despite our frantic heaving and hoving we could not get him through that small hole. We tried to pull out the frame within which he was wedged but to no avail. To make matters worse a tremendous commotion of barking dogs could be heard outside the window. We were to learn afterwards that our escape route led into a yard where police dogs were kept and not onto the outer wall. The uproar soon roused the German guards and led to our discovery. I was led away to the cells, but it was two hours before my friend was led away as the window frame had to be cut away from about him.
We were sentenced to 14 days solitary confinement, which meant spending Christmas Day in the cells, not a very pleasing prospect. But the Germans were good sports and on Christmas Eve extended their goodwill to us by releasing us for 24 hours, having to return to our cells on Boxing Day. The Germans never learned anything about where we obtained our disguises and how we obtained items of civilian clothing, so our friends did not suffer any penalties or punishments, in fact they were able to smuggle a few bottles of wine to us for the New Year, when the Germans released us again for 24 hours.
Whilst in the exercise yard in December our spirits were lifted when a squadron of DH4s came over and dropped several bombs locally but were attacked by a squadron of German Scouts. It was a thrilling fight, four Germans down and two of ours. On January 3rd we were released and ordered to pack our belongings, we were leaving for an unknown destination.
After a short train journey we arrived at Ingelmunster where we were placed in a house for the night. Four other British pilots were imprisoned there, two of them victims of Von Buelow’s squadron. They were the two previously mentioned who had been shot down and taken prisoner. They were both boys in their teens who had seen a lot of fighting and had had the misfortune to come up against a more experienced foe.
We were locked in a large attic during the nightime, but just as we were settling down to sleep anti-aircraft guns started and the lone drone of a bomber was heard overhead. Suddenly there was a terrific crash and the roof of the house next door had been blown in. Plaster and dirt crashed in and I thought that our roof would cave in, but the beams held up. It turned out that it was only a small bomb which fell next door, otherwise we should certainly have been blown to smithereenes.
Next day we left Ingelmunster by train and commenced a long journey through Germany. We passed Louvain and other interesting towns, made historically notorious by earlier battles during the war. Eventually we reached the border where we changed onto another train. Before leaving we were joined by two other RFC pilots, one of them was a big Australian called Shaw. He and I struck up a friendship which was to last through many adventures before the war finished.
The journey down the Rhine was very beautiful and I should have thoroughly enjoyed it but for the hard seats of the carriage and the intense cold. The journey took three days, and passing through Cologne and Coblentz we arrived at Karlsruhe. We arrived about midnight, right in the middle of an air raid. The sirens were sounding as we stepped off the train and our guard tried to hustle us to the shelters. Perversely we refused to hurry and one insignificant little soldier dug his rifle into the small of Shaw’s back. This was rather foolish of him for Shaw was all of six foot three and almost as broad, he immediately turned and with a furious expression on his face got hold of the rifle telling the soldier where he might stick it if he prodded him again. The shelter was filling rapidly when we arrived, mainly with panic stricken women in a various states of undress.
It felt very unsettling being in that dug out, we were eight enemy pilots surrounded by fearful German civilians and there were our friends above us all dropping bombs. The Germans seemed to be too busy with their own thoughts to notice who we were. One German woman spoke to me, which was unintelligible. I must have given an acceptable answer when I shook my head and said “Nein”. With a horrifying crash the first bomb fell, followed by four more and a distant crashing of glass, then there was complete silence for several minutes to be broken by the hysterical sobbing of a woman. Half an hour later the ‘all clear’ sounded and our guards hurried us out into the open. It was then that we were recognised, but beyond a few hisses and murmers no further notice was taken of us and we were soon safely in a nearby hotel locked up in separate rooms in the attics.
Three days later we were all taken to a POW camp situated on a nearby hill about a mile from the town. It was large, strongly guarded with very high barbed-wire fences. Belgian, French and British all mixed happily together within and many strong friendships were formed which were to continue long after the war.
We were soon to learn that food was going to be the greatest problem. There was a universal shortage of food throughout Germany. The prison staff supplied us with some kind of maize gruel in the morning, half a small loaf of black bread with some vegetables at night. There was no doubt that Germany was suffering from an acute shortage of food and other necessities, for which fact we took considerable encouragement.
After being in the camp for a fortnight we had a visitation from some DH4s. It was a clear day when two squadrons appeared over us, keeping immaculate formation despite intense ‘Archie’ fire. Reaching their target they dropped from 20,000 feet to 10,000 feet before dropping their load of bombs. The aircraft seemed completely surrounded by puffs of white smoke from ‘Archie’, and one machine was hit and forced to land about five miles away. Both crewmen were unhurt. But taken prisoner they had rather a rough passage through the local population, but soldiers rescued them quickly and they were delivered to the camp.
It seemed quite a pity that a beautiful historic town like Karlsruhe had to be bombed. No doubt the moral effect was great but the destruction of buildings and property which had no military value at all seemed utterly senseless.