Captured WW1 pilot Lt. Caunt and colleagues join the escape team at Holtzminden prison camp.
Following the agreement beween the three of us to join the escape team Tiny, Shaw and I learnt as much about the camp and the location of various departments, bathrooms, the tin store where contents of parcels from England were kept, the barber’s shop, the library, the church and the gym. We did our own cooking on large iron plates, heated by wood fires. The logs we had to buy from Carl Niemeyer, the commandant, who did very well out of his central wood supply, charging 10 marks per officer per month. There was a canteen run by Germans where pots and pans, cigarettes and cigars could be bought at excessive charges. A very inferior wine was obtainable at silly prices so we refused to pay the exorbitant amounts demanded. Niemeyer retaliated by closing the canteen but when we persisted in ignoring his wine, his profits went into fierce decline so he relented and opened it up again.
All parcels received from home were opened by the Germans in your presence. Such articles as soap, cigarettes, tobacco we were allowed to keep, but all tinned food was sent to your numbered locker in the tin store, so when required your tin was opened and the contents poured onto a plate and stabbed thoroughly ensuring no maps or compasses were contained therein. The German soldiers were remarkably honest when dealing with our parcels, very little was stolen. It must have been very tempting to pocket a tin of meat or butter, for due to the Royal Naval blockade, no such luxuries was available to them in their rations. I was party to one incident which emphasised their honesty. Whilst in the tin room with three other British officers, we saw a German officer slip two tins into his pocket. We reported this and he was instantly dismissed from the camp in disgrace. We could bribe a German and often did, but although he was virtually starving he would, under no circumstances, steal our food.
For our amusement there was plenty of good amateur talent in the camp, and many excellent concerts were produced, some of them would certainly not have passed the censor back home. The band was good and did much to pass away the hours of monotony. Poker and bridge were popular games played but roulette was a draw for the serious gambler, in fact £10,000 exchanged hands in one day. One officer who was repatriated to Holland under the exchange system, returned home with over £10,000. He later purchased a racehorse and proceeded to lose the lot.
There had been many clever escape attempts attempted from the camp but nobody had succeeded in getting over the border, in fact very few had broken out of the camp. One audacious escape was made by an Irishman. He disguised himself as Niemeyer, the Camp Commandant. The disguise was so good that the sentries at the gate opened up without question as he approached, The Irishman cursed the sentries as he passed through, just as Niemeyer would have done, and made off down the hill into town. He got away successfully but was recaptured within just a mile or two of the Dutch border. Two other officers hid in the refuse cart hoping to exit the camp that way, but they were discovered before the horse was harnessed to the cart. They had been in the cart long enough to have acquired the odour of the contents and for some time after we would pass them holding a finger beneath our nostrils, for mixing with kitchen refuse does not tend to make you smell very sweet. Shortly afterwards another two officers brought off a sensational escape by slipping across the neutral zone in broad daylight, cut the wire and were over and away, but a German soldier in an upstairs room saw them and raised the alarm, which led to a quick capture. These two were transferred to another camp, where they proceeded immediately with another escape plan. Unhappily one was shot dead during the attempt, whilst the other was shot and seriously wounded. This attempt was their ninth, such was the pluck of the British at the time, I was proud to have associated with those men and to have known them as friends.
One winter’s night two officers escaped through the parcels office by cutting a hole through a wooden partition. The weather was arctic and a heavy snow storm was raging outside muffling any noise being made. The snow continued for the next few days and they nearly died from exposure in the bitter cold, in fact they collapsed in the doorway of a farmhouse they wished to seek shelter within. Another officer crawled under darkness to the neutral zone, fusing the outside lights on the way. He dashed across to cut the barbed wire but was seen by a sentry who fired a bullet, breaking an arm. He raised his other arm in surrender, but the sentry fired again breaking his jaw. For a long time he lay at death’s door, but eventually recovered although his face was permanently disfigured.
Many brave stories can be told of those escape attempts, which only emphasised the fact that despite our confinement our spirit very much existed on the other side of the camp fencing. The life we were leading induced an ailment we dubbed ‘Barbed wire-it is,’—the lack of privacy, the continual noise of a myriad of voices, the blare of several gramophones playing at once, seeing the same faces day after day. All those petty annoyances often assumed gigantic proportions and could turn usually sunny natures into surly and irritable ones. At times quarrels would come to blows, to be bitterly regretted later. It was fortunate that the inherent love of sport by the British greatly reduced the tension, which can probably explain why wholly British prison camps were reputed to be the less troublesome and most disciplined.
The more ambitious of us attempted to learn languages, but the lack of privacy, the noise and the temptation of the card table soon led us to discard our academic intentions. I soon joined my room-mates in the mysteries of poker which, in fact certainly turned out to be quite lucrative, for I accumulated winnings totalling over £200. As some of it was won from Canadian players, deemed to be the masters of the game, I was very pleased with myself.
Tiny helped me to escape boredom by giving me the job of officer i/c the woodstore. My duties were to oversee that the correct amount of logs was delivered from the Germans and that it was apportioned out correctly to each room. I was rather puzzled why Tiny was so keen that I should have this job but soon found out, for I was instructed to keep aside any long pieces of timber suitable for propping up roofs, such as that of a tunnel for instance. This pile would disappear mysteriously soon after collection but I never asked any questions. Soon afterwards a whispered message requested my attendance in a certain room at a certain time. I was there on the dot. Here I was to learn some of the mysteries of tunnel engineering, and a few days later I found myself taking an active part in construction.
It was in October 1917 that a small band of officers decided to dig a tunnel and carefully studied the layout and position of the camp buildings. During their investigations they found an old disused cellar in the orderly’s quarters which had been boarded up. A very ingenious secret door was made in this boarding, and despite many German searches, no trace of this was ever discovered. For several months the intrepid band had scraped and scratched away using a knife, a dinner fork and a trowel. Those volunteer miners had to overcome many difficulties and dangers, suffering agonies of cramp and near suffocation, working in a small, unhealthy hole with no ventilation meant short hours of useful work and little progress. So it was not surprising, when a repatriation exchange scheme to Holland came into force, that all but two of the original party decided to accept leaving the field for others to carry on.
Shaw and I immediately grabbed the opportunity to take part in this epic escape attempt. We were sworn in, given overalls and led away to the secret door. Once in the cellar everyone disappeared until we were due to come out when, upon an all-clear signal, we quickly came out. All traces of dirt and mud were removed and everything and everybody appeared normal again.
To be continued