RFC pilot LT.Caunt and friends Tiny and Shaw, become active members of the escape team from Holtzminden, prison camp.
As soon as the door of the cellar closed on Shaw and myself we heard a whisper and then a candle was lit disclosing the bulky form of Tiny. He quickly explained the process of soil retrieval and disposal, crawling into a narrow tunnel dragging an enamel basin behind him on a piece of strong string. I worked the bellows which sent air into the head of the shaft, it was a crude set-up. The shaft had been made of old biscuit tins and the bellows made from an old leather flying coat, but it certainly worked, and that was the most important factor. I could only look around me and admire the organisation of it all. There were the missing pillow slips and blankets, all containing excavated earth and piled neatly against the wall. A tug on the string, which was a signal to pull back the enamel basin, this was emptied and Tiny pulled it back to the tunnel face to fill it once more. The small entry to the tunnel seemed to get smaller every time I looked at it and I did not like the thought of crawling into that confined space where I might be buried alive at any moment.
Tiny came back out and for a minute or two lay gasping for breath, the air was not good at the tunnel face, despite our amateur ventilating system. Shaw now crept in and started tunnelling and I took over the duties of emptying the dirt and signalling the return of the emptied basin, Tiny operated the bellows. It then became my turn to crawl into the tunnel face and how I dreaded it. I had to take a firm grip of myself to overcome being seized with panic. By the time I got to the face I was wet through with perspiration and all my strength seemed to have vanished from my arms and legs. I started to scratch out a small pile of earth then laboriously turning over on my side, transferred it into the basin. It seemed to take hours before that basin was filled. On signalling Shaw, I felt the string run through my fingers and when the answering tug came I slowly hauled it back, to refill again, and so this agony and toil went on, until my head sounded full of buzzing flies and I became nauseas. I felt I had been stuck in there for ages, then, with great relief I got the signal, to withdraw. I went out certainly quicker than I went in and as soon as my feet appeared out of the entrance Tiny grabbed them and hauled me clear. When I stood up I was violently sick and everything seemed to spin round, but a good, long drink soon put me to rights. It was quite some time before the ‘all clear’ was sounded, and when we did hear it we were quickly out and away and walking around the parade ground with other officers.
Later in the week it was our turn again at the tunnel face and down we went for another dose of claustrophobic terror. The agony of having to go into that tunnel was worse on that second occasion for I knew just what to expect. It was the most terrifying experience I had ever gone through for I couldn’t overcome my intense fear of being confined within such a small space, it was just sheer torture. When I came out Tiny was concerned about my condition, I was on the edge of a state of a total collapse, mentally and physically. I could see in his face that he had realised I had reached my limit and that I could not go on. Grasping my hand he said “Bad luck old man, but you cannot possibly go on like this, it will kill you!”
Possibly the ordeal could have affected my health because I ended up in the camp hospital for three weeks. Tony and Shaw would both visit me, but never did they mention the tunnel. On leaving hospital we all went to a quiet corner to discuss my position. Like the true sports they were they both offered to do my share of the excavation, whilst I worked the bellows and the signals, but, as I pointed out this would not be fair to the rest of the working party, for a fresh man works harder and more efficiently than a tired one. Anyway, as the tunnel was being dug against a timetable, I must refuse their offer. No, I must resign from the team and allow a new man to take my place. Despite my great regret and bitter disappointment I gave up my early placement, but was awarded a later place contributing to outside labour, but as subsequent events were to prove, that place would have availed me little.
Tiny kept me informed of the progress made, but now the tunnel, according to our calculations, must be beyond the camp wall and getting near its planned exit point, which was planned to be within the fringe of a neighbouring field of growing oats. Enthusiasm and excitement was growing rapidly.
One excavator had a particularly harrowing experience, when he was crawling towards the tunnel face he saw two tiny lights approaching him. When the lights came within the spread of the candle light, he saw it was a huge rat. He pushed his face down into the dirt of the floor and felt the loathsome animal crawl over his body. I shuddered with horror when Tiny told me this story. Thank God for the open sky and the sunshine.
Time was now vital for the excavators for the time was approaching when the oats would be harvested as the standing crop was needed for cover for the escaping prisoners. To find out the exact position of the workface of the tunnel an excavator pushed a stick up through the soil with a white tip. We saw the tip appear just two yards short of the oat field. Within a couple of days the escape committee decided it was time to leave. Escaping kits were overhauled and everything prepared to the last minute detail. The senior British officer ordered all independent escape attempts be put on hold. Niemeyer, the German commandant, must be lulled into a false sense of security. The tunnel meant more to the prisoners than an escape route, it would prove a severe kick in the backside of the despised Niemneyer. We had suffered a lot from him and we wanted to get back at him with compound interest.
Each day our excitement grew and the strain of expectancy grew tremendously, supposing it was discovered at the last minute, what a blow to us, what a triumph for Niemeyer. No, it must be a success, surely fate would not be so cruel after all the hard work over nine months we had all put in. Tiny whispered a little word to me, I knew then the escape was to be made that night that very night, he had said “goodbye”. The three of us had a farewell meal that evening. They gave me the contents of their lockers containing their tinned food, poor consolation for parting with two splendid pals. A final handshake and a whispered “Good luck to you both” and I left them to their own final arrangements.
It would not be long before, with great delight, I was to receive a postcard from them posted in Amsterdam.
To be continued