Several fellow prisoners of Lt Horace Caunt successfully escape from Holzminden and make for the Dutch border.
An early riser brought the news to our rooms by announcing, “Wake up chaps, Niemeyer has discovered the escape and there’s hell to pay outside”. From all accounts the escape went smoothly until about two in the morning when there was a hitch in the organisation, it was not until 4am that more officers started to go through. Unfortunately the tunnel fell in whilst four were crawling along the bed and they were trapped. After tremendous efforts they were got out. At this point two of them, rushed out of the building straight into Commandant Niemeyer and his guards who had decided to pay a surprise night visit to the camp. Niemeyer, observing their dishevelled and dirt covered appearance he exclaimed,” Ah gentlemen, you must know by now that it is impossible to escape from my camp except by a tunnel, and if you want to do this come to me and I will give you picks and shovels. This will prevent you from appearing like two dirty school boys.” His guards joined in the laughter but, ironically, at that very moment an excited farmer appeared noisily at the gates shouting that his oats had been trampled into the ground and a hole had been found in the middle, and “Who was going to pay for them?”
Niemeyer’s expression of mocking humour disappeared, and he ordered an immediate turn out of the guard. They entered our rooms with fixed bayonets and a hurried roll call was taken. When a senior sergeant reported that twenty-nine officers were missing, Niemeyer visibly collapsed, his fat paunch caved in and his face went grey, but the hate and fury in his eyes boded ill for us. Immediately we were driven out for another roll call on the parade ground, but once again the sergeant reported, “Twenty-nine missing mein Hauptman”. It was a great moment for all of us, it was an hour of triumph and how we cheered and laughed, we had hit him in his most tender spot, his vanity.
The guards drove us back, very forcibly, into the barracks during which time many nasty incidents took place. Niemeyer was hit on the head with a piece of wood at which he ordered a nearby sentry to shoot, the resultant shot ricochet up the stairs narrowly missing the head of a British officer. We realised that the Germans really meant business, especially as they began to shoot at anyone seen looking out the windows. Several of the bolder spirits treated this as a game, popping their heads up and down quickly, but as the bullets began to crash through the floors of the upstairs rooms this game soon stopped. All games, walks and amusements were stopped, gramophones were confiscated, water supply rationed, bathrooms and parcels offices closed indefinitely. Meanwhile Niemeyer raged up and down the parade ground like a lunatic, venting his fury, not only on us, but on his own guards and his pet dog. Townspeople flocked up from the town to see the tunnel exit, but the crowd grew to such proportions that the area was eventually placed out of bounds and the order given that anyone found there was to be arrested and thrown in the town jail.
When a senior British officer loudly complained to Niemeyer about treatment of the prisoners during a parade he was only met with jeers and insults and told to leave the parade and return to his room. Two other senior officers were also marched off accompanied by our cheers and jeers. In the growing tension of the situation one of the German officers nervously lit a cigar. Immediately we all lit our pipes and cigarettes quickly making the parade ground appear like a smoke day in Sheffield. This resulted in a few more arrests and no food or water was allowed us that day. As tensions grew, many of the wilder spirits called for open mutiny and seizing the camp. It seemed that Niemeyer might have considered this prospect and had ordered a fully armed guard of a hundred men up from the town barracks. Saner councils prevailed however and schemes of irritating retaliation were formulated by senior officers. One scheme was to attend roll call dressed in what we chose to, but not uniform. The crowning point of this idea arrived when an officer ambled onto the parade ground dressed in exotically vivid green and yellow striped pyjamas. The ludicrous sight of this wild colour scheme caused the parade to collapse in an uproar of laughter. Niemeyer added to the colour by turning purple with fury and ordered the immediate arrest of the officer who was marched off to our grateful cheers. We certainly owed him a great debt of gratitude for creating so much mirth, it was a safety valve for our helpless rage and we certainly felt much better after his display of parade-ground pantomime.
There were several high status prisoners in the camp who obviously became targets for German spite at times of high tension like this. The most famous, from the German point of view, was Leefe Robertson, he had destroyed one of their beloved Zeppelins, so on the smallest pretext he would often find himself in the cells. On the evening roll-call he was arrested again, for what cause we never found out, but when he was marched away there was a tumultuous roar of fury, so loud that Niemeyer bolted for the safe side of the barbed wire. From there he ordered the reserve guard into the camp and with fixed bayonets and loaded rifles they lined up and faced us, ready to fire at any slight movement on our part. It had developed into a dangerous situation, we were blind with fury and for some time we stood there, glaring defiantly at their pointed rifles, never moving, just glaring as if daring them to do their worst. Then Niemeyer’s nerve broke. He ordered the guard out of the camp and, white and shaken they silently marched away, no doubt very thankful to go. We walked slowly back to our rooms, the Germans watched us leave, for once they did not molest us by prodding our backs with their rifle butts. The honours were on us that day and they knew it. The reserve guard was disbanded after this and it was noticeable that treatment generally improved.
The senior British officer sent letters of protest to the Minister in Holland and the German War Office. Niemeyer dare not impede them, but it made him realise that he had possibly gone too far. This was emphasised when high-ranking officers started to arrive from Berlin in their various splendid uniforms. The camp began to resemble scenes from a Sullivan light opera. Niemeyer was now very small fry and was experiencing a very bad time. Colonels, Generals and high-ranking police officers all came to inspect the tunnel, but the entrance could not be found so orders were given that the tunnel be dug up. But even with the eventual discovery of the entrance they could not find the secret catch, until a sentry accidently touched it and fell down through the door. The prisoners were fined fifteen thousand marks for damage to German government property. The Germans decided to deduct a proportionate amount from each of our accounts, but we cheerfully paid up, we all thought it was well worth it.
We were soon to hear that one of the escapees, Colonel Rathbone, had successfully reached Holland within forty eight hours of his escape. We were all delighted to hear this as a very large reward had been offered for his capture. It was greatly due to his representations to the Dutch government, whereby he was able to give first-hand information of the camp’s conditions and Niemeyer’s treatment of the prisoners, that led to a court of enquiry and a rapid improvement of our life.
It was shortly after I received the postcard from Amsterdam, telling me of the success of my two great colleagues, Shaw and Tiny, in their bid to reach freedom in neutral Holland. This was wonderful news, for I had been waiting tensely every day, expecting to hear of their recapture, but as days went by without news, so my hopes arose until it seemed most likely that they had succeeded. Of the 29 who escaped 10 reached freedom, captured officers were lodged in the town jail. Eventually they were court-marshalled and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, but these sentences were never even started, for a little later they were released and returned to the camp.
To be continued