Captured RFC pilot, Horace Caunt, continues his account of life in the infamous Holtzminden prison camp, after discovery of a successful escape.
One of the recaptured British officers got clean away from the camp immediately after his return in a very clever manner. It used to be the practice of our orderlies to take all rubbish out of the camp on a wheelbarrow, under guard of course, and deposit it in a large building in the neutral zone close to the high outer wall. On this morning two orderlies wheeled out an old mattress and eventually, accompanied by the guard, deposited this in the building and returned to camp. When darkness came the mattress came to life and out stepped the escapee who calmly opened the window, clambered silently onto the roof, stepped over onto the wall and from there started his second trip to the Dutch border.
His room-mates made up the bed with a dummy and also answered his name at roll call. For three days this was successfully done until it was decided that he had had a sufficient start and to let the Germans discover the escape, but days succeeded day and the German sergeant never discovered his absence. It began to be a source of great merriment as no notice was taken of his empty bed and no name answered in roll call. Officers began to get hysterical about the situation and it became the camps grand joke. Eventually after a whole week he was missed on 10 o’clock roll call. Immediately the dogs were brought in to pick up his trail, but the dogs appeared wiser than their masters for two of them jumped up onto the now empty bed and settled down for a snooze to everyone’s enormous amusement.
What really puzzled the Germans was that the officer was caught next day on the border, so he had walked, according to their reckoning one hundred miles in twenty four hours, which was very good going, but they never learnt the secret of his escape.
Every day now the war news from the front improved. The German advance was halted, retreat was turned into defence and quickly became rapid advance. The enemy retreated from the very gates of Paris and quickly it was realised that Germany was doomed. The advance became a rout, smashing forward, the allies drove across the Hindenburgh line and before long Germany was driven back to where She was in 1914. Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria had all collapsed, leaving Germany, friendless and forsaken suing for an armistice.
With all this change in the military position our conditions within Holtzminden changed as well and our German guards became friendly and ingratiating, but our memories were not that short, we had not forgotten or forgiven yet, and we certainly disliked bullies who bullied, when they held the whip hand, but were cowards when they tasted defeat. All our confiscated belongings were restored, gramophones, musical instruments, theatrical equipment returned, walks and games allowed and the baths reopened. All restrictions on parcels and letters were removed and from then on we received our parcels unopened.
Very little had been seen of Niemeyer, in fact he had disappeared. But information reached us that he had been found shot. Loved by none, hated by everyone including his own troops and his own pet dog, he met with a violent death, one which we all felt he richly deserved.
The events of recent weeks had come upon us suddenly, too quickly really for some of us to grasp, but slowly the stunning facts sank home into our minds, the war was nearly over, in fact the next few days should see the cessation of hostilities. A sweepstake was promoted in the camp, tickets ten marks per ticket, as to which day the armistice would be signed, for once my luck was in, I drew November 11, and a nice prize of 2,800 marks, roughly £150 in Stirling. For many days afterwards I was busy cashing cheques, and many weird, dirty pieces of paper did I hand over to my bank on returning home, causing much amusement to the bank staff, but out of my bundle of thirty cheques only one was refused payment.
We didn’t receive official notification of the armistice until November 12, but beyond a little cheering the news was received quite calmly. The clause stating all prisoners of war had to be repatriated immediately, pleased us greatly. We pictured ourselves leaving that weekend, but day succeeded day and no orders arrived for our departure, until in desperation many officers took matters into their own hands and, in small parties, set off to walk to Holland. This practised was stopped for the Dutch authorities could not cope with unauthorised arrivals, also it was becoming quite dangerous to travel through Germany as the early days of a revolution began to develop.
We had been very liberal with our food at that time, having feasted at celebration dinners every evening for a week, we natural thought a week’s supply would suffice our needs, but now we realised we would have to ration very severely as the spread of famine began to get serious. So when the old camp horse toiled up the hill drawing a huge waggon of parcels, the delivered goods were carefully stored and husbanded.
With the uncertainty of our position and the growing suspense of waiting tempers became frayed and the camp divided between two factions, one was for waiting patiently for developments, whilst the other was for marching to the station and forcing the authorities to supply a train, but the senior officer stepped in and promised definite news within forty eight hours, saving the situation.
News arrived that we were going on Saturday, but this was later cancelled. Orders were then given to leave on Sunday, a later order cancelled this. We were then told we would certainly leave on Monday. On Sunday evening the Germans cancelled this saying no trains could be made available, they were all available only for the movement of troops, we would have to wait a little longer. So a month of anxious waiting passed by, but life did start to become a little more interesting as we were allowed to walk freely from the camp and into the town. The townspeople never bothered us and we never bothered them. Some of them would raise their hats, and we always saluted back, but they never showed any resentment when we patronised their cafes and beer gardens, in fact we were made very welcome.
Three of my comrades and I decided to go for a long walk to discover some of the surrounding countryside. It was a glorious Autumn sunny day, the leaves on the trees had turned to various shades of red and yellow, which with a little breeze would flutter down gently down to earth to make a russet carpet for us to walk upon. Life seemed good just then, everywhere there was peace and quiet, it was hard to realise that many cities in Germany were now in the throes of a violent revolution, the immediate aftermath of a disastrous war.
Our road took us along the side of a river, then through a wood and up a hillside. We gaily stepped on as if all our cares and troubles had been left well behind. On reaching the hilltop we were pleased to find a most delightful old inn where the landlord gave us a most jovial welcome and willingly served us with good German beer. We had brought our own food and when we got out a loaf of fresh white bread he loudly summoned his wife from the kitchen to come out to see something they had not seen for many years. We invited them to eat with us for we had also brought butter, tinned chicken and sardines. Such abundance appeared to be somewhat overwhelming for our two German hosts at a time when food of any type had been scarce and harshly rationed for some time now.
So, seated on rough seats at a rustic table English and Germans dined together on white bread and butter, tinned chicken and sardines, and we worshipped at nature’s shrine, overlooking the autumn colours of a beautiful wooded valley which spread out beneath us. The landlord suddenly disappeared only, returning, quickly his face wreathed in smiles and carrying, very carefully, a bottle of very old brandy. He brought out a set of fine crystal goblets, relics of more prosperous days, and we drank the golden liquid out of these. When the bottle was empty he insisted on opening another which we drank to musical honours, the song being ‘On Ilkley Moor baht at’. It was a very humorous sight watching our fat genial host trying to master the words, but nevertheless he made plenty of noise and, coupled with our singing, the resultant discord echoed down through the valley to the possible bewilderment of the inhabitants. Free from the prison environment, enjoying God’s sunshine and nature’s beauties, happy in our newfound friendship our hearts were full and breaking out into song again another bottle was brought but I insisted on paying for this one and by the time this was finished the day was far spent and it was time to return. So, down through the wood we went arm in arm with the landlord who insisted in coming arm in arm with us, all singing English and German marching songs until we reached the bottom of the hill where good byes were said. As we reached the centre of town a German officer rushed up greeting us with a salute he said, “Will you hurry back to camp please, you are leaving tonight at 10 o’clock.” We reached the camp in record time.
To be continued