Aerial adventures – a postcard from Holland
After the war was over I met Tiny in London, where after a joyful re-union dinner, he gave me a full account of how he and Shaw reached freedom through Holland. Shaw could not attend the dinner as he was in India.
After I left them in their room, on the night of their escape, July 24, 1918, they set to and prepared all their escaping needs. Food, such as dried biscuits, sardines, chocolate and iron rations were carefully packed into their kits, a compass, a map, three pairs of socks and some German money completed the necessities. After the German guards had passed on their final round to ensure that everyone was safely in bed all lights were turned out and quiet reigned throughout the camp, but half an hour later at 10.30 the first member of the escape party crept through the tunnel to the end where, using a large knife, they cut through the material covering the exit and cautiously crept out into the open and away through the standing crop of oats. At short intervals others followed until it was Tiny’s turn. He got away safely and as prearranged waited for Shaw who was to be his companion and was later on the list than Tiny. This is the story as Tiny told it to me.
Tiny had crawled out of the tunnel at 11 o’clock in the evening, crawled out through the oats and waited for Shaw to arrive. They picked their way carefully through the darkness until the river was reached, as the banks were guarded they had to proceed with the utmost care. They found some shallows and safely crossed and reached the cover of some woods beyond. Less caution was needed now so they made rapid progress from then on. Shaw’s knowledge of the stars was very useful and making progress to the north they came to a railway line which they followed for a couple of miles until a station was reached. They decided to catch a lift on a goods train as by this means a considerable distance could be put between them and Holtzminden camp before morning, when the escape would certainly be discovered and a general alarm would be sounded over the whole district. Their luck was in for Shaw’s knowledge of German gleaned the fact that goods carriages parked in the siding were marked for Berlin. This would be a tremendous help on their one hundred mile journey, so they stowed away in a closed wagon containing drain pipes and straw packing. Pulling plenty of straw over themselves they were soon safely hidden away.
It was a long anxious wait before sounds of activity told them the train would soon be on the move. A bump and a clang, the engine was coupled up and after a lot of loud steam slowly puffed its way out of the siding onto the main line. After a few miles Shaw opened the sliding door a few inches, taking his bearings from the stars again he determined we were still travelling north. This was confirmed in the morning when we rattled through a small town in north Hanover. At one point they had to remain closely hidden as they were shunted around for three hours. At one point the door slid open and railworkers gave the contents a cursory glance before sliding the doors close again. They started to move off again and Shaw, using map and compass, worked out the distance remaining to reach the Dutch border to be about sixty odd miles, and that they were steering away off course so it was decided to leave the train at the earliest opportunity. As their train began to labour up a long incline in wild open country they opened the door and dropped off into the railside scrub.
They carefully took their bearings again and set out across the moorland they found themselves to be in. Clambering over some fences and walls they came to a large boggy tract necessitating a large detour before they found firmer ground again, but not before Shaw got himself seriously stuck in the bog taking all Tiny’s strength to pull him out. Making use of night time darkness they passed through a small town taking to the fields again on the far side. They made good progress until the approach of dawn warned them it was time to hide for the day, they plunged into a small wood where they were soon hidden in a deep dry thicket of reeds. A meal, a change of socks and then a good sleep, fortified them for further adventures.
It was noon when they awakened and as all about seemed quiet they decided to push on, keeping to the fields as much as possible. Finding a stream they had a good drink and replenished their water bottles. A shave and a good wash then, refreshed, they strode out and covered several miles cross country before dusk allowed them to walk the roads again. They did ten miles in four hours before Shaw’s feet began to trouble him, but bathed, some boric acid and plasters settled the trouble for the time being. At dusk they took to the road again and made good progress until another town meant another detour across fields. On the way Shaw raided an orchard, but the fierce barking of two dogs caused a precipitate flight, but not before he had stuffed his haversack with apples, these were a very welcome addition to the larder and greatly enjoyed. They took to the roads again and carried on until dawn, when they hid away in another wood where they were fortunate to find a small woodcutter’s hut. It began to rain very heavily, they welcomed this as it would deter human activity on the land, so settling down on a bed of dry ferns they slept until late afternoon.
Studying their map they estimated the frontier to be only nine miles away, but with necessary detours the distance would be more like twelve miles. Now extreme caution was the key word, for no doubt every guard would now be alerted along the border. They decided to keep to the woods as far as possible, but this nearly led to their undoing, for after traversing a narrow path for a couple of miles they were suddenly confronted by two uniformed men with guns on their backs. It was too late to make a run for it. Shaw whispered “Leave this to me”. He explained that they were two flying officers on leave and spending it by hiking in Northern Germany, would they like to see their papers? Nein mein Herr, replied one of the guards, it’s quite alright. They both stood stiffly to attention quite taken in by Shaw’s excellent German. After an amiable chat for a few minutes they were given directions to the next village and they parted. It took several minutes before they spoke to each other, their brows perspiring a little from the recent encounter and the fear of being detected.
The village was carefully avoided by keeping to the woods and the fields but striking the roads again a signpost gave them the startling information that they were only two miles from Holland. They took to the fields again, creeping along ditches and hedges continually on the look-out for enemies. Reaching the top of a hill they looked down into a valley along the bottom of which ran a road. Away in the distance they saw a small village which, according to their map, must be Dutch. Wisely they decided to remain where they were until dusk whence they could descend safely into the valley. The time was passed by eating up the last of the food and observing movements along the road. Time passed slowly, freedom was so near but so perilously far, they couldn’t fail now.
At dusk they crept along the hedges until they reached the edge of the road. Peering cautiously out from their cover Tiny saw a sentry a few yards away, and looking up the road he saw another sentry, so they would have to wait for the cover of darkness. Tiny won the toss to be first away, it would be too precarious to try and cross the road together. After a period of nerve wracking tension Tiny decided it was dark enough to make the attempt, but as he was about to do so lights were switched on and the road became swathed in bright light. Further along the road a battery of lights suggested the actual site of the frontier post leading into Holland. Tiny decided to make his attempt anyway, it was sheer torture having to wait any longer. So, clutching a forked stick, which he would use to prop up the wire in case it was electrified, he watched the two sentries until they turned and marched away. He then wriggled through the outer fence and noiselessly ran across the road throwing himself down near the wire of the main fence. Shaw watched as Tiny propped up the lower strands of wire, then wriggled through, face upwards to get clear and crawl across to some bushes where he disappeared from view. It was now Shaw’s turn, so waiting for the sentries to return and walk away he chose his chance and quickly darted across the road to the propped up wire. Wriggling through he crept on his stomach to the bushes where he had last seen Tiny. A low whistle and they both located each other, but were they in Holland? That was the burning question. Leaving nothing to chance they waited for the sentries to turn again to continue their crawl alongside hedges away from the glare of the lights where they were able to stand up and walk briskly away from any chance of being shot. They came to a haystack near a large farm into which they tucked themselves and fell into a deep slumber.
When they awoke next morning Shaw decided to call at the farm to find out where they were. Tiny was to wait until fetched, but within a few minutes a very excited Shaw came running back shouting ‘We have done it old man, we are safe!’ Tiny was greeted by an equally excited Dutch farmer who shook his hand and welcomed him to Holland. After a big breakfast, the farmer directed them to the next village where they presented themselves to the police station. They had a bath and a shave and a car was summoned to take them to the nearest town and then on to Amsterdam from where they sent me the telegram I received in Holtzminden. How delighted I was to hear of their success.
To be continued