After yet another escape attempt our intrepid aviator, Lt Caunt and his Australian colleague, continue their journey to Holzminden prison camp, the first world war’s equivalent of Colditz.
Our guard officer, who had been aroused from his private sleeping compartment, cursed the guard and us as we were hauled back on board the train. There was no sleep for anybody after this. A sentry was placed at each end of the carriage, and the officer and a sergeant took it in turns to tramp up and down the corridor for the rest of the night. Strangely our attempted escape was not reported so we were not punished, we assumed the young officer kept stumm about the incident to save his own skin.
We learnt that our destination was Holzminden Camp, commanded by one Hauptman Carl Niemeyer who had become noted for ill treatment of his prisoners. So we were going to a strafe (punishment) camp, because we had all been naughty boys who had involved themselves with escapes or attempts at escaping. However we looked upon this as a mark of esteem, Holzminden was declared a very difficult camp to escape from. Shaw and I decided to spoil this reputation as soon as possible.
We arrived at the camp late in the evening. The notorious Niemeyer met us at the big gates and made a flowery speech of greeting. He wished us a happy stay in his domain and hoped we should be very happy. He would do his best to make us comfortable, if we required anything we had only to ask. “One thing gentlemen,” he said leeringly, “It is quite impossible to escape from my camp, so do not attempt it. You will be wasting your time.”
He was a fearful old liar and hypocrite, and like most bullies his word was valueless. He had been a salesman in Milwaukee prior to the war and spoke English with an awkward American accent. He used to get into a muddle with his words sometimes causing us to roar with laughter. This could send him into a rage. Once he was reprimanding a few of us when he came out with this priceless remark, “You English think I know nothing, but let me tell you, I know damn all I guess.” We all burst out laughing and were instantly committed to his cells. These were small unlighted dungeons in the cellars lacking any sanitary arrangements, and he disliked them being empty for too long. He was hated not only by his prisoners but also, vehemently, by his own soldiers.
After his greeting of welcome we were led off to be strip searched but Shaw’s mouthful of German money remained undiscovered, and I managed to slip a cigarette case stuffed with notes into a bookcase which I recovered when walking back out of the room. Niemeyer had decided that after our long journey we must be ready for bed so we were led off to the attic into a large room containing twelve beds. The guards locked us in telling us that it would be ‘lights out’ in ten minutes. I jumped into a bed which immediately collapsed onto the floor with a thud. Upon inspection I found that the bed base consisted of three narrow boards, one for the head, one for the feet and one for the middle. Resting on these was a seaweed filled mattress. I gingerly re-erected the bed but any restless movement during the night landed me on to the floor. Finally I gave up and curled up on the floor listening to bumps and curses as my colleagues collapsed onto the floor about me.
In the morning we were allowed to freely move about the camp but as soon as the attic door was opened a crowd of our fellow prisoners poured into the room bringing food, tobacco, soap and clothing. Many old friendships were renewed and for half an hour that attic was a scene of animation and good cheer. When asked what sort of night we had had allowing us to complain about the lack of bed boards we were told that they had been purloined, together with pillow slips and spare blankets, and secreted away for a good cause. We were asked to keep quiet about our discomfort, and that we would have decent beds in different rooms tonight.
Shaw and I were invited out to breakfast and what a feast our host gave us. Porridge and treacle, followed by two slices of bread and then marmalade and dry biscuits. Most of our food was obtained from home, and but for those parcels we should have fared very badly as the German rations were quite inedible. The British blockade was certainly affecting the supply of food in Germany and rations were very meagre and poor in quality for the ordinary German. Yet Niemeyer had ordered that all uneaten food from the camp was collected to feed his pigs.
After breakfast Shaw and I strolled out to the parade ground, we wished to look the camp over. I felt some contentment of mind as we stood there having had a good meal, smoking a pipe of good English tobacco, life certainly put on a more heartening appearance.
The camp consisted of two large buildings about 80 yards apart called ‘A’ house and ‘B’ house. Each building was five stories high and housed about 150 to 200 men. A wire fence contained a neutral zone of about ten yards and then there was a 12 foot brick wall surmounted by barbed wire. It certainly a formidable enclosure to think of escaping through and seemed to confirm Niemeyer’s boasts. I said to Shaw that it seemed the only way out appeared to be underground.
Idly we wandered across to watch a game of hockey, when suddenly my attention was riveted by one of the players. Surely it was ‘Tiny’, my old squadron colleague and protector of my tail. I called out and without turning around he called out my name. He had immediately recognised my voice. We ran up and hugged each other and danced about the pitch until we were shouted at and told to get off the pitch so the game could continue.
Dear old ‘Tiny’, it was great to see his cheerful face again. We met for lunch but were too excited to eat much and it took all afternoon to relate the chapters of events that had happened to us since his capture. He had been shot down in the mighty eighty aircraft dogfight back in December. I had waited forlornly on the airfield for him to return, which he had failed to do.
Apparently he had been keeping a fatherly eye on my tail when he spotted a Hun paying too much attention to my aircraft and had engaged him. Immediately two Huns swung in and had dived on his tail. He shot one of them down but found he was in difficulties himself when the flight drifted away homewards leaving him with two other Huns to tackle. He was giving a good account of himself and had shot down his second enemy when three more arrived unseen from above. His machine was riddled and he was wounded in the leg and forearm. The main oil feed and petrol feed had been cut in two, so his engine was useless. Down he went in steep spirals, two of his enemies followed him preventing him from making any attempt to glide back over the lines. He eventually crashed two miles away from the front line and was knocked unconscious. The Germans treated him well after capture and soon got him to hospital, where German pilots visited him regularly bringing him fruit and cigarettes to cheer him up. He was eventually sent to Berlin where a bullet was extracted from his leg and eventually sent to Holtzminden Camp. He was now quite fit again, possibly looking a bit thinner and a little more serious, but otherwise the same old ‘Tiny’ of old.
I told him about my escapades with Shaw and how we were hoping to escape from our present surroundings. He looked at me rather strangely when I mentioned this and after gazing away, pensively for a moment asked whether I would like to escape with him in a sure safe way, no cutting of wires and no climbing fences. I answered yes on condition that Shaw should be given the opportunity to be included. He agreed that this was only fair and right and that he would discuss further plans later after discussion with a couple of people. I gathered that he was talking about a tunnel escape which Shaw and I had suspected of being organised from fragments of information we had heard.
The next day I introduced ‘Tiny’ to Shaw and the two appeared to hit it off with each other immediately and so commenced a friendship which was to endure for many years. As future years was to prove nothing was going to break that friendship born and bred in captivity and adversity.