THE ES­CAPE ARTISTS

29 OF­FI­CERS AT­TEMPT AN AU­DA­CIOUS ES­CAPE FROM HOLZMINDEN POW CAMP, NICK­NAMED ‘HELLZMINDEN’ FOR ITS REP­U­TA­TION FOR CRU­ELTY

History of War - - REVIEWS -

Au­thor: Neal Bas­comb Pub­lisher: John Mur­ray Price: £20.00

In 1918, a few months be­fore the Ar­mistice ended World War I, a group of 29 Bri­tish of­fi­cers es­caped through a tun­nel dug un­der the noses of heav­ily armed Ger­man guards at the Holzminden pris­oner of war camp, sit­u­ated south­west of Hanover. The men dug for nine months us­ing just cut­lery and bowls, be­fore es­cap­ing in July 1918. Of these 29 men, 19 were caught and ten reached Hol­land on foot. The Ger­mans were un­der­stand­ably en­raged to learn of the ar­rival of the pris­on­ers to safety in early Au­gust, to the ex­tent that the com­mand­ing gen­eral in Hanover of­fered a large re­ward for their re­cap­ture.

Holzminden was the big­gest Ger­man POW camp for of­fi­cers. The prison held 550 of­fi­cers and 100 or­der­lies, and a par­tic­u­larly un­pleas­ant place it was: af­ter it opened in Septem­ber 1917 there were 17 es­cape at­tempts in the first month alone. The pris­on­ers called the camp ‘Hellzminden’, and the camp com­man­dant, Karl Niemeyer, had an ap­palling rep­u­ta­tion for cru­elty. He was a vin­dic­tive char­ac­ter who made life par­tic­u­larly hellish for the soldiers. Tor­ture and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion were not un­known at the camp. Niemeyer and his twin brother Hein­rich, who was kom­man­dant of the camp at Clausthal, had lived in Mil­wau­kee, Wis­con­sin, for 17 years. De­spite the Amer­i­can so­journ, Karl Niemeyer, who the pris­on­ers nick­named ‘Mil­wau­kee Bill’, came away speak­ing a pidgin va­ri­ety of English, epitomised in his fa­mous phrase, “You think I do not un­der­stand the English, but I do. I know damn all about you.”

Cap­tain David Gray, the ‘Fa­ther of the tun­nel’, was a Royal Fly­ing

Corps flight leader, and “ag­gres­sion in the sky was his spe­cial­ity”. Trimly built, with an erect pos­ture, he is de­scribed by the au­thor as “ev­ery inch the mil­i­tary man”, a war­time hero who could have leapt off the pages of a John Buchan novel. Gray was cap­tured af­ter crash-land­ing his shot-up F.E.2 bomber in a field crowded with Ger­man in­fantry. Soon af­ter his in­tern­ment in Holzminden, Gray wit­nessed and doc­u­mented Niemeyer’s bru­tal regime. He had no doubt that the only hope of sur­vival was to en­gi­neer an es­cape. He did not yet know how, but he never lost con­fi­dence that with the camp packed with a mas­ter’s guild of break­out artists, an op­por­tu­nity would arise. This was achieved in col­lab­o­ra­tion with other es­cape artists, no­tably Wing Com­man­der Charles Rath­borne.

In this au­thor­i­ta­tive and en­ter­tain­ing nar­ra­tive, the ac­claimed Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­to­rian Neal Bas­comb de­scribes how the es­capees crawled into a 41-cm (16-inch) high, 55-me­tre (180-feet) long tun­nel, 1.83 me­tres (six feet) un­der­ground to find their way to free­dom, the cul­mi­na­tion of gru­elling toil in oxy­gen-starved dark­ness. The men sur­vived the dig­ging or­deal by de­sign­ing an in­ge­nious ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem and em­ploy­ing sev­eral ruses, us­ing fake uni­forms and of­fi­cial pa­pers. In all, 100 pris­on­ers were due to es­cape, but only 29 made it through the tun­nel. At that point, the tun­nel col­lapsed, and the 30th man be­came stuck in a ter­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion.

The dash to the Al­lied lines was led by Rath­borne, who hid on board a train and reached the Dutch fron­tier af­ter three days. The ten great es­ca­pers were awarded medals at Buck­ing­ham Palace by Ge­orge V.

“KARL NIEMEYER, WHOM THE PRIS­ON­ERS NICK­NAMED ‘MIL­WAU­KEE BILL’, CAME AWAY SPEAK­ING A PIDGIN VA­RI­ETY OF ENGLISH, EPITOMISED IN HIS FA­MOUS PHRASE, ‘YOU THINK I DO NOT UN­DER­STAND THE ENGLISH, BUT I DO. I KNOW DAMN ALL ABOUT YOU’”

BE­LOW: Kaserne B at Holzminden, with pris­on­ers and guards, 1918

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