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