BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The tunnellers of Holzminden POW camp
, August 2, 2014
THE REAL GREAT ESCAPE:
The Story of the First World War’s Most Daring Mass Breakout
by Jacqueline Cook
(Sydney: Vintage Books)
Paperback: 320 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
One of the best-known war movies, The Great Escape (1963), depicts the daring escape of Allied prisoners-of-war from a heavily guarded German POW camp near Sagen, Lower Silesia, in 1944.
Almost forgotten is the antecedent escape of British and Dominion POWs in World War I. This book, The Real Great Escape, written by Australian screenwriter Jacqueline Cook, tells their story to a new generation.
Cook describes the setting up the camp at Holzminden in Lower Saxony in September 1917. Like the one at Sagen in World War II, this camp was reserved for serial escapees.
Overseeing the camp, and determined to uphold its escape-proof reputation, was its strict Kommandant, Karl Niemeyer, whose brutality soon earned him the enmity of the prisoners.
The POW officers lived in cramped conditions, their numbers augmented by soldiers sent there to act as their servants.
Cook’s narrative of the preparations for the escape is interspersed with fascinating descriptions of the prisoners. Some of them were career officers from the upper classes of British society. Many of them, however, came from more modest backgrounds and had risen through the ranks, especially given the high rates of attrition of junior officers on the Western Front.
Some prisoners came from British dominions, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. A disproportionate number of them were members of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service.
These officers often owed their survival to food parcels sent to them, particularly ones from the Red Cross. The parcels were often delayed and items pilfered from them; but their contents, when they finally arrived, often meant that the POWs were better fed than their German captors, who were suffering the effects of the Allied naval blockade on Germany.
Through food parcels, items useful for attempting an escape, such as compasses and maps, were smuggled into the camp. The food items themselves also provided the officers with useful items with which they could bribe hungry guards to obtain for them other items needed for escaping.
While the soldier servants assisted the would-be escapees, they were forbidden by the officers to attempt to escape. Unlike officers, soldiers who escaped and were recaptured were executed by the Germans.
Soon after the camp at Holzminden was opened in September 1917, its recently-arrived captives were already planning how to escape. They realised that they were more likely to succeed if, instead of attempting to escape in small groups, they organised a mass escape by tunnel.
They commenced construction of the tunnel underneath one of the camp’s buildings. Some of the inmates were responsible for digging the tunnel; others occupied themselves with forging ID cards and official forms, and with modifying items of uniform to make them look more like civilian clothing.
On the night of Tuesday, July 23, 1918, after nine months of construction, 29 men successfully escaped from the camp. Unfortunately, the tunnel collapsed, leaving another 57 would-be escapees still captive.
In the following fortnight, 10 of the 29 escapees managed to reach neutral Holland and, from there, embark for England.
Travelling alone or in small groups, they tried to disperse officers who had reasonable fluency in German among the groups of escapees. Knowing that the infuriated Germans would be searching for them, particularly in the vicinity of the camp, they preferred to travel by night and rest by day.
Colonel Charles Rathborne eluded the Germans by travelling a lengthy and circuitous route by train before arriving in Aachen, a few miles from the Dutch border. One group of three escapees successfully evaded detection by pretending to be two guards from an insane asylum transporting a lunatic.
The Real Great Escape is a well-written and well-paced account of this forgotten forerunner to the well-known World War II mass breakout.
Jacqueline Cook indeed describes this escape as the blueprint for future POW escape attempts, and it almost certain that those involved in the Sagen escape attempt knew something about the Holzminden escape.