It was certainly a Great Escape, even if it did not get the Hollywood treatment of Steve McQueen on his motorbike. The little known story of the prisoners of war who tunnelled out of a German camp in 1918 is to be told in a major exhibition that will show how they pioneered the subterfuge before their celebrated Second World War counterparts.
The story of the attempt by 60 officers to break out of Holzminden camp during the First World War has long been eclipsed by films about PoWs set in the Nazi era, such as The Colditz Story and The Great Escape, starring McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough as captives at Stalag Luft III. From this week, however, the audacious bid for freedom will be featured in the Imperial War Museum London’s show ‘In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War’, marking the 90th anniversary of the armistice on 11 November.
‘Everybody’s heard of The Great Escape, but it will surprise our visitors to see that similar escape attempts took place in the First World War,’ said Terry Charman, senior historian at the museum. ‘Holzminden was the worst prisoner of war camp in Germany and had a reputation like Colditz for being inescapable. Its commandant, Karl Niemeyer, was particularly brutal.’
Holzminden, near Hanover, held 550 officers and 100 orderlies, and after it opened in September 1917 there were 17 escape attempts in the first month alone. All were unsuccessful. In November that year the prisoners began digging a tunnel that would run under the camp’s perimeter wall. They were assisted by three German administrators at the camp: a mailman who became known to the soldiers as ‘the letter boy’, a man who supplied torches and was dubbed ‘the electric light boy’, and a female typist who passed on information because she was infatuated with an airman.
The captives had a room at the barracks in which they made imitation German army uniforms and used a basic camera to forge identity documents. They also created an air pump out of wood and tin tubes from biscuit tins. The tunnellers worked in three-hour shifts, in teams of three, using trowels, chisels and a ‘mumptee’, an instrument with a spike on one end and an excavating blade on the other. The earth was moved in basins by a pulley system then hidden in the cellar roof.
One of the biggest threats came from the Allies’ own side, when new PoWs arrived and asked, within earshot of the Germans: ‘Are you building a tunnel?’ But it remained undiscovered and nine months later was 60 yards long and six feet deep. In July 1918, 60 officers began the escape attempt, getting away through a nearby field of rye. But the tunnel collapsed on the 30th man, blocking the escape route.
It meant that the next one, Major Jack Shaw, had to turn back. Of the 29 escapers from Holzminden, 19 were rounded up and taken back to the camp, partly because the alarm had been raised by a farmer whose rye field had been trampled. But the remaining 10 made a successful run to neutral territory, led by Wing Commander Charles Rathborne, who hid on board a train and reached the Dutch frontier after three days. The 10 great escapers were awarded medals at Buckingham Palace by George V.
Terry Charman said he hoped the exhibition would help to preserve the memory of the first great escape.
‘In Memoriam’ will also feature the Military Cross awarded to Wilfred Owen that was worn by the poet’s mother until her death.
The ‘In Memoriam’ exhibition runs from 30 September.