A companion piece to "Titanic: The Last Photograph" by Senan Molony
"IT ALL happened because 45-50 of us argued with a German division of infantry as to whether they should occupy the bit of ground in France which we already sat upon.
Of course this kind of argument can only end in one way, and this one ended that way. We had argued for a whole day, and then having shaken hands with a very nice German officer and listened blushingly to the charming things he said about our qualities as soldiers etc, we departed to Germany.
Blinds may be drawn over or across this trip-and I finally found myself after six days continental railway travelling, in a spot called Holzminden, a small town situated in a very pleasant valley, through which flows the swift and broad river Weser, adjoining the Hartz mountains.
One day, after I had been about 10 days in the camp, walking about in a forlorn manner, I was stopped by a naval officer, who, giving me a real quarterdeck salute, asked if I liked brandy. I thought at first that this must be a sort of private sign and that he had mistaken me. Anyway I thought brandy would be about the last thing in our camp. I had to learn later that nothing was impossible for the British Officer to obtain and to accomplish.
All this was the kind fellow's way of letting me into the secret of a tunnel which they were beginning, and would I like to join? What luck! Only in the camp a few days and here was whole time occupation for body and mind.
I asked him why he had picked me, he said he thought I looked that sort and was very complimentary etc. This then was how I had the great luck to get into the secret and become one of the really bad boys of the camp. From that moment all one's intelligence, energies and time was devoted to the undoing of the German, and I think we "undid" him.
THE ESCAPE TUNNEL
The tunnel took nine months to dig, or rather scrape out, with a couple of broken knives, a fork or two and a few spoons, all done under the very watchful eye of the German. When it is remembered that it had to go under the foundations of the German barracks and 15 feet almost perpendicular at the start (as the entrance was started only a few inches from the wall), the feat would appear wonderful-it was wonderful.
The heartaches, the alarms, the suspicions of the Germans, the doubling, the trebling of sentries, the forced suspension of the work, the fighting or rather arguing amongst us tunnellers, the exercising of patience, the guts to go on, the frequent collapses of the unfortunate one at the face of the digging, the pulling of him out by the legs, the restoring of him, all under very alert German eyes. All these things, looking back on them-really we must have been mad, certainly very, very desperate, but these little side issues kept us from dwelling too much on our fate-the tunnel went on.
About the beginning of June, things looked as if they were shaping themselves and thought went to assembling escape kit, compasses, a civilian cap, a good pair of boots, food, etc. We were very busy and very hopeful. Then things began to happen.
An extra "strafe" was put on the camp, why this particular "strafe" I can't remember, we had so many of them, though this one from the tunnel point of view was very serious. It meant all kinds of restrictions, eg five roll calls a day in place of two.
Now with the two 'Appels' [roll-calls] we could just about fit in our working parties-that is someone could answer his name, dart off to work, get back and get washed and answer again, but three extra-impossible. Whatever happened in Germany, the tunnel had to go on, so we had to resort to the desperate and dangerous expedient of "cooking" the roll calls.
Now this to be successful calls for very fine work, and the space between the two ranks of officers standing there to answer their names often resembled a rabbit warren; officers dashing up and down, bobbing up here, there and everywhere, announcing some absent friend's name, all this to the accompaniment of a continual roar or hoot from the 400-odd officers. You say, how could the great and highly organised German put up with this, and I can answer.
In my experience any German officer, no mater how highly organised, invariably grew limp and collapsed after a month or so in a British officers prison camp. They gave one the impression of counting the days till the ending of the war to see the last of us. This is the experience of others also, but to get on. The roll call difficulty was overcome somehow, and although after it four or five of the chief workers were sent to cells for a week or two, any reason you like.
That put back work-and then the crowning blow: they put a sentry directly in front of the secret door by which we entered for the digging. That about put the lid on the show. Still 'twas a pity to sit down and look at this sentry. The workers however simply started from the opposite end of the building, about 90 yards, and broke through the attic and all its partition walls, all concrete, and just crept along the floor, directly over the sentry's head, and dropped into the mouth of the tunnel without using the secret door.
Sounds simple, but it took just a month to work out. Things were now hanging by a fine thread. Suspicion must have been red hot in the Commandant's office. Without of course knowing they were doing it, they put a sentry outside the camp wall and directly over the spot where the tunnel was being dug. This meant that the least noise would be heard, and to overcome this the weary tunnellers had to dig down again another 12-15 feet. Still the work went on.
We were now about 40 yards out from the building and thinking of coming to the surface or at least trying to find our whereabouts-strictly speaking we didn't know where we were. We knew we hadn't turned back again, beyond that, nothing! It was difficult to keep direction underground on one's tummy digging.
The bore of the tunnel was about one and a half feet in diameter, just sufficient to lie out flat with your 2 arms outstretched. Then one day each fellow who went in to dig was dragged out by a rope by the feet, collapsed. No air.
So we had to devise a pump. This was a job, with no materials or instruments. It was however done, and the tunnel went on. Now we judged the end would be about in the centre of two rows of beans we could see from the top windows of our prison, and this would suit us as one could get a certain amount of cover when emerging from the opening. Therefore the order that day was to dig UP!
This was good, now something was going to happen. Also, being in the beans, there was no fear of people walking over the tunnel and knocking it in. Then to find our position when the tunnel was hoped to be near the surface, the worker whose turn it was to go next provided himself with a length of stick and put a bit of white cloth on its end. This he was to force up through the remaining bit of earth and we on the lookout from the top windows would be able to see where the thing was.
Now excitement was intense, as one can imagine, and the anxiety to be upstairs and see if the bit of cloth was visible. To avoid suspicion we could only go upstairs one at a time and then return fast. Great was the impatience.
AT LAST, there was our white cloth, but my God! Five yards this side of the beans, and in the open in full view of the sentry 15 yards away!! One couldn't tell the fellow to pull the damned thing down, he was under the earth 50 yards away! My God, my God, hell let loose among the workers.
Following his instructions however, the fellow at the end of the tunnel, also at the end of the stick, pulled it down after the arranged time and all was well, Now we had to reach those beans, which meant another two weeks work.
Now this isn't meant in a boastful manner, but we all of us who proposed to go through the tunnel knew exactly what we were in for if discovered. We got a taste of this in the following way.
An Australian officer, very silly I thought, tried to crawl under the wire in another part of the camp. A German under-officer [Unteroffizier = N.C.O.] saw him and shouted to him. He, the Australian, saw the game was up, so got on his feet and walked towards the German.
The latter, without any hesitation, drew his revolver and put a bullet through his face, blowing the poor devil's face away. I saw this. So we knew what awaited us.
At long last it was finished and ready for us. The night of 21st July was decided upon. The first officer to leave his room the moment the Germans had been round and called the roll. They went to each floor at 9 or 9.30 nightly, saw that all was correct, and then left the building, locking the doors on the outside. Locked doors are funny things!
The first (drawn by lots) counted on entering the tunnel at 10. Needless to say, if our organisation during all these weary months was good, the organisations on this last night were not behind. One officer who was not escaping undertook the job of timekeeper and call-boy.
He had a list of the officers and their rooms and their order of going-my number was, I think, 22, so that to keep my soul in patience, it was rather cold-blooded. I remember a fellow offering me a drink, just the thing one would have thought. I refused.
It struck me that all one's concentration was required, so there I lay in bed, in case a German suddenly came into my room. I had a single bed, being a Senior officer. My kit packed in a rucksack under my bed contained 1 tin of bully beef (small), electric torch, 24 ship's biscuits, about 2lbs plain chocolate, and a tin of solidified stuff for heating water. Some cigarettes in a watertight container, some matches, some tea. Compass, maps from our own war office. My clothes, a khaki sweater, flannel trousers, 2 pairs thick socks and pair of marching boots-no coat, no hat.
YOUR TURN - GOOD LUCK!
The night was to our liking, a moon, but dense clouds racing across it all the time before a gale of wind and storms of rain. Just what we had prayed for. So I stay in bed, not a sound in the prison. I thought I heard the call-boy now and again creeping past my door bound for someone else. Beyond that, nothing.
Then at a quarter to one, a slight scratch at my door and a whisper: "Your turn Major and God bless you." Along ghostly passages, one's heart making a noise like a horse galloping, up two flights of stairs, you remember the attic, and at the entrance to the attic another one of the organisers who broke the bad news to me that some B.F. [Bloody fool] had stuck in the tunnel and I must wait until the All Clear came back from yet another organiser-so again, patience.
I crouched in the dark under a window and listened to the German sentry pacing up and down, with some poor devil of an English officer stuck in the earth under his feet. I can't say how long I waited, possibly a year! When at last the All Clear came, the last thing I did before going head first into the tunnel, my kit bag pushed in front of my extended arms, was to shake hands with Corporal Mackay, the Royal Irish Regiment. He had got out of his bed to say goodbye to me!
Then came a very nasty experience. You remember we had to go almost straight down to get clear of the foundations-well head first through a tube just big enough for one's body fully extended for over 15 feet. I thought that part would never end.
Then level going, a foul atmosphere, and a tremendous roaring in our ears. I suppose the long narrow tube open at both ends, anyway it was a terrifying noise and I thought all Germany would hear it. The tunnel, after the 21 others, was showing signs of wear. In the pitch black one came up against obstacles, I suppose bits of earth or stone, but they felt enormous in the cramped space and the hole wasn't big enough to push past them. Some I pushed as well as I could in front of me, others I think I ground up into dust.
Thus I continued-this terrifying noise all the time-but it was no time to think, there were too many terrifying things that might happen. Then I felt I was getting the hang of how to worm along and began to feel pleased with myself, when I came up against a large snag. I didn't know what it was.
MADE FRANTIC EFFORTS
Of course I couldn't feel, my kit bag being in front of me and my hands up against that, so a halt, and then I felt something move against my kit bag. This was a fellow stuck in front of me and trying to get back! One couldn't possibly have got back from there.
I couldn't talk to him. How could one, with one's face in the damp earth and more damp earth pressing the back of your head, out of breath and the sweat pouring off one. So here was something to think about and nothing in the book about it. Funny things, we humans.
I remember not wishing myself anywhere else in the world than where I was. Feeling the pressure on his boots from behind, he made frantic efforts to get ahead as I knew from the kicks my poor knapsack was getting. Eventually he managed to clear himself and from that day to this I haven't, to my knowledge, set eyes on him, nor do I know who he was.
About this time, although I had enough to occupy myself with, I was feeling very worried and perplexed, as there was room behind me. I had a few quite long halts and the fellow behind me, if there was one, could have had plenty of time to catch me up. What had happened? Had the escape been discovered, and after the agony of crawling through, if I ever did, was I to walk into a machine gun? (This was a favourite practice of the German-on a few occasions when he discovered the mouth of a tunnel, he put a machine gun down it and pressed the button-just in case.) I was now feeling thoroughly exhausted and anxious to come to the fresh air and see if I could go faster on my two legs.
Then the worst happened. I struck a big block. I think it must have been a stone dislodged by my friend in front of me, he having got past before it became loosened-anyway, here I was and no movement backwards of forwards. There's no use feeling panicky on these occasions, but that's all very well in the fresh air. Fifteen feet under the ground it's different.
After a time I found I could move it ahead a few inches; that gave one heart, and I tried to get a purchase against the sides of the tunnel and shove. This was difficult because one was flat out and not able to bend either knees or elbows.
IN THE FRESH AIR - FREE!
Then I found my kit bag giving in front of me, but when I wormed forward there was the big stone, so the kit bag must have gone somewhere. Feeling in the dark, I found it at the side of the stone. Then it didn't take me long to pull back the bag, shove the stone in its rightful place and push ahead before it fell again. The tunnel was now getting very bad, and I knew I hadn't yet passed the worst part, a part which had given a lot of trouble in the making, always falling in.
Finally I came to this. It hadn't got any worse than when we had been making the tunnel, strange to say, and then wonders! I felt a cold draught of my head, and no machine gun! Then a stiff straight-up climb and I fell on the ground in the fresh air-free! Just two hours to do 50 yards. If all the Germans in Europe had come at that moment, I couldn't have moved. Anyway youth and the thought of going back to prison are great incentives, and in half a minute I was off.
I should prefer to be permitted to describe that first moment of freedom than be capable of writing countless books. It was a feeling never given to me before and certainly it can never be repeated.
Crawling on hands and knees-it felt like galloping after the tunnel-I got through a field of rye and waited, as I had promised, for the officer behind me. I waited I should think half an hour, possibly less-foolishly I suppose I crawled back again to the mouth of the tunnel, and the sentry 20 yards away. Not a sound, deadly silence, except for the rain beating down.
My plans for the first night out were all cut and dried. God knows I had had plenty of time to think them out. Straight across country skirting the prison my first obstacle would be the main road. Often I had looked to this night when walking the same road on our walks out of the camp.
Across that open road I counted on being safe until the next day, as I was going to put the river behind me. It was therefore with a light heart that I started out on my 160 mile walk to Holland. I came to my friend, the main road, and halted in the high corn. Just as well I did so.
Hardly had I knelt down when two German policemen on bicycles went by. We had been warned about the green-uniformed police. It must have been about 2.30 - 2.45am then, so they were on the prowl late, and one remembered the fact for nights to come.
The hours he spent in the camp arguing about what we should do if we got out. Some were making for one place, others for another, but all were making for bridges, because before anything could be done the river Weser had to be crossed. I had often voted for the river, and had noted it frequently on our walks. It was without doubt nasty: broad, very fast, and deep.
Still, though it meant a wetting, it not the loss of all one's kit, it saved time and was safer than bridges and towns. So to the river Weser I went, about 2 miles across the fields, and when I got there it was an unwelcome sight-raining and blowing a gale and with big waves.
A TERROR OF DROWNING
I forgot to say that amongst my kit was a rubber air pillow. I undressed, tied my boots round my neck and thought how clever I was blowing up my pillow and tying all my kit to it with a bit of string brought for the purpose. My brilliance consisted in thinking the air pillow would act as a raft and all I should have to do is swim and push it in front of me, my clothes keeping dry and at least as dry as they were when I took them off.
My knowledge of dynamics, or is it hydrostatics, was sadly at fault. Of course the weight of my clothes and kit bag turned the pillow over and the clothes etc were then underneath, acting as a false keel. Then the pillow, being a German, had a wartime valve and this leaked and the whole outfit sank, not to the bottom, but to the length of rope I had round my waist.
You see everything was thought out, but nothing seemed to act. All this time I was swimming and not liking it a bit. Every wave broke over me and what with running and going through a tunnel, I found it hard to breathe. Also I could see by the trees on the opposite bank that I was being carried down at an alarming rate. All things come to an end, and I eventually touched bottom after my 100-150 yard swim.
It took me little time to wring out my clothes, put them on, and start off. Dawn was almost breaking. I was only about three miles from the camp, so the thickest part of the forest was the best place for me. The alarm must go off soon after dawn if it had not gone already, so there was no time to waste.
I walked through thick woods by compass until well after dawn. I know I was keeping well away from the roads. How many times had I studied my map, looking out of my bedroom window at these same woods and hills? I felt there wasn't much danger, wood rangers didn't go abroad until later.
Eventually, dead tired, I selected a spot well hidden-just as well I did-and crawled in. The dead silence which lasted all the morning tempted me to make some tea, which I did. I examined my cigarettes in their patent waterproof tin. Perfect. Matches ditto.
All my biscuits, 25 I think, were reduced to a dirty sodden looking mass. The bully beef was all right, but to last till Holland on the mess that had been biscuits - I didn't like the idea. Then, getting braver still, I thought I must have a smoke. It was then about 11.
CRAWLED IN NAKEDNESS
Towards the afternoon, the wet clothes got decidedly chilly and still no signs or sounds in my woods. I undressed and spread my clothes in a little patch of sun which was coming through the trees.
Hardly had I crawled back in my nakedness to my hiding place when along came a woman and two children picking up acorns-they were used to make coffee during the war. They came nearer and nearer, and I debated whether I should make the hell of a sudden noise, show myself, and when they had bolted, snatch up my clothes and likewise bolt.
By degrees they worked further and further away from me and their voices died in the woods. Once bitten, I hastily put on my clothes, dry by now, and felt that was my first lesson and one to be learnt.
About six, with still many hours of sunlight, I made some more tea and tackled a bit of the mess that had been ship biscuit. No bully beef yet, not for at least a week to come. Then sitting there smoking and studying my map, up trotted a fine dog fox and stood looking at me for quite a time.
Later on I got a bad fright. A red deer came hurtling through the bushes and between the trees with two really nasty looking hounds after him. I thanked God for that elusive thing called "scent", because it must have been good-they passed five or six yards from me and took no notice.
Then I started quoting Walter Scott: "Close on the hounds the hunter came, to cheer them on to their vanished game", and expected any moment to see one, but no. By now I was beginning to think, like the Naval officers, that I didn't get much pay, but I was seeing a hell of a lot of life.
FOUR GERMAN SOLDIERS
At last the daylight of this day of thrills ended, and making my way cautiously I struck the road where I wanted and set off in earnest. All day the place must have been searched looking for us. I felt wonderfully safe and I didn't imagine my late Commandant would ever think of anyone doing such an uncomfortable thing as swimming a river in flood at 4am.
This I found out later was correct. He went straight with his searchers for the roads, bridges and towns.
Thrills were by no means finished for the day. I cam to a crossroads in the thick forest and found it difficult to fix my bearings. So I climbed a signpost and switched on my electric torch to read it. The torch was no use after the river, more bad luck, but still I was free. So off again on what I guessed to be the right road.
I hadn't done much distance when I walked into four German soldiers. I saw them quite a way off in the moonlight, but there was nothing for it but to continue. These are some of the searchers, thought I, and things have been short, but certainly not dull.
I came abreast of them and said "Good night", and as I said it, should it have been "Good morning?" Anyway the four of them answered "Good night" and took no notice of me. Then they weren't our prison soldiers, but men from Hannover. Still free!
Then I settled down, though the pack on my back was beginning to cut into me, and must have been doing a good six miles an hour. I judged that one must keep to this fast pace to ever see Holland. A couple of hours of this and I felt I was doing away with myself.
I can't remember that I passed anybody. I seemed to have all this big forest to myself. Then another thrill. I came suddenly round a corner on two most awful looking civilian ruffians arguing in German and using very bad language, Soldiers' German!
I thought, if I've got to fight as well as escape, it's bad luck. They got up and walked in the direction I had come, towards me! I said "Goot naben" [Guten Abend - Good evening] again and they answered.
I passed on, but heard them stop, so I thought I was for it. Then I heard in very nice English, "Good evening, Major." Two Naval officers! They had been two of the first out of the tunnel. These two lads I had spent hours with in the camp, teaching them how to read a map. Now they were making straight back to Holzminden! Quite lost.
They told me they had nearly come to blows over the right road and when they saw me they were having a tremendous argument and were afraid I had heard their English, so they broke into any and all the bad German they knew and were going to pretend they were tight! We laughed, I thought we'd surely attract someone. All I could say was "Thank God we have a Navy."
I said I'd give anything for some water. They had just passed a stream and thought they'd come back with me and have another drink! They didn't appear worried which way they went. We went and had our drink.
I said I objected to being seen on the road with two awful looking people talking filthy German; they said I didn't look too pretty myself - this might have gone on all night, it was rather pleasant really, but I wished them good luck and went my way.
(They were both back in the camp in a few days. I think they must just have strolled around until someone took them there.)
So off again, this little adventure seemed to freshen me up and I was prepared for most things, except what did happen. This time it was, I think, six newly escaped prisoners of war, all sitting down, telling funny stories! We're a funny race. Shouts of English and laughter and this almost at the gates of our camp.
I left that mob hurriedly, and then walked into the chap that I had arranged to escape with and whom I had waited for at the tunnel mouth. He'd got stuck or something. Anyway I'm glad I hadn't waited, so we went off together, also with us came a third, a Cambridge blue, a great runner but a bad walker!
We three decided to go together, each of us had something the other lacked, so the arrangement worked well. We were at least three "serious" people and had some idea of reaching Holland. The walk was started in earnest. I suggested that we go all out the first night, even though we might have preferred to take it a bit easy after our exertions of the previous night, the idea being to put as much between us and the searchers as possible.
They did search, I found out afterwards, but we had got outside their net. I was told the Germans didn't think it possible to get so far in such a short time. So our "legging it" paid us.
The first morning, just as dawn was breaking, we found, great luck, a good hiding place, thick undergrowth, safe and warm. Here we had a good day's rest and long talks as to our policy, etc.
The nights when walking, or rather racing, were a bit of a nightmare. Heads down all the time and going all out. One hadn't time to get tired or get sore feet. We decided which towns to avoid and which to chance. To avoid a town was a long process.
There's not much use in walking up to a town and then avoiding it by walking round it; this might take days. So one had to choose one's route days beforehand, so as to keep gradually edging away all the time. This all took working out and meant that we spent most of the daytime reading the map.
At that time of year in North Germany, the nights are very short. I don't think we ever got more than four complete hours' walking. One had to remain in cover until it was dark, and if we had been lying up near a village, a further hour to allow the people to get to their houses and off the roads.
We had to meet a number if people, but we didn't meet any we could avoid. Then one of the great dangers was to find dawn coming and no suitable cover for the day. The map shows one where there's a wood, but they don't tell you if there is any undergrowth.
We made a practice of taking advantage of any cover we came to, even though there might be still half an hour more walking possible. This was very safe and sound, although the temptation to push on was considerable.
We three decided we could make our food last about 13 days. Now that meant we had to walk at a tremendous pace, to do 160 odd miles in a straight line (God knows what we did walk), and only about three or four hours that we could count on each night.
Then delays had to be considered, all kinds of delays, hiding while soldiers passed, avoiding barking dogs, going around villages?
My own tin of bully beef (one man's ration for one meal) lasted me eight days I remember. Yes, the danger from lack of food was always staring at us. It is quite useless trying to pick up food, you waste the whole night's walking and it is very dangerous, although sitting down for a moment's rest one night I found spring onions growing.
For lying up by day, a cornfield is safest. That is if they're not cutting it! One has to be very careful entering the field as no tracks must be left. This can be learnt, and not one trace was visible. When you get into the middle of the field you can stamp down the corn to any distance you wish and make yourself very comfortable. You're quite safe.
One has to be careful with matches of course. If it's light enough to see, don't choose a field with a house near; they might see you from the top windows. We did this once. It was dark when we arrived and we didn't notice the house. We spent a most uncomfortable day keeping our heads down.
One got quite used to the dark, so that one night to be suddenly enveloped in huge arc lamps was rather disconcerting; we must have wandered up to some German prison or labour camp. Anyway we went past the place and the sentries very quickly.
We passed through a Spa or holiday resort one night. I hadn't had a wash since swimming the river, about ten days before and was looking and feeling pretty dirty and wretched. I saw leaning over a balcony a beautiful girl in beautiful clothes, and with her a man in dinner clothes. One has never felt such an outcast, but we were going home, so it didn't matter!
MEETING THE REAPER
One morning, looking as usual for a hiding place, things were getting serious. The sun was almost getting up and we could find no place to stop. At last there was nothing for it and we had to take cover in a very small patch of oats beside a house.
It couldn't have been more than 30 yards across. Anyway it was the best that we could do. After the sun had come out and dried the oats, out came the farmer with his reaper and two horses and started going round us!
This, we thought, is how the rabbits must feel at home. He cut and cut and kept getting nearer. At last on one trip we could see the top of his hat as he passed, and we as small as possible on the ground. There was nothing for it but to give ourselves up. No good running in broad daylight-one would have the whole village after one in a minute. But before he had time to do another trip, down came the rain!
Two more trips and we would have been cutting our hiding place. I should have been quite happy with a whisky and soda after that.
We were now approaching the Great German Moor which leads to the frontier. We had more or less a pleasant week's walking. We had left one great danger behind and were still far from the other. The first three days were hectic, then the tension had relaxed and now we were getting near the danger I had always been warned against. The most difficult part.
After two weeks' lying out in all weathers, hard walking, little food, dirty and unkempt, now was the time we were getting nervous again.
One night, as much to avoid the roads as to make a shortcut, we decided to cross this North German Moor. This was a risk, as we had to be on the other side and in cover before daylight, as the moor was crowded with people all day, digging turf.
It was also 15 miles to the other side, no landmarks, pitch dark, so it had to be a compass march. We trusted to God-it would have been too easy to turn one's ankle or do some other damage in the numerous bog holes. In fact the place had a bad name.
Still off we went and I don't want any more nights like that. We fell into holes, we pulled one another out and it was very difficult to keep by our compass, we had to change directions so often.
We managed it, and got under the friendly shelter of the trees on the other side. When we examined our map we were, I think, a few hundred yards either to left or right of our objective -we were quite proud.
One of these last nights we passed the other big British officers' prison camp. Here we were, after 12 or 13 wearying days and nights, wet, hungry and filthy; and we were passing the camp that a few officers had escaped from and felt so proud of themselves!
Getting away from this camp, being fresh, one could get over into Holland in two or three nights. We weren't trying any records like that. We were hoping to get over in, I think, four nights.
The lights from this camp were very bright after our nights in the open. We gave it a good wide berth and walked faster, I believe this night, than any former night. The precincts of a prison camp are unhealthy.
TO CROSS INTO HOLLAND
About this time we found ourselves on roads lined with apples trees. The fruit wasn't ripe, but it was a great help to fill one's pocket and chew as one walked. It helped one's thirst and saved time looking for water. The three of us now must have been getting to the end our resources and little things seemed to worry and annoy us.
Practically all the food had now gone, and the day and night prior to the night we had decided to cross into Holland, I didn't eat anything, I had just half a bit of biscuit left, I remember, and I thought to hearten myself just before the final dash!
Of course all smokes had gone some time. The tea was also gone, also the means of heating water. We lay up on the 14th day out, on an open moor in the heather, and got eaten by midges. We were afraid to bolt for cover, too many people about.
We now had in front of us the Ems Canal, the Ems river, about a mile apart, both patrolled by German soldiers, then about 1? miles to Holland. So from where we were lying this 14th day I suppose we had five miles to go, not more.
Still, short as was the distance, we were not going to attempt the crossing that night. We were going to spend the whole next night doing the five miles, but doing them carefully. We had had a big "debate" about this.
We were so empty and weak, one moment we thought to dash for it, that waiting another 24 hours might make us weaker, but then we decided on the 24 hours and we all agreed, I'm glad to say, so that if any were caught, one couldn't say "I told you so".
I think we had a thunderstorm each night we were out, in some ways it was a help, we collected water and it cooled us! This last night was the worst of the lot. It blew a gale with torrents of rain from the NW right in our teeth.
We set out that night glad to leave our heather bed and made for the woods. These reach right up to the frontier. The going was terrible, and would have been even if we hadn't been weak and hungry, with big trees fallen across our path and across one another.
We had nothing left but our maps and compasses, rucksacks etc. all thrown away. We were going very slowly, both from necessity and design, mostly the former, and had adopted single file formation, about 10 yards between each, this for safety. Head down and rain beating into us, we completely, for the first time, lost our way.
We knew we couldn't go far wrong, but we felt we should have struck the Ems Canal before this. We had been walking parallel to it! Eventually we hit it and crossed, it didn't matter whether we swam or walked through it, we couldn't be any wetter, and then we made for the Ems River, quite close, possibly half a mile.
This we reached, it must have taken us an hour. We seemed to be wandering amongst soldiers' huts most of the time, a dangerous place. We got to the river, heads down and wet to the skin against the storm. We plodded on.
I must have been either half asleep or half silly, anyway I woke with a start to the shouts of "Halt, Halt!" I had actually poked my head against a German soldier's chest! I heard shots being fired and that's all I remember. I sat down in the mud!
The two sentries didn't leave me there long. My two pals had vanished so I was the "bag". They asked me if I were a "Rusky", this question I was always ready for, it meant life or death and I didn't want death. I shouted as well as I could "No. Englander, Englander".
Ruskies weren't generally seen again when retaken, but for the English there was a reward. I told them I came from Holzminden, and then in their excitement they told me that whole frontier was warned of the escape and the guards doubled everywhere. Of course I was anxious to know how many got away, and they told me 29. So seven after me got out, wonderful.
BIG REWARD FOR THE MAJOR
29 out of the worst camp in Germany! I could have danced with joy. Then I became their firm friend, and they said "yes, 29 and one of them is a Major and there is a big reward for him."
I said, "I'm the Major." My God they both closed round me in case I vanished into thin air, and then I suppose this prize was much too valuable to be risking on the banks of a river, as they both got their bicycles.
One led, I wheeled the other bike and the owner walked behind me with his rifle touching the small of my back. No chances here I thought. We crossed the river by a bridge and walked about 200 yards to the German frontier guard room.
There I was received by the Sergeant just as dawn broke, the dawn of August 4th. After examining my pockets, God help us, he gave me a cup of hot coffee (it was good!) and a cigarette, and told me lie down on a wooden bench along the wall. I went to sleep.
About 10, I should think, I was taken out by an escort and marched up the road, still in the direction of Holland, not more than 100 yards away, to the railway station. The other side of the station was touching Holland! Do you see - from the river to the guard room and then on to the station - safe - 500 yards. I missed it by that!
I found out afterwards the next fellow to reach the frontier took, I think, 18, 19 days, so we must have walked pretty well to beat him by four days. Half an hour in the train, this time back towards "home", we stopped and stepping onto the platform I met a pal who was to be my companion for the next three days.
He had handcuffs on and was, I believe, a spy, anyway they told me he was shot soon afterwards. Thank God they didn't mix us up, but he was quite respectable. I think he had a collar and tie, anyway he had a tie. We then marched through the streets of this town, it had turned out quite a nice day.
By now the party was, a sergeant, two soldiers, fixed bayonets, my pal with the handcuffs and myself, a Major in His Majesty's army. It was a nice show, everybody naturally stopped and looked at it, and the children and the dogs followed.
We arrived at about lunchtime at the common lock-up of the town, a whitewashed building. I remember at least the outside had been whitewashed, not so the inside. A big fierce looking barred door was opened, and we went in. At least I was more lucky than my handcuffed pal, I only got a push on the shoulder; he got a kick in the bottom.
MARCHED AT FIXED BAYONETS
I must tell you why I think people stopped to stare at the party, naturally the handcuffs attracted attention and the fixed bayonets, but I really think I was the attraction.
As I have said, I go through the tunnel in a khaki sweater and a pair of grey flannel trousers (that didn't improve them), then two weeks of the life I led. I remember one trouser leg had gone at the knee, and the other, although still reaching to my boot, was all split up one side. How the back was, I can't say, I hadn't seen that since I put it on at Holzminden.
Nor had I seen my face, though I could feel a big beard. Not having brushed my hair for two weeks, I suppose that didn't look too good. Now happened about the funniest time I have ever had. Into this bare, filthy cell we went.
It was about the size of a sitting room. It had a bare sloping bench against one wall. In one corner was a big barrel, this latter you could use for anything you liked, and by the appearance it had been in use a long, long time. The occupants were six French private soldiers and one Russian.
One Frenchman, a nice fellow, immediately went into shrieks of laughter and shouted out "Don't come near us, we're crawling." I said, also in French "So am I." This seemed to make us all friends. We all talked except the Rusky, he sat and laughed and made funny noises when any one spoke. Then my Frenchman asked me what I was, I said "English" and that they caught me escaping.
He said he'd been caught too, he knew no language apparently, then he said "What rank are you? Sergeant?" I said: "Major." This caused great and renewed merriment, and in between his roars of laughter, when he could speak, he kept saying to his pals and pointing at me, "Mon Dieu, look at the Major, Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu," and then more roars.
We all got sick laughing. They were great fellows. Rusky roared too, but he poor fellow didn't know what on earth he was laughing for. It was great fun.
They asked me if I had any food, then it was my turn to laugh. Then I remembered the bit of biscuit I had kept to "hearten me." This I looked for, and hauled out what should have been about half a biscuit. It was a yellow sodden-looking mess.
FRENCH TAKE 10,000 PRISONERS
This I divided amongst the seven of them, they in turn searched in their pockets and found enough tobacco to make me a cigarette in a bit of newspaper. Then the Frenchman asked me if I had heard the news. I said No. He said that last week the French had taken prisoner some 10,000 and killed I don't remember how many of these, and pointing through the door to where the Germans would be at the other side, he called them some names that I'm not repeating.
24 hours here passed very quickly, and then I said goodbye to my friends and was led off to be questioned. By now I was a bit hungry and the man who questioned me said if I had any money he would send out and buy me some food! How could a prisoner of war have money, it was absolutely forbidden. Anyway I had five marks! and I had to part with it. I was famished.
He brought me one sandwich (small) and two cigars. This fellow spoke English and I said the price reminded me of the Carlton in London. Then into another train and off to another town, but far away.
THE BATTLE OF JUTLAND
Here I was housed in great style in a proper big prison, it was a huge place, a convict prison. I had a nice cell to myself and they brought me a plate of soup with a boiled potato in it. Why I remember this, I don't know. The prison was beautifully situated, nice gardens, etc. but no chance of getting out, at least not in a short time.
Here I was questioned at great length by a typical Prussian officer. He didn't like me to come too close to him, I don't blame him. He said he spoke English. When he couldn't understand me, he put it down to my being in an Irish regiment! He was also very indignant that I should fight for England. Oh a real, nasty man.
Here they told me they didn't want to shoot me, but there would be no question about it if I made the least attempt to escape. I said if they gave me a meal there might be some talk of escaping, but in my present condition I was harmless.
Things were looking serious, I thought. One can't go forever without some food. Still none came. Two days here and then one morning my cell door was thrown open and an armed escort said "March." So I marched to the station and in twelve hours I reached Holzminden station in a fifth class carriage. What a journey.
It was on this journey that a German sailor told me he had been at the Battle of Jutland, and if the fleet went out again, they'd go without him. He didn't believe in the German victory on that occasion.
My reception in the camp was mixed, of course. Niemeyer kicked up the devil of a row, I suppose he had had it already from Berlin for allowing the escape of 29 officers. I was, of course, taken straight down to the cells, I did six weeks there. I can't say I was sorry anyway to do a couple of weeks solitary, having got back to Holzminden, as the reaction set in.
I didn't want to see anybody, at least not for some time. I was dead tired. I had lost two stone in two weeks. The back kick of it all, I had had good luck too. All of the others who didn't get to Holland were already back. None of them had been out more than a week and most of them only a day or two.
It seemed to me such a waste of a tunnel, after all the work and worry, that people should get out and then not be able to take advantage of it. Most of them couldn't walk and I don't think any of them knew how to use a compass or map, they just wandered about and got lost and caught.
One German officer, when the Commandant wasn't looking shook hands with me and said he would be so proud if the German officers in England could have done what we did. I was describing to him on the map my route and how far I had got.
He was surprised and told me none of the others had got more than 30 or 40 miles and he agreed with me when I said it was a damned shame to waste a good tunnel in that manner. He was a nice fellow and hated the Commandant. Then the kind Commandant wouldn't give me a bath for six weeks! After coming back in the state in which I was - Nasty!
We had a glorious Court Martial, that's almost a story in itself. Enough to say I got six months in a fortress which I never did - the war ended."
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Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Friday 23rd April 2004, last updated Tuesday 31st March 2015.