The Big Stunt – escape in the First World War

Escape equipment belonging to a POW at Holzminden Camp, Germany. IWM EPH 810

A German prisoner of war camp. A tunnel. A plan for a mass breakout. If you think this is a familiar story you’d be right – but this isn’t the ‘Great Escape’. This was the Big Stunt, when 10 Allied Officers made a ‘home run’ after escaping from Holzminden prisoner of war (POW) camp on the night of 23/24 July 1918. In this article, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Trevor Torkington takes a look at the camp and the stories of those who escaped.

 

  • The Camp

Holzminden is located in northern Germany on the River Weser, approximately 150km from the Dutch border. A POW camp for British officers was established there in 1917 and was quickly placed under the command of Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer who, along with his twin brother Heinrich in charge of the nearby camp at Clausthal, would make life a living hell for the prisoners.  Lieutenant Leonard Pearson had been in six camps while in captivity and expressed the view that Holzminden was the worst, with the very worst commandant.

Portrait of Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson VC. IWM Q 66470

German troops were encouraged to use their bayonets to encourage discipline, and Niemeyer frequently ordered his troops to fire on prisoners leaning out of windows. One prisoner who Niemeyer took deliberate delight in punishing was Captain William Leefe Robinson who had received the Victoria Cross for shooting down a Zeppelin in September 1916. When Robinson was shot down himself in April 1917 he was eventually transferred to Holzminden where, after a failed escape attempt, he was kept in solitary confinement (known to the POWs as “the chamber of horrors”) almost continually. He was subjected to sleep deprivation and only permitted meagre rations. On one occasion he was whipped to the point of collapse for disobeying an order.

It was under these harsh conditions that prisoners began to forge a plan for escape, and the construction of a tunnel began in autumn 1917 near to the camp’s perimeter fence.

 

  • The tunnel

As the work progressed many of the original tunnellers were transferred out of the camp (possibly on the suspicion that something was going on), and a number of others were interned in Holland until the end of the war as part of a prisoner exchange programme. This could have led to abandonment of the plan but for the transfer to the camp of three friends and serial escapees: Captain David ‘Munshi’ Gray; Lieutenant Cecil Blain; and Lieutenant Caspar Kennard.

They were willingly recruited and eventually a tunnelling team of thirteen officers was formed. As tunnelling progressed a supplementary team was formed where support activities, such as smuggling in escape equipment, could be managed. Some of the methods of obtaining equipment may have followed the novel approach taken by Captain Thomas George Mapplebeck, who acquired an Army and Navy Stores catalogue and ordered a number of useful items such as compasses and civilian clothing.

Panama hat for use as a civilian disguise. IWM EPH 3682

Most of this was hidden before the Germans discovered it, but for refusing to reveal where he was hiding six hats (which had already been confiscated once, and recovered) he was sentenced to six months’ solitary confinement.

 

  • The Escape

By the time the tunnel was ready in summer 1918, eighty six men were eager to escape. Twenty-nine prisoners actually got out of the tunnel on the evening of 23/24 July, before it caved in. Some of the escapees travelled alone but the others were in pairs and threes all aiming for the Dutch border, crossing the Weser on the way.

Portrait photograph of Captain E W Leggatt. IWM HU 124039

Some of those fluent in German decided to take the train which, in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Rathborne, meant he was able to cross the border just five days after his escape. He was followed a few days later by travelling companions Lieutenants John Keith Bousfield and Leonard James Bennett, and also Captain Edward Wilmer Leggatt. Over the course of the next few days they were joined by six more of their comrades. One of the last to arrive was Second Lieutenant Peter (Pierre) Campbell-Martin – he went on to serve in the Second World War and was sadly killed in a bombing mission in October 1941.

In total ten escapees made it to freedom, with the rest being captured a few days or weeks after escaping.

In total ten escapees made it to freedom, with the rest being captured a few days or weeks after escaping. Perhaps the unluckiest was Lieutenant Alan Thomas Shipwright, who was caught just a few hundred yards from the Dutch border.

 

  • Aftermath

All the recaptured officers were sent back to Holzminden. They were kept in solitary confinement for up to eight weeks living on bread and water. Niemeyer ordered reprisals against the prisoners, confiscating goods from home and randomly arresting prisoners for no reason.

Despite this, work on a new tunnel began within two weeks of the Big Stunt. Where escape attempts failed, the consequences were severe. Second Lieutentant Alexander Couston was shot in the arm and the jaw as he tried to surrender upon recapture – although he survived, he required treatment at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup once repatriated.

That didn’t deter other would-be escapers, however, such Canadian Lieutenant William Samuel Stephenson who escaped in October 1918. Interestingly, in the Second World War Stepehenson was recruited for UK-US intelligence activity, and it is believed by many that he was the inspiration for James Bond.

 

  • Legacy

A film about the escape entitled ‘Who Goes Next?’ was released in 1938, and there was a reunion later that year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the escape in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street, London. The pub, a listed building, still exists and I have every intention of raising a pint (or two) to the twenty nine men who made it through the tunnel one hundred years ago, and to the ten who made it home.

Discover more stories of men who were imprisoned in Holzminden, in this Lives of the First World War Community

 

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