Prisioner of War Germany
Camp Holzminden- Hellminden
The true Story of the greatest Escape
in the annals of Wartime Adventure !
The story of the first and most brilliant tunnel-escape
from a top-security prision ever conducted.
Holzminden had been allocated the status of a punishment camp.
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.
The camp today ,home of German troops
Interview from the BBC London
with Professor Saul David
Historian,Novelist and Broadcaster
In 1918 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 south-west of Hanover, Germany.
The men dug for eight months using just cutlery and bowls, before escaping in July 1918. Of the 29 men, 19 were caught and 10 reached Holland on foot.
Their breakout is the subject of a new Channel 5 documentary, The First Great Escape, due to air on Sunday 23 March. It will feature interviews with historians and experts who have uncovered new evidence of what happened during the planning and execution of the escape, as well as rare archive photographs of the camp and the escapees, and dramatic reconstructions.
Here, Saul David, the lead historian behind the programme, tells History Extra how the getaway formed the blueprint for the famous Second World War Great Escape.
Q: What was life like in the Holzminden Prisoner of War (PoW) Camp?
A: It was the biggest camp for officers – it held about 550 officers and 150 orderlies. Interestingly, despite the fact they were being held in a prisoner of war camp, the Germans still felt the men should have privates in charge of them.
It was a tough place to be incarcerated. It was a pretty Spartan existence – they slept on small mattresses, and the blankets were almost never changed. There was no heating either. They were pretty grim conditions.
The PoWs called the camp ‘Hellzminden’. And the camp commandant, Karl Niemeyer, had an appalling reputation for cruelty. He was a really vindictive character who made life particularly difficult for the soldiers.
Torture and summary execution were not unknown at the camp.
The soldiers wanted to escape – it’s an unspoken rule that all officers are expected to escape; it’s in their military code. But a lot of people wouldn’t have wanted to escape and go back to the trenches.
Q: So how did the men get out?
A: They started preparing in November 1917, and escaped on the evening of 24 July 1918. They dug using spoons, sharpened cutlery and tools stolen from the camp, and they used bed slats to shore it.
They designed and made an ingenious ventilation system, fake uniforms and official papers.
But the plan was tinged with a lot of bad luck. They initially planned to dig [an underground tunnel] only a short distance, but their plan was scuppered by a guard who got suspicious.
So they then had to dig another, longer tunnel. You could only crawl down it – when you had gone in you could not go back. But they stuck with it, amazingly.
There were 13 men involved in the digging, and others standing guard. It was agreed that the diggers would leave first, and would be followed by ‘the ruck’ – any other men who wanted out.
100 men were due to escape, but only 29 made it. At that point, the tunnel collapsed, and the 30th man became stuck. It must have been terrifying.
Of the 29 men, 19 were caught and 10 made their way to Holland safely on foot. Among the men who made it to Holland were the three ‘main’ diggers, who were great friends.
One of them spoke excellent German, so en route to Holland they pretended he was a German guard in charge of the other two. One of them pretended to be insane in order to avoid rousing suspicion, as they made the 150km journey through Germany.
They made it to the neutral Dutch border, and from there they had safe passage back to Britain. They made it back to England to be greeted as heroes.
This was the Great Escape of the First World War. And the men got out of a camp that had notoriously tight security – Niemeyer boasted that Holzminden was escape-proof. So it was the ultimate challenge.
Q: Why do you think the original escape is less well known than the second?
A: Firstly, people’s attention and popular culture has focused on the Second World War. Secondly, the popular perception that the First World War was a costly war has prompted the question, ‘did we need to fight it?’, whereas the Second World War seems much clearer, because we needed to fight the Nazis.
But because the original escape was once so well known, the men who escaped during the Second World War almost certainly used it as a template. There are a number of similarities – in the way the tunnels were dug, and the way in which they hoodwinked the Germans. And both escapes involved amazing ingenuity.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Channel 5 programme?
A: I came across the story of the escape when I was working on my book, 100 Days to Victory, and I thought it was amazing. But it’s been forgotten about.
A lot of the material was first-hand – for example, I read the diaries of some of the escapees. They were very colourful and energetic.
Q: Why do you think the idea of the Great Escape continues to fascinate?
A: It’s an extraordinary example of human endeavour against a seemingly hopeless cause. To think that you would dig for eight months using only cutlery – it’s hard to imagine a way you would keep going.
And it’s amazing to think you could escape from a seemingly impregnable prison.
It’s inspiring that they had the sheer determination not to let the circumstances of incarceration beat them. It strikes a real chord with people. These were amazing feats by extraordinary people.
The First Great Escape airs on Channel 5 on Sunday 23 March.
You can see the film (46min) on youtube
" The first great Escape"
Click here :http://youtu.be/GT_zWP1Ovz8
filmed in Holzminden
inside Saul David with Michael Melching at Holzminden barracks