In the footsteps of the Tunnellers of Holzminden

“As a professional battlefield tour guide and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides I regularly visit the countryside, towns and villages of Northwest Europe to discuss the battles that raged across the canvas that is the battlefield. I talk about the deliberate attacks, meeting engagements, hasty defence and other aspects of war in order to paint the picture of the events that took place. Normally the tour ends on the battlefield, but more recently I have begun to consider not just the battlefield but what happened to those who survived and were taken captive.”

As a young boy I grew up on tails of the daring deeds and escapes by the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Second World War. The stories about Colditz and films like the Great Escape, with that memorable scene of Steve McQueen trying to jump the wire on a motorbike, readily spring to mind. What appears to be relatively unknown however are the stories relating to those captured during the 1914-18 Great War.

Many of the Officers and men captured in the 1914-18 Great War, just like their counterparts some 20 or so years later, did not meekly enter captivity after they became a Prisoner of War. Many attempted to escape, some managed to make it back to their own country to rejoin the battle once again, whilst others were recaptured and returned to be unwilling guests of His Imperial Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm II.

This is the story of one such escape by 29 British officers from the Holzminden Officer Prisoner of War Camp in Hanover, Germany.

Holzminden had been established in September 1917 and Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer was the commandant. He had spent 17 years in the United States before the war and had a good command of the English Language. Niemeyer prided himself on the fact that he had made Holzminden so secure that escape was impossible. He was also an arrogant and vindictive man, who taunted his captives, often handing out extreme punishments, including solitary confinement, for petty infringements of the camp rules and minor offences. Hauptmann Niemeyer also siphoned off a portion of the prisoners food and pilfered their food parcels.

Karl Niemeyer had however, underestimated the ingenuity of his British captives. Within a month of the camp’s establishment 17 officers escaped, but all were swiftly recaptured. Other attempts followed, but these also failed with the officers being returned to their confinement. It was against this backdrop that a small group of thirteen British officers devised a plan an escape by digging a tunnel. These thirteen officers were: Lieutenant Mardock, Lieutenant Lawrence, Captain Gray, Lieutenant Butler, Captain Langren, Lieutenant Wainwright, Lieutenant Macleod, Captain Bain, Captain Kennard, Lieutenant Robertson, Lieutenant Clouston, Lieutenant Morris and Lieutenant Paddison.

Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer

Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer, Commandant of Holzminden POW Camp.


The group worked in teams of three to dig the tunnel. Only one officer could work at the face at any one time and he had to pick away with his improvised tools removing stones and soil. He loaded this debris into pans that a second officer at the tunnel’s opening dragged back using a length of rope. Here the second officer transferred the spoil of the tunnel into sacks that he stacked in the basement. The third officer worked the bellows of a makeshift air system to feed fresh air to the officer at the tunnel’s face. During their shift the three officers rotated through these tasks.

In the first two months of its construction, between mid-October and mid-December 1917, the tunnel had reached to about 15 yards in length. They were under the wall and outside of the camp. Despite the urge that this presented to affect their escape and the back-breaking efforts that it took to dig the tunnel, to the group resisted and continued to extend the tunnel further.

Beyond the camp perimeter was a field of rye. The plan was to dig out far enough to exit the tunnel in this field so that the officers would be hidden from the German sentries. By the end of June 1918 the end of the tunnel was estimated to be still 10 or so yards short of the rye. With harvest time approaching there was a danger that the crop would be gathered before the tunnel was completed. Just short of the rye filed was a row of beans that afforded a degree of cover. Though not as good as that provided by the rye the tunnellers, fearing that they would miss their chance, decided to use the screen of beans to shield their exit from view.

The course of the tunnel
The course of the Holzminden Tunnel.

The entrance to the tunnel was through a secret door that had been made in the wall of the basement to Block B on the Orderlies’ side of the Block. To reach it the tunnellers made a hole in the attic wall between the Officers’ and Orderlies’ Quarters through which they would climb before descending the stairs in the Orderlies’ Quarters to the secret door. Whilst commuting between the Officers’ and Orderlies’ Quarters the tunnellers would dress in their orderlies’ clothing not to arouse suspicion should they be seen.

The tunnel entrance

The Entrance to the Holzminden Tunnel.

The location of the tunnel entrance

The location of the tunnel entrance at Holzminden POW Camp.


By mid-July 1918 the tunnel was ready, it had taken nine months to dig and extended some 60 yards out from the basement of Block B. This was about 10 yards within the outer walls of the camp so the tunnel exit was effectively 50 yards beyond the camp wall. With all now ready the order of priority was decided by the Senior British Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Rathborne RMLI, and British camp Adjutant, Captain Hugh G Durnford. The tunnellers would be given priority over all others and exit from the tunnel first. One hour later, Lieutenant Colonel Rathborne, Lieutenant Bausfield and Captain Lyon, the latter two who had both been closely involved in the project, would make good their escape. Next came six more officers who whilst not directly involved with the digging of the tunnel had acted as the scouts keeping watch for the guards or performed other valuable deeds. One hour after these had exited would come ‘the ruck’, all of those other officers wishing to make good their escape. These latter officers would not be informed of the escape until after evening roll-call on the night that the escape would take place.

On the night of the 24th July 1918 Captain Durnford took overall charge of the escape from the inside, assisting him was Lieutenant Louis Grieve who acting as traffic controller in the attic. Lieutenant Butler was to be the cutting-out man, the man who was to be first out of the tunnel and had to dig through the last few feet to the surface.

The orderlies had been thoroughly warned, and those who had volunteered to help fully understood their duties. One was to receive the officers as they came through the hole in the attic one by one. He was to signal the next man to come through when the coast was clear. Another was to guide officers to the tunnel entrance down the staircase and through the planks, and two more were to be on duty at the actual tunnel entrance. Traffic was to be carefully controlled and not more than two officers were to be allowed inside the Orderlies’ Quarters at a time. If there was a hitch, the orderly on the Orderlies’ side of the attic hole was to warn Lieutenant Grieve immediately and the transfer of the officers into the Orderlies’ Quarters would cease.

At 21:00 hrs the doors of Block B were locked and the British Officers went to their rooms. At 22:00 hrs the German guard did his rounds closing all of the windows in the corridors and until he was well clear of the build it was unsafe for the escape to commence.

At 22:15 hrs Lieutenant Butler left his room and made his way up to the attic with the next two men on the escape list. They passed through the hole in the attic into the Orderlies’ Quarters before descending to the tunnel’s entrance. Lieutenant Butler entered the tunnel and commenced the dig at 22:30 hrs with the other two working as his team. The remaining members of the tunnellers gathered on the Officers’ side of the attic to await the signal to proceed. By 23:30 hrs Lieutenant Butler broke the surface and the exit from the tunnel was open. The remaining members of the tunnellers move quickly through the hole in the attic, down and into the tunnel. Within a matter of minutes they had all passed through the tunnel and were away.

Ensuring that the plan was strictly adhered to Captain Hugh Durnford went around the rooms warning the next men on the list to be ready. At 23:30 he went to see Lieutenant Louis Grieve and was told that the tunnellers were away, all was going to plan.

At 00:30 the next batch of nine escapees led by Lieutenant Colonel C Rathborne, Lieutenant Bausfield and Captain Lyon climbed through the hole in the attic. By 01:15 hrs they too were away.

At 01:10 hrs Captain Durnford began his rounds a second time assembling those next on the list. The first of these began to go through the tunnel as planned one hour after the previous party had exited. Only three had gone through when the orderly on the Orderlies’ side of the hole in the attic reported a hitch to Lieutenant Grieve. He reported that he would let Louis Grieve know when it was all clear. The time was now about 01:30 hrs.

With no news having been received from the Orderlies’ Quarters by 03:00 hrs Captain Durnford agreed that Captain Sharp, who was one of those due to go through, should climb through the hole in the attic and see what was going on. After quarter of an hour Captain Sharp returned to report that there was no one about and that the tunnel was empty. In the absence of the orderlies’ it was decided to send the next five officers through at five minute intervals led by Captain Sharp.

When none of these returned it was assumed that the tunnel was still clear and the next half-dozen were passed through the hole in the attic again with about five minutes between each. The last of these was an Australian Captain Gardiner who subsequently returned to report that the tunnel was blocked. It transpired that someone had got stuck in the tunnel and was urging those behind him to back up and let him out. Those behind however, urged him to go forward and thus the tunnel had become impassable. It became apparent that the tunnel had become blocked at the bottom of the slope to the final exit. This had been caused by a landslip as the officers had exited the tunnel, which although only small in scale was enough to make it impassable. With dawn approaching it was decided that everyone should return to their beds in the hope that nothing would be discovered until the 09:00 hrs parade.

The Holzminden Tunnel

Block (Kaserne) B and the Holzminden Tunnel.

Holzminden Tunnel

The Holzminden Tunnel after it had been exposed following the escape.


Two officers remained stuck in the tunnel and they with a few assistants remained in the basement. If they managed to be extricated from the tunnel they were to return to their rooms by the route that they had gone out. They were eventually released, but when they emerged from the secret door and up the stairs they found the door of the Orderlies’ Quarters open. For some reason the two officers who had been stuck in the tunnel went out of the door into the cookhouse of the enclosure. There they were met by a startled Hauptmann Niemeyer who was taking an early morning stroll. At first he did not realise what was afoot, but a few minutes later a much exited farmer appeared at the postern gate. The farmer led Niemeyer across the field towards his trampled rye field that had a dozen visible tracks running through it towards the woods on the far side. It was then the Karl Niemeyer finally understood what had gone on, “So, ein Tunnel.”

The question on his mind now was ‘how many had escaped?’ He sent a Feldwebel, Warrant Officer, to determine the number. The Feldwebel returned to Niemeyer still in the rye field with a list of 26 names. Karl Niemeyer at first turned grey at the realisation that so many had escaped, but this quickly turned to anger as the sound of laughter floated across the field from the upper windows of Block B.

Galvanised into action Hauptmann Niemeyer placed a sentry at the exit of the tunnel, ordered the outer doors of the blocks to be locked, placed the windows at the tunnel end of the block out of bounds and went off to his headquarters to report the escape. He subsequently issues emergency orders ‘for the safety of the camp’ that effectively prevented all movement between the blocks and prevented the officers moving about in anything more than pairs. It was midday before the doors of the Blocks were unlocked.

The first two escapees to be recaptured were Captain Sharp and Captain Luscombe who had been the last two out of the tunnel. They had been at liberty for just two and half days and had been caught passing through a village at night about 15 miles down the River Weser. Within six days a number of others had also been rounded up and after 10 days some of the foremost spirits of the adventure, Lieutenants Mardock, Lawrence, Butler, and Captain Langren, were brought back to the camp. Butler had stolen a bicycle and was caught on it while passing through a village. The others had been taken in the vicinity of the Ems. 14 days after the escape Captain Philip Smith was recaptured just three miles of the Dutch border.

The real success of the venture was that 10 of the 29 officers that escaped on the 24th July 1918 managed to eventually return to England. They were: Captain D B Gray, Lieutenant Blaine, Lieutenant Kennard, Lieutenant Bousfield, and Lieutenant L J Bennett all of the ‘tunnellers’ and Lieutenant S S B Purves, Lieutenant J H Tullis, Lieutenant Campbell-Martin, Captain Leggatt and the Senior British Officer Lieutenant Colonel C E H Rathborne.

Lieutenant Colonel Rathborne had crossed the Dutch border within three days of the escape and addressed a post card from The Hague to his former mess-mate confirming that he had escaped and reached safety. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Edward Henry Rathborne was subsequently awarded a bar to his DSO on 16th December 1919 “For gallantry in escaping from captivity whilst a prisoner of war.”

All those who were recaptured were kept in solitary confinement until early September, when they were released from their confinement to await court-martial. This trial took place on 27th September 1918 and the officers, who were charged as a group, were represented by a lawyer. A representative of the Netherlands Ambassador in Berlin also attended the trial to act in their interests. They were found guilty by the court and each sentenced to six months imprisonment, to be served in a fortress, on a combined charge of mutiny and damage to property. As it transpired the sentence was never carried out, as the military situation in German had so deteriorated it was becoming obvious that the war was in its closing stages.

After allowing so many prisoners escape from his camp, and in the light of the continued British advance into Germany, Karl Niemeyer changed his tactics. He rarely came within the precincts of the camp in the period up to the end of the war and within a few days of the 11th November 1918 he slipped away into anonymity.
 

© Ian R Gumm, 2009

 

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