The forgotten first Great Escape of 1918

It is one of the best-known stories of the Second World War, popularised by the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough. But what few people realise is that the 1944 Great Escape was inspired by an even more audacious getaway, orchestrated more than 20 years earlier.

Group photo of Offiers at Holzminden POW camp
Image provided by Channel 5

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.

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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 was the subject of a Channel 5 documentary, The First Great Escape, which aired in March 2014. It featured interviews with historians and experts who had 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.

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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.

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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 aired on Channel 5 in March 2014. To find out more, click here.

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