Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Escape Artists: a band of daredevil pilots and the greatest prison break-out of WW1
Neal Bascomb John Murray, 23 August 2018
The escapes from Nazi PoW camps in WW2 are well-documented, none less so than Roger Bushell’s infamous Great Escape, where some 100 largely British prisoners tunnelled their way to freedom. Hitler was so incensed at this humiliation that c. 50 were shot, after arrest, by Gestapo thugs. The subsequent search for these criminals made for a fascinating book – see here.
Much less documented are the escapes in WW1, so the publication of Bascomb’s book is timely given the forthcoming centenary of the Armistice. WW1 was of course dominated, for most of its course, by a very static front. “It looks from the air as if the gods had made a gigantic steam roller, 40 miles wide, and run it from the coast to Switzerland, leaving its spike holes behind as it went,” is the description of one airman, quoted by Bascomb. The narrative moves a little sideways with an excursion to the origins of military aviation. The author is not entirely at ease in writing about flight; another slight irritation for a British reader is the author’s American English: somehow it is incongruent to read “roiled”, “on the lam”, and “barbwire” in the context of the Western Front. One might have hoped for some fine tuning for the English edition.
Bascomb focuses on an inner group of 5 dedicated escapers at Holzminden – the Germans’ prison for committed bad boys - and an outer circle of 10 more, including Lt. FW Hervey, whose poems add some lyricism to these pages. What will surprise many readers is the harsh conditions that prisoners endured in WW1, and how incidents of savagery by the guards matched those of the Nazis 25 years later. At Holzminden this was driven by the CO, one Niemeyer, who sadly escaped justice after the Armistice. The inventiveness of the British prisoners was a match for those in the later conflict, and, much aided by implements smuggled from Blighty in posted items, numerous escape attempts were made. Whilst most failed, the dedicated Holzminden team learned from their mistakes, and the final break-out was a masterpiece of endurance and planning.
This was essentially an officers’ PoW camp; the unsung heroes are the ‘orderlies’ – other ranks who performed batman duties for the officers. They aided the escapers greatly, at huge risk to themselves, when there was no chance of their own escape. It was fitting that they were guests of honour at the reunion celebrations at (that quintessential British ) pub, the Cheshire Cheese, in 1938.
Bascomb builds up the tension beautifully before each break-out, and at least this reader was willing the men on the run to freedom in the books’ closing pages. Whilst I have not read any of the previous books which covered this and other WW1 escapes, and so can draw no comparisons, The Escape Artists, is a fascinating tale, well-told.