Exhibition to showcase the Great Escape of 1918

September 22nd, 2008 - 3:15 pm ICT by ANI  

London, September 22 (ANI): Though the movie The Great Escape might have dramatized on the silver screen the story of the prisoners of war who tunneled their way out of Holzminden camp, a tough PoW (Prisoners of War) camp in Germany in 1918, a major exhibition will showcase how the escapees pioneered the subterfuge.

According to a report in The Guardian, the audacious bid for freedom will be featured in the Imperial War Museum Londons show In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War, marking the 90th anniversary of the armistice on 11 November.

Everybodys 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, he added.

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 camps 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.

The tunnel 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. (ANI)

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