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A Great War Great Escape – Captain Shaw and the Holzminden Escape Tunnel

An incredible story from the SOFO Museum Archives, Captain J Shaw's account of how he became a Great War POW and his involvement in a number of escape attempts was originally published in three instalments in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry's Regimental Journal from September 1931 to January 1932. A few years later, in March 1939, the Journal would also publish a number of Shaw's sketches of the tunnel which he had sent in.

The article below reproduces the entire text of Shaw's story, bringing together all three parts of My Attempts to Break Prison, with a number of photographs and sketches for illustration -also originally published in the Regimental Journal.

My Attempts to Break Prison

By Capt. J. Shaw


It was Railway Wood, early 1916, the most easterly point of the Ypres salient, and for that reason scarcely the most comfortable, that decided me! Down that familiar shaft, 30 feet underground, with the candle-flame doing its continual "shimmy " when the earth trembled at the shells landing above us with their "bu-loom, bu-loom," came an orderly from Battalion H.Q.

Officers, it appeared, were urgently required for the Inland Water Transport, the Anti-Aircraft Corps, and the Royal Flying Corps, and any of these would certainly provide a more congenial occupation than that to which we had become so accustomed so we applied, by signing the forms, then and there, and forgot all about it! Then came July, 1916, and the Somme. On August 14th I was warned to report at Doullens with a view to testing my suitability or otherwise for the R.F.C. The interviewing officer was an old Caius College man who had seen Marlow dead-heat with, and eventually beat, Caius in a Thames Cup heat at Henley Regatta in 1913. I was fortunate enough to have rowed in that eight, and cannot help thinking that this had something to do with my being one of four out of forty who were sent at once to England to train as pilots.

On October 25th, 1916, I was back in France as a qualified pilot with eleven hours solo flying experience, from which it will be appreciated that in those days the casualties in the air were getting very severe and one had to rely on war flying-and certainly good fortune during the first few weeks-to develop one's airworthiness. In those weeks I got two real shocks, the engine being shot up the first time (we were flying that good old war-horse the FE2B-pusher) and the elevator controls the second, both resulting in crashes within three hundred yards of our Front Line, and in each case, of course, we were shelled almost as soon as we " landed." Our job was fighting reconnaissance (photography chiefly) and short distance bombing, a pilot and observer to each machine, and the squadron photographed the Hindenburg line twice, from Cambrai to St. Quentin within ten weeks, while the enemy were still in the Bapaume-Peronne line. There was a wonderful family spirit in old 22 Sqdn., which was indicated by our motto -"22, Till all's blue".

In February 1917 my observer, who operated both Lewis guns, went home to become a pilot, and his successor and I were "downed" twice more, once in flames after taking oblique photographs of the Butte de Warlencourt, but our log book gave us a slight credit balance as a result of arguments with our then enemies. We had many casualties in April, and in May I took over a flight in a Nieuport single-seater squadron (No. 40 at Bruay). We had an unwritten law in the R.F.C., that, if anyone were going on leave, he did not fly the previous day.

On June 6th, General Trenchard paid us a visit, and No. 40 had an excellent record, and included "Micky" Mannock, then about five weeks old as a war pilot, who subsequently was decorated with the V.C. and credited with 73 enemy machines. The Messines mines were to " go up " on the morrow, the 7th, and the General wanted every machine available in the air. I was going on leave on the 8th, and our " unwritten law " was, on that occasion, unobserved. At dawn we went over the trenches very low, and shot up Douai aerodrome as the Germans were getting their machines out, and all our " birds " got home to breakfast.

Our next job that day was at 16,000 feet over Messines -to keep that part of the sky strictly private. There were ten of us, and we had not been there many minutes when we were attacked by some thirty hostile machines. Air fights do not last many seconds before a decision is reached, and this was a proper " dog-fight." Two of our fellows went down almost at once, but were soon followed by four of the enemy. The remainder of the latter streaked away and I found myself some twenty kilometres over the lines with not another machine in sight. When alone your orders were, of course, to try to locate other friendly people, and finish your patrol with them. I suddenly spotted eight German Albatross' flying due north, one behind the other, and concluded from their formation that they might be a school of instruction flight out with " uncle," but rather near the war for af1 that, and, at 12,000 feet, some 2,000 feet below me. I had a double drum of ammunition left, and they spread out below me, losing the advantage of their formation. One slid away in the direction of Ypres, and as this was on my way home, I followed him. I don't think he ever saw me, for he let me get within fifty yards of his tail, and a lucky burst sent him towards the lines smoking. I watched him go in order to locate his possible landing and mark it on my map, when the remainder, suddenly discovered, were up with me, so I tried to outclimb them, for we firmly believed at the time that the Nieuport, with its powerfu1 Le Rhone engine, could outclimb anything.

It was a disagreeable shock for me to find they had an advantage in that respect. With not much ammunition left, the only thing to do, in view of their numbers, was to use one's wits to shake them off and get back.

I fired short bursts as a target presented itself, and put the machine in a spin -a dodge which at that time was often successful, in that your enemy thought you had been hit and were out of control- for about 2,000 feet. I came out of the spin, only to find them still with me. A not very good Immelmann turn also failed, and while in a vertical bank, a burst of fire shattered my instrument board, and the engine stopped. A moment later the " stick " jammed hard over to the left, so that, at about 8,000 feet, I was completely out of control. We were then about five kilos from the line, and it seemed a long way down, except for the last few hundred feet. At about 100 feet, the machine seemed suddenly to jerk on its back and stay the rush, and that is probably the reason I am able to talk about it to-day, for the left wing and tail hit the ground about the same time, and I remembered no more for a while.

On coming round, I found my only hurt was a broken nose, but shelling, from the Australians, I believe, was going on all round, and I had come down practically on top of a German battery! I crawled out of the wreckage and looked about for a place in which I might hide till nightfall, but ran into about twenty German Infantry on their way up to reinforce their line against our successful attack. Their attitude was such that I expected short shrift, when a diminutive officer, apparently commanding the battery, waved them on, and, holding my arm with one hand and covering me with his Mauser pistol with the other, he took me to a concrete dugout. He was quite friendly, and told me in French that he was an Alsatian. I suggested that " la guerre fini " he might find himself a Frenchman again, and he shrugged his shoulders. Soon after this, he handed me over to an escort, when, almost at the same moment, one of our own shells blew the remains of my machine into the air. They marched me to Becelaere, some five hundred yards away, where a car was waiting, into which I was quickly bundled. We had not travelled more than a mile when three of our own machines spotted us from the air, and " peppered " us without causing any damage, though the chauffeur almost left the road in his anxiety to get away from them. The fact that they bore the familiar red, white and blue ring markings seemed to me to neutralize any destructive designs they had on the car.

We stopped at Menin, where I was taken before a tall, English-speaking German officer, who spared no pains to inform me that he was a brother of Baron von Richtofen, then their most successful pilot, who was killed soon afterwards, leading his "circus". He asked me to what squadron

I belonged, and had I heard of his brother, and what was my squadron commander's name. He did not get the desired information, and seemed annoyed when I told him I had not heard of his brother until he mentioned him. I was further told that there were several more " interrogations " to come, and that I should have to answer truthfully or put up with the consequences! I was again put in the car and taken to the aerodrome of the squadron which had upset my leave arrangements, and which was stationed at Thoroudt. They seemed quite good fellows, but took no risks, for I was deprived of my boots, flying kit, and two sovereigns which I always took up with me, and given a very light pair of "pumps." After a wash (with exceptionally poor soap) I was handed over to one of their number, who told me he had spent a great part of his life in South America.

This Ober-Leutnant Observer invited me to see the machines in their hangars, where I discovered them to be the latest D5 Albatross Scouts which we had been expecting to encounter for two or three weeks, and this squadron was a naval " circus". There were seven machines "home" and I asked him where the eighth was. He said it had not yet returned from the morning's flight, and had probably had a forced landing, but I had a shrewd suspicion that the machine concerned was by then a " write-off," and I stood to gain nothing by pursuing the matter. The squadron and I were next photographed together, and I was introduced to the pilot who claimed to have brought me down, one Kurstler, a very dark, lean man, of pleasing appearance, rather like the German sculler who was beaten by Guest in the final of the Diamonds last year. We settled down in the evening to a meal of chops and vegetables, during which, with a self-satisfied air, the squadron-commander placed in front of me a bottle, which he said contained Worcester sauce, adding that it had been captured by one of their U-Boats. I tasted it, and, with due regard to his hospitality, had to disagree with him, which did not increase my popularity.

Later we retired, and I was allotted a comfortable bed in a room to myself, having previously been asked to give my word that I would not attempt to escape, which I would not do.

In the early hours, while it was still dark, I put on my clothes with the idea of finding out what the chances were of getting away. There were two sailors armed with rifles just below my window. My bedroom door was not locked so I opened it cautiously, to be met by two more sentries who rapidly came down to the " on guard " and shouted words I could not understand. I lay on the bed in my clothes till morning. After a light breakfast a military guard took me by road and rail to Ghent, where I was joined by another R.F.C. pilot, and it was from that time that I really began to learn how much the enemy hated us. We were paraded through the streets under a guard of some twenty men and a feld-webel, and any Belgian who waved to us or showed a flag was, if caught, marched away, we imagined, to give an account of himself.

We arrived at Ghent Railway Station and were at once put into an underground cellar with an arc shaped ceiling, and no light. The floor was covered with six inches of water and there were two iron bedsteads and one blanket each, which were covered with insects. Neither of us lay down for the three days and two nights we were there, and our only food in that period was two half-inch thick slices of black bread. We were not allowed to wash, and the water on the floor was too filthy for the purpose.

My companion and I were wondering if it was the intention of the enemy to persevere with this kind of treatment, when we were taken by train, after dusk on the third evening, to Dulmen -a tiring journey, rendered less bearable as we were so hungry.

In this camp of huts and strongly wired compound, we saw some hundreds of our own unfortunate rank and file; and a large number of Russians, the whole resembling what can best be described as a human zoo, all very pale, and obviously starving.

They rushed to the wire as we were marched in, and some appeared scarcely sane. We were there for two days during which we saw fifteen who had died in that period carried away for burial. One of our two serjeant-majors, who had been taken early in 1915, was told off to look after us, and gave us a biscuit each, for he 'was getting a parcel of food from England now and then. One of the first things he told us was that the front was only some fourteen kilometres away, along the line of railway from Dulmen, which he had heard was not as strongly guarded as it might be. We had no wire-cutters, but put the remains of our scanty meal in our pockets. I took a stroll round to see if there might be a weak spot in the wire I discovered a likely spot and was trying to loosen it, when a sentry saw me from some forty yards away, and promptly fired. He luckily missed and I managed to get back to the hut, where my friend and I talked over other possible means of escape, but it was obvious that little success would attend any effort not the result of very careful preparation, and, even in the short time we were there, the prevailing atmosphere of hopelessness was getting on our nerves. It came as a great relief when we were put on a train for Courtrai, where we each occupied a cell in the local gendarmerie. The food question was becoming serious for us, for the Germans needed every ounce of fat they could get, and, consequently, "kriegsgefangeners " (Prisoners-of-War) were the last to be considered.


One evening there was a tap on the door of my cell. I thought this strange, as the usual entrance was not accorded this preliminary. An elderly German gaoler in his military uniform opened the door and came in. From underneath his tunic he produced a small pastry affair which he asked me in fair English to accept. I was wondering what was behind it all when he furtively drew from his pocket two medals -the Queen's and King's South Africa War Medals! I asked him where he got them and he told me he had fought for us in the Imperial Light Horse in that campaign. He said he wanted to do what he could for me while I was at Courtrai, for there would be greater discomfort in Germany for me later on. I thanked him and later invited his assistance in the matter ff helping me to get away unobserved, but he drew the line at that, in spite of promises of what I would give him after the war.

While at Courtrai an extraordinary situation arose. A German officer said that a man from a balloon section of the British Flying Corps had walked through the lines and given himself up the week before, but he could not get his name and number out of him as he appeared dazed or stupid, and would I see what I could do with him so that his name could be sent back as a prisoner? Knowing by this time the wiles of the German Intelligence Service I had my suspicions about it, which subsequent events proved. The idea, of course, was that the nature of my questions to the man might give away information as to the situation of certain R.F.C. squadrons, balloon sections, etc. He walked in with the German officer, complete in R.F.C. mechanic's double-breasted jacket, breeches and puttees in first-class condition. The boots were new, but did not appear to me to be " issue." He had, moreover, a very clean appearance and had shaved that morning -I had not had a shave for days! He was also wearing an R.F.C. Cap, which, had he come seven miles through the lines, it was ten to one on his losing, and he certainly did not look stupid.

I asked him his name and he just shook his head. Then I asked the German officer if this was a recognised way of obtaining information. What did I mean? I told him nothing except that the man in, front of me was as genuine a German as I had ever seen. Both walked out at once, the officer heaping abuse upon my head as an English swine.

The same afternoon I was put on a train for Karlsruhe with the other English pilot, who told me he had been let in for the same thing! At a station called Oberhausen (?) we halted, and the guard took us into a waiting-room, for some acorn coffee, which was served across the counter. An irate Prussian officer, seated there with a lady, soundly admonished the guard for bringing us in. Di Balme, the other English Pilot, who understood German, said the Prussian would not tolerate the presence of English swine, so we emptied our coffee on the counter and walked out with the guard in rear, expecting further epithets which, however, never came. At Cologne we asked for -water, and were taken to another waiting room, in which were German soldiers and nurses. At sight of us some of the nurses put their arms round the soldiers' necks, and no one would serve us. When we got back into the train (4th class) a hefty German civilian swore at us, but, in this instance, an officer came up and saluted us, to which we bowed, having no caps, and put the man under arrest.


At Karlsruhe, Di Balme and I were parted, and marched separately through the streets of Karlsruhe, each with a guard about thirty strong. There were crowds of women in the streets, who so far forgot their good manners as to spit at us. Mainly through lack of food, I collapsed in the road, and the guard attempted to assist me by pushing the butts of their rifles into my sides. When they saw I could not rise, they took my arms and led me to my destination -a hotel in Karlsruhe- to be further interrogated. I was placed in a small room -with another pilot, Mitchell, who had been shot in the neck. It did not take long to discover that every conversation between Mitchell and myself would at once reach German ears by a dictaphone process, our end of which was cunningly concealed behind laths which had been lately affixed to the walls. In another room in this building I met the cleverest intelligence officer I bad yet encountered. He, again, asked me to which squadron I belonged, and said he knew, of course, that my machine was a Nieuport Scout. On my refusing, he said it did not matter much, because he knew there were three such squadrons in France, and their numbers.

He gave the correct numbers and had a shot at the locality of their aerodromes and the names of the Squadron commanders. He was wrong in the latter, and evidently hoped, either by my expression or words, to get corroboration or otherwise of his information, but I am confident he did not do so.

While there, we were given a slice of black bread (made from potatoes chiefly) and some evil-smelling soup. The latter we gave to the Russian orderly, who had asked for it. The following day we were moved to a concentration camp in the same town-huts built on the site of a theatre which had been bombed and burned by the French. About ten officers there were receiving parcels from England, and some hundred of them were not. One of the first things we did was to line up in a queue for two small slices of bread volunteered by officers who had received a parcel. Most of us spent our time trying out the merits of boiled grass and stinging nettles. Then we began a ration of a small loaf, about 12 inches by 4 per week with thin porridge substitute and acorn coffee (no milk) for breakfast, and a thick soup, with very little nourishment in it for the remaining daily meal, hoping in the meanwhile that parcels might arrive from England. Attempt at escape from Karlsruhe were not numerous, as the average officer there could not have gone three miles owing to his starved condition.

After some three weeks a party of thirty of us were sent to Freiburg. There we were greeted by some sixty British and thirty French officers, the former including Leefe-Robinson who had received the V.C, for his exploit in bringing down the first " Zepp " on British soil, and who gave me the first English food I had tasted since capture --a packet of dry Huntley and Palmer's campaign biscuits, these constituted a good meal after the privations we had undergone in previous places. Everybody at Freiburg seemed to be getting parcels fairly regularly and were much more cheerful and healthier looking. The " lager " itself had been an educational establishment of some sort and was three stories high, sentries patrolling the roofs, which formed a square, with a courtyard and trees in the middle. Certain cheap wines, and occasionally tomatoes, but no food, could be purchased in the canteen by means of "lager-geld" which had purchasing power in that camp only, and consisted of printed notes. Two other officers, Bourinot (Canadian) and Steeves, and myself formed a small "mess" with a view to sharing any parcels which might arrive and so help each other out. We spent the early part of our time there making model aeroplanes and gliders which we launched from our top window. This soon developed into a craze, and I won a bottle of very sweet port called "Mavrodaphne" with a glider, which, assisted by unusual gusts of wind, went once and a half times round the courtyard (about 40 yards square) before landing.

Shaw's handwritten plan of his Freiburg Prison Camp escape attempt (November 1931 OBLI Journal)

By about September, 1917, I had established a code with my home (we were allowed to write two letters and four postcards per month), one of the earliest messages to reach there being to the effect that the Zeebrugge Mole "sheds" were not, as had been thought, bombproof-this from a senior naval officer who had come through that place. My mother took this message straight to the Admiralty and from that time until the end of the war that code remained in operation between myself and the authorities, and was the means of establishing numerous other codes between other officers and the powers that were at home. The code itself was a simple one, the working of which I did not calculate would excite suspicion, for otherwise the consequences for me might have been uncomfortable - but I must not give away secrets. It was used afterwards to procure "escape tools " for genuine "escapees" on rather a large scale, resultant upon my successful efforts to persuade two German N.C.O.'s to permit me to receive tins of “food” unopened, in return for a tin of "fleich" or twenty-mark German currency notes received by me from home in such receptacles as tennis rackets (hollow handles), boots (hollow heels), or brushes (hollow backs), despatched by my co-conspirator in England. The "goods" consisted chiefly of compasses, luminous, and maps, while chocolate and pemmican arrived regularly in unsuspicious quantities, and was stored away under a loose floor board (loosened of course by human agency).

A copy of one of Shaw's coded letters home as it appeared in the November 1931 Journal. Decoded, the message reads 'Paine to Admiralty. Zeebrugge mole sheds not bombproof'

Freiburg, we thought, had great possibilities, if we could get clear of it, for the Swiss border was only 36 kilometres away, but there was a danger, if you got there, of walking back into Germany, for the frontier was somewhat irregular and curved. Robinson and another officer had been recaptured in this way. One day, hearing several fellows playing instruments they had bought in the canteen an idea occurred to me. I called them together and we formed the Freigefangenenburger Orchestra and started to rehearse.

The great day eventually arrived. The German officers and all the prisoners were present in the large dining-room where, in the day-time we had become so used to the German meal of " kartoffaln mit zup und gemmeise" (my German is not good). The first half of the programme was a lively mixture of popular airs and descriptive pieces, which I conducted from the top of a step-ladder, complete with large black moustache, fibre wig (ginger) and dress tails made out of black and white striped shirt. The second half was to be Harry Tate's famous sketch, "Motoring," in which I was, with all due respect to that famous comedian, to take the lead.

That lead was understudied. Just before the first half of the programme was finished I slipped (accidentally!) and hurt my foot (!) the orchestra continuing, and my two friends assisting me out of the room for attention. As we were going out by pre-arrangement of course, a "committee” meeting was held in the doorway, and it was announced that the understudy should take my place in the sketch. We would return when I had bathed my ankle which my two friends and I could manage, thank you, despite the overpowering sympathy of one really nice German officer, which might easily have "crabbed the deal" The sketch began at once and the two large doors were closed on our backs.

In a few moments we had picked up the door keys from where we had hidden them, and as noiselessly as possible, locked our fellow prisoners and the Germans in together. We then made quietly for our room to get our ruck-sacks, etc., but had to be very careful crossing the courtyard for fear that the sentries above might spot us. These obtained, we made for the wire covered window previously decided upon. That wire seemed to take years to cut, but it was eventually done, the window forced, and we were in a room full of sculptured figures.

We crept to a window which we knew to be on a little used side-street, and to our dismay found that also wired or the outside. I opened that window, when one of the other officers caught my arm and pulled me away from it, saying he thought he heard someone. We hid in the darkness, and, hearing no further sound, I put my ruck-sack down to start wire cutting again, then I overbalanced and fell into something large and hard. It was a plaster cast of Venus, for which I was subsequently charged 600 marks, or £25 at the then rate of exchange. This went over with a terrific crash and broke on the door.

It was then or never. I had barely cut the wire enough to let us through when in came the German guard with torches and the German camp adjutant behind them. I believe they had heard us before and arranged a little reception in the street outside, but have never found out. The German adjutant, very politely, and with a sense of humour I had not previously credited him with, asked if what I was doing was also part of the programme!

We spent that night in cells and had to put up with German "food" the following day. The day afterwards we were lined up with other "bad characters," and one of the German officers, whom we all disliked intensely, told the remainder of the prisoners that we were going to be sent to Holzminden Punishment Camp for our sins, whereat they simply roared with cheers, and would not let the German get in another word. We were then taken under strong escort for the long journey to Holzminden, Carl Niemeyer's " strafe camp," and infantry barracks, with its impassable sentry ring and dog patrols.

Durnford, whose book, The Tunnellers of Holzminden, gives in detail our life and activities in that camp, is, I understand, broadcasting about it all in June, and he was there when we arrived. He subsequently made a successful and risky escape involving a sea journey, I believe, from the North of Germany.

Niemeyer himself was typical of the kind of Prussian detested by everybody, even his own camp staff. He had been a "saloon" keeper in South America, and one week of the Somme had been enough for him. He used to go out of his way to pick out an officer, who looked less well than most, for a period in his "lazaret" (camp hospital) so that he could thereby deprive him of food from his own parcels, 'feed" him on the German fare, which nobody could eat, and for which we all, incidentally, had to pay £3 per month, finally returning him to his own comrades so weak and ill as to be unable to stand. On our arrival, he caused us all to strip completely and undergo a thorough search. He found little of consequence on me, as my escape kit had been confiscated after the attempt at Frieburg, which necessitated my having to begin collecting all over again. Had he removed the heel of one of my boots, however, he would have found a compass protected by cotton wool.

Niemeyer - A photo recovered by Shaw, published in the January 1932 Journal

We soon learned that a small party of British officers, who bad 'walked out of the camp in home-made German uniform, saluted by the sentries en route, had just been recaptured near the River Weser, and Niemeyer was beginning to appreciate that his charges were, of their own necessity and inclination, becoming "goal-breakers" whose spirit it was hard to subdue. Within three weeks his Landsturm guard had been replaced by younger and fitter "soldaten". The weather was getting colder and did not encourage the 160 kilometre trek to the Dutch frontier so intending escapers had some weeks in which to perfect their plans. This was not made any easier by one or two spontaneous attempts at freedom by

fellows who had obviously not given careful enough preparation to their plans, and served to give the commandant excuses to stop games, close our reading room, forbid concerts, letters, etc. He got so chirpy about our failures that he told us at one "appel" (roll-call) that he would like two days’ notice from any officer who was going to make an attempt!


One day we were inspected in our rooms by General von Hanisch. He was so definitely objectionable to two of us that we turned our backs on him, and were promptly sent to the "jug" (underground cells) for a week. After our release to the upper air, we got into touch with kindred spirits, and found that a tunnel had been commenced, but would be a long job.

The barracks consisted of two kasernes (buildings) “A” and “B” and the tunnel had started from under kaserne “B,” beneath the British orderlies' quarters, in a spot which the Germans never visited and which was partitioned off. Officers, during the day, changed clothes with the orderlies, went to their quarters, and "excavated" with shovels or pieces of hard tin, but were in their own rooms by nightfall, where frequent counts of us were made at any hour of the night. The loosened earth was placed in bags made of old shirts, etc., and stacked by the wall in that underground room. A crude ventilating shaft was made of biscuit tins, and electric torches supplied the light. At one time we thought the Germans had an inkling of what was happening, when all gramophones and music were forbidden, but it was a false alarm. But more of the result of this nine months' arduous work anon.

Shaw's sketch of the escape tunnel - March 1939 Journal

I am sure that less than half of our own fellows at Holzminden knew of the existence of this tunnel until it was opened on July 23rd, 1918, so careful were we to prevent talk concerning it.

Meanwhile, I had loosened a floor board of my room, No, 704, in kaserne "B," discovering underneath a useful space in which to hide "verboten" goods, and in this I had chocolate, pemmican, a compass and a set of British ordnance maps covering the ground between Holzminden and the Dutch frontier, on the German side of which I had learned the signposts were reversed, partly to obstruct intending escapers and partly to mislead deserters from the German Army. There were also my newly-made ruck-sack, and an almost complete civilian suit obtained through the offices of a German scavenger in return for some 80 Marks obtained in the handle of a tennis racket by means previously stated. The floor-board replaced and lightly covered again with dust, rendered secure from detection my "store" and it remained so until the end.

On one occasion, one of my tins, opened in my presence, was found to contain my Mark IV Prismatic compass, value £4 10s., on which my name was engraved, and which I had previously used in France with the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. I endeavoured to persuade 'Milwaukee Bill', as we had nicknamed Niemeyer, that I must have been the victim of a cruel joke on the part of someone who did not like me in England, but he was not having any! At the same time, the German who was opening my packages, mixed tea, coffee, pepper, sugar, salt, and ground rice altogether in one heap on a piece of paper, which he pushed over to me with a grin. I threw the whole lot into his face, to his discomfiture, and was immediately placed under arrest, and for the next day’s work, the commandant awarded me three weeks solitary confinement in an underground cell, the window of which was merely a hole six inches square, with an iron bar down the middle.


It was never possible to get a pair of boots sent to you in the same parcel. You had to have the left and right boots sent in separate parcels. One set of clothing which reached me was deliberately cut to ribbons, and I had to have 16 lbs. of tobacco sent out per month in order to get two ounces. The food was very scarce, and our weights were well below normal. Mine should have been about eleven and a half stone, but at that time it was nearer nine and a half. We occasionally received footballs from the Y.M.C.A. in Holland, and played on the 60 by 30 yard square gravel “spielplatz.”

Little H. D. Davies, England's amateur outside-left who used to play for Stoke, and I, organized league and knock-out competitions, and I still treasure a ball autographed by the 450 officers in the camp, which they gave me just before we left it.

One day an Australian officer arranged to attend a wire-cutting escape, and I was to fight another at the opposite end of the spielplatz in order to detract the attention of our captors. My “opponent" and I set to it real earnest and had been doing our best to punish each other, when Feldwebel Caston, who, I think, was a good fellow at heart, strolled up and patted me on the shoulder with “Das ist sehr guht, mein herr, but he is caught," and I turned to see my friend being marched off to the “Jug” waving at us!

Sardine tin openers, we found, when bent over to certain lengths, made good lock-picks for certain types of lock. In my own case, they eased the situation when raiding the German potato cellar, but eventually a lock was substituted which beat me.

One of the guiding principles of an intending escaper was that he could never learn too much, about his surroundings, and with the object of improving my knowledge, I decided, one night in May, 1918, to have a look at “Milwaukie’s” office. I had then been temporarily transferred to kaserne "A" on the first floor, the corridor of which served us and the office, but there was a wooden partition between, and sentries could just see in. I walked up and down this corridor most of the day, a wet one, and eventually loosened three boards of the partition, carefully placing them back in position.

About 1.30 the following morning, I left my bed and got through the gap. One board dropped, but I managed to catch it without making much noise. I was surprised to find the commandant’s door open, and curiously walked in, with an electric torch, shaded by my hand, of course, to aid me.

On his desk there were three compasses which I pocketed, and some papers, and then - footsteps in the corridor. l got behind the door, and in walked three German soldiers, with rifles and bayonets at the ready, and behind them came Feldwebel Caston with a flashlamp. Anything might have happened had I waited, and Canton luckily went a little way past the door, so I charged into him. and hit at his face at the same time. He was a large man, and fell into an upright stove, his flashlamp, also very luckily, going out on dropping to the floor. I made for the door and my gap, and just succeeded in getting back to my room and in the bed, when all the lights in the building were turned on. The guard searched every room without discovering the culprit.

An amusing sequel to the incident occurred the following day. Caston was calling out our names on "Appell," and I asked him where he had sustained a fair-sized bruise on his cheek-bone. He replied, in a smiling, cheery manner, that he had had a row with Serjeant Klausen (who was hated by our fellows and the Germans alike) the day before!

Shaw's hand drawn plan of Holzminden - March 1939 Journal


Soon after this, three of us tried to get out from the first floor by means of an improvised “schute” which, we calculated, if properly supported by six people from the inside, would serve to land us over the railings, and incidentally, over the sentries at that point, into the road. There would, of course, have been immediate discovery and considerable danger from the sentries' fire, but life was becoming so unbearable as to merit the risk, so, one foggy night, we started. H. went first, but dropped short. I went second, and when I was halfway along the schute, a sentry fired. He broke one of the windows and the schute (constructed of a wooden form) and I joined H. Fortunately they did not fire again, and the result for both of us was three weeks below, and more lost "kit," but, still more fortunately, we were not sent to another camp, so the tunnel remained to look forward to.

There also remained to me a shaving brush, the handle of which contained a time-table of trains from Holzminden to Aachen, received by me in prune stone, of the arrival of which I bad been previously notified, a detailed plan for the distance from Aachen to the frontier (one and a half miles), and a list of towns, etc., to follow, should the railway fail, in addition to which I had, by that time, a store of ordnance maps and compasses in my secret deposit.

A week or so later I received a letter from my brother F. to the effect that my other brother W. had been killed in France, but to counteract the bad news an officer who had recently arrived told me he had seen him at Rastratt, and he had been taken in the March offensive. Two days after this, W. turned up at the camp with a batch of other officer prisoners. Holzminden was becoming overcrowded, and the food question extremely serious. My brother's face had, as was the case with all newly-captured prisoners, assumed a pale-green hue, due to the initial stages of starvation, but a little of the fatty foods received from England gradually secured for him a return of colour, though he was far from fit enough for any attempt to get out. My parcels were then coming in fairly regularly, and the supply of escape materials had assumed such a scale that l was receiving whole tins of maps, wire-cutters and compasses with lists enclosed of officers for whom they were intended, and to whom they were distributed, or looked after by me, whichever was the more convenient to the officer concerned.

Shaw's large scale plan of the escape tunnel at Holzminden - March 1939 Journal


The night of July 23rd-24th arrived, and the tunnel was ready.

It was some sixty yards long and terminated in a wheat-field. How twenty-nine officers escaped through it, and how ten made a successful get-away to England is past history, and is dealt with by Hugh Durnford in that widely read book, The Tunnellers of Holzminden, to which I have already referred. It was the biggest escape from Germany in the whole war. The part of the story which is not so widely known is that owing to its collapsing on the thirtieth man, some thirty more, including the writer, saw their greatest hope, and the result of nine months of unpleasing toil, vanish completely.

The scene at “Appell” at 9 am on the 24th July may well be imagined. Feldwebel Mandelbrodt reported: "Twenty-nine absent, Herr Hauptmann,” to Niemeyer. The latter raved and rushed up and down the line shouting. We all stood still aid laughed.

He ordered the guard out and chased us into the barracks. One fellow was slightly struck by a bayonet and bullets were fired at the building; in fact, there was general pandemonium. Then the tunnel was discovered, and we were paraded again, when Niemeyer crowned his performance with a remark which has become very widely known, as containing a truth he never intended, viz., “Ach, you English swine, you zink I know noddings, but I know damn all!”

All camp privileges were stopped for a month, and representatives from the Kriegsministerium came down and the tunnel was opened. I was fortunate enough to get original photographs of the result from Diebert, the local photographer, before we came away. Within two weeks we had started another tunnel, which was destined never to be finished.

On November 13th, 1918, Niemeyer disappeared, and we leamed that the war was over. He telephoned the Senior British Officer from Hanover and asked if he could do anything for us! The S.B.O. speedily told him what he thought of him.

German troops we could see passing back along the main roads in driblets, and their comrades, our captors, had assumed so entirely respectful an attitude that they stood to attention when we spoke to them! On December fifth, the S.B.O. telephoned the railway authorities at Cassel asking whether a train was coming to take us back. We had then, of course, walked about where we liked, and I had been into the German armoury and counted nearly 450 rifles, and certain boxes of ammunition, which might, or might not, go off. They replied that they were very sorry, but under the terms of The Armistice, they had to deliver up all their available rolling stock. “Right you are,” said our S.B.O., “if you don't send a train by tomorrow night, we shall burn this place down, and march off!” An hour later we-were notified that the train would be at Holzminden Station at 7 pm on December 11th.

About mid-day on the 11th, we piled up all the furniture in the barracks on the “spielplatz”, and set fire to it. The guard came out, not with rifles, but a hose, and this we turned on them. We were, of course, superior in numbers, and at that stage of the war they did not feel inclined to shoot, even if they had had their arms. Our bonfire burnt itself out.

Photographs, later recovered by Shaw, showing the tunnel after it was discovered at Holzminden [January 1932 Journal]


The train duly arrived, and we said goodbye to the worst camp in Germany. I heard twelve months after the war that Niemeyer, as heartily disliked by his own compatriots as by us, had shot himself in a restaurant in Hanover. We slowed down before passing the frontier near Enschede, and picked up one of our private soldiers, bewhiskered and dirty, who had not been able to make us out, and was surprised to hear the war was over. He had escaped two months before and the Armistice had robbed him of a successful termination to his efforts! But he may never have got over the frontier. We were given welcome and splendid rolls, butter and cheese at Enschede by the Dutch, and spent the night on straw in a mill there. Everyone was delightful, and we were in our motley clothing, some almost in rags. Thence to Rotterdam, where, although there were only 105 berths, over 400 of us boarded the British-India boat, S.S. Takada, on which we took a long trip, avoiding North Sea minefields, until we reached Hull.

Hundreds of sirens greeted us as we passed through the Humber net, and Admiral Tyrwhitt waved his cap to us from a cutter, while the band played “God Save the King”. A message from the King was given to us on landing, and we were carried on to Scarborough for a reception, being practically carried through the streets - and England's fields had certainly never seemed greener - to me, at any rate.

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