The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War
In the winter trenches and flak-filled skies of World War I, soldiers and pilots alike might avoid death, only to find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s archipelago of POW camps, often in abominable conditions. The most infamous was Holzminden, a land-locked Alcatraz of sorts that housed the most troublesome, escape-prone prisoners. Its commandant was a boorish, hate-filled tyrant named Karl Niemeyer who swore that none should ever leave.
Desperate to break out of “Hellminden” and return to the fight, a group of Allied prisoners led by ace pilot (and former Army sapper) David Gray hatch an elaborate escape plan. Their plot demands a risky feat of engineering as well as a bevy of disguises, forged documents, fake walls, and steely resolve. Once beyond the watch towers and round-the-clock patrols, Gray and almost a dozen of his half-starved fellow prisoners must then make a heroic 150 mile dash through enemy-occupied territory towards free Holland.
Drawing on never-before-seen memoirs and letters, Neal Bascomb brings this narrative to cinematic life, amid the twilight of the British Empire and the darkest, most savage hours of the fight against Germany. At turns tragic, funny, inspirational, and nail-biting suspenseful, this is the little-known story of the biggest POW breakout of the Great War.
Author Q & A
WWII seems to get most of the attention in bookstores. How did you come to write a World War I history instead?
Anniversaries are always a touchstone, and it has been a hundred years to the almost month since the Holzminden break! So that’s always nice. But, it’s curious, an editor a while back suggested I look into a WWII escape—maybe even a reexamination of the “The Great Escape”. I tend to steer away from stories that already have a library’s shelf work to them, so I put the idea away. Then I was reading a book about the British intelligence service—and the Holzminden escape, which I had never heard of—leapt off the page at me. It was relatively unknown; its participants had a huge influence subsequent to the war; and, to be honest, I’ve always been more fascinated with “The Great War” than WWII. Too much Barbara Tuchman in my youth, perhaps.
Really though, this story offered a host of worlds and themes to examine. From the twilight of the British Empire; to the upstairs/downstairs class dramas that persisted during war; to the early days of air combat; to the network of prison camps along the Western Front, and the rise of “the rules of war” & the new POW phenomenon that emerged during The Great War. It’s a time of profound global change and horrific carnage and great heroics. I was hooked from the start.
You mentioned how the Holzminden break had a big impact after the war? How exactly?
For soldiers and airmen of WWI, there was no training for how to escape the enemy, nor much of an organization to facilitate such. Few managed the feat, in fact, and this left the majority exposed to harsh—and often deadly—periods of captivity. Well, almost two decades later, a Major Norman Crockatt, a veteran of the Royal Scots and former stockbroker, decided things would be different in the next war. He launched MI9, a top secret organization with military intelligence, to codify and teach the principles of evasion and escape for the use of Allied fighter caught behind enemy lines. The question was: who were going to be the professors? Who knew how to escape? Who knew how to make dummy keys, fake walls, dig tunnels. In other words, who would run an “Escape University”. Enter some of the heroes of the Holzminden breakout and their like at other camps. Because of MI9 and its American counterpart, Allied airmen and soldiers in WWII had a much greater chance of finding their way back home.
Once I read you compared your research and writing technique to quilting? Did this book come together in the same way?
Despite some blowback from the quilting community, I stick to my comparison—and yes—THE ESCAPE ARTISTS came together in the same way, gathering facts and stories on almost every continent (our POWs scattered across the globe post-war). The most rewarding aspect of the research was tracking down the children and grandchildren of the Holzminden escapees. Although front-page news at the time, the breakout has been largely forgotten. To be able to talk to the families of these brave men, to learn the stories of their lives, to read their old letters home, their unpublished memoirs, all of it, was a remarkable experience. In some small way, I felt like I was resuscitating this amazing history–and honoring the families who had held onto this story for so long. And a final note, one of the Holzminden heroes was Will Harvey, a well-regarded war poet, who recorded his experiences both in a memoir and his poems. His estate allowed me to reprint some of these wonderful poems, and I’m so glad a new generation of readers will get a chance to know him as they do Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Are you an “escape story” fanatic?
As I was growing up, Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood was one of my favorite films. The ingenuity, the characters, the daredevil risks, the preparations–all of it made for such teenage captivation. As an author, I’ve always wanted to write a prison escape book, but as I said, Alcatraz and Stalag Luft III (of The Great Escape fame) had been done to death–and few other tales that I came upon in my reading matched their daring and creativity. In my opinion, the Holzminden far surpasses even these tales—and it has tremendous humor too. For the icing of the cake, I can argue quite easily that the Stalag tunnel was inspired almost wholly from it.
How does a century old event still matter?
First off, they still teach escape and evasion in the Armed Forces. You can thank some of the lessons from the “breakout artists” for some of the syllabus. Second, how we treat POWs—and our own are treated—is always critical. Related to this—and most importantly—is the question of honor. Honor to one’s prisoner. Honor to one’s self. Honor to one’s comrade. WWI was a watershed moment in terms of our very understanding of honor, a war that seemed to shred the very idea with its horrors and wanton wastage of men. It was also a time when an officer-prisoner would be allowed to take parole (i.e. a walk) outside the walls unattended on the promise he would not escape. Holzminden was a crucible within which the honor of the Germans and their Allied prisoners was tested. Understanding why some stood up well—and some fell–is as relevant today as ever. It’s what drew me so strongly to the story.
David Gray, the main hero of this history, was shot down by the great German ace—and originator the “Flying Circus”–Oswald Boelcke. This was during the same exact air battle, September 17, 1916, when Boelcke’s apprentice, the soon-to-be famous Manfred von Richthofen (aka, “The Red Baron”) made his first “kill”, a member of Gray’s squadron.