The art of escaping from the enemy
Take matters into your own hands. No one is coming to rescue you
“All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality—the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.”
We all have escape stories. And as Walter Bagehot notes in the quote above, they’re often the ones we tell and re-tell. They range from the frivolous (how I snuck out of a dreary party) to life-changing (how I quit my job) to life and death itself (that time I avoided a car crash).
But there’s one category that stands above the rest. Escaping your enemy. Whether literal or metaphorical, justified or not, it forces us into desperate decisions and extreme actions.
The story is all the more compelling when the enemy is clearly-defined and when the consequences of escape (or failing to escape) are high. Enter the First World War.
Of course the best form of escape is when you avoid being caught in the first place.
Swim for your life
The man was exhausted. He’d been trying to get away from enemy troops (and their bullets) for hours. By this time he was cold, tired and naked. He’d been swimming for four hours.
Lieutenant W.E.L. Seward was flying his small single-seater airplane over modern-day Lebanon and Israel in the early spring of 1917 when anti-aircraft fire punctured his petrol tank. Able to stay airborne for a little while, he tried to get as far south as possible (towards Egypt, which was under British control). He made it as far as the city of Ashkelon.1
The place was infested with enemy Turkish troops. Landing there would have probably meant certain death.
So he ditched in the Mediterranean, but he was too close to shore to avoid detection. Turkish troops near the coast saw him, and started shooting.
Seward dove into the water and swam away from shore, then turned south and continued parallel to the coast. He had no idea how far he’d need to swim before he could return to land. Every time he stopped to look, he could see enemy troops. Gradually he shed all his clothes to make it easier to swim.
Four hours later he was somewhere off the coast of Gaza. There’s no word on how choppy the water was, or whether a current was carrying him along. Whatever the case, he must have been an incredibly strong swimmer to face the conditions and make such a distance.
But he couldn’t continue indefinitely. By then he was freezing cold and too tired to go any farther. He had to get out of the water. He hid until dark in the sand hills, and then began walking inland, still naked. He stumbled along through the night for about 20 km until he reached a wadi, and shortly after came across a British cavalry patrol, who picked him up.
Make a run for it
It could have easily gone differently for Seward. He could have been shot and killed, or drowned in the sea.
Or like so many other aviators, his time on the run could have ended in capture and imprisonment.
This is what happened to my great-grandfather and his two fellow crew members when they went down in a Handley Page heavy bomber in September 1918.
A week later, a similar thing happened to Lieut. F.H. Chainey and his pilot, in the same region. Chainey wrote to his mother from a prison camp in Karlsruhe:
I landed here last Monday through engine failure with my pilot Bob Pitman who was also on the machine [airplane]. We landed quite well and of course immediately made off to try and get to Switzerland. We walked for 4 nights, hiding in the day, but had a long distance to go and the little food we had on us was soon used up and the weather turned out very bad, so we had to give ourselves up.
Aviators knew the possibility of capture was awaiting them every time they took off. They were told to expect it, and they were given instructions on what to do if they fell into the hands of the enemy.
They were also encouraged to try to escape. No one knew how long the war would last, and until it was over, the chances of being released were slim.
The First World War is unusual in the history of global conflicts for having a specific and widely recognized end date. Most wars don’t end that tidily. Many persist for decades. A surprising number fade but don’t really end at all. So a pilot languishing in a prison camp in 1918 could be forgiven for thinking, ‘am I ever going to get out of here?’
Best to make a run for it, if you can.
So what are you supposed to do? Saw the bars off a prison window, shimmy down the wall, and disappear into the community? Sounds like a Jason Bourne film, or more farcical, Wes Anderson (think of Grand Budapest Hotel).
Incredibly, that is some of the actual advice aviators got.
Sgt Harold Willis was captured in August of 1917 and held for more than a year until he escaped in October 1918. In a bulletin of advice to airmen he suggested this:
I believe that officers possessing a small file can easily make their way out of the Fortress of Montmedy [where British officers were held by the Germans] by filing a barred window of the prison, escaping into street of citadel, by means of rope or bed linen, and out of moat by breaks in masonry.
In another scene that could easily be taken from a novel or the movies, Willis says a good way to escape is to jump out of a moving train.
One caveat he offers is that anyone attempting it would need a compass and a map so they could figure out where they were and be able to get back to friendly territory. He offers advice on that too:
These compasses should be as thin and as small as possible. Might be worn under the equalet [sic] of coat, in thickness of collar, heel of shoe, etc. One’s belt is always stolen sooner or later and for that reason, cannot serve as a hiding place. The compass should be removed as soon as possible and placed in the middle of a piece of cheese, bread, soap or carried in the mouth or rectum. If the map does not crinkle when handled it is fairly safe in the lining of clothing.
As for actually jumping out of a train:
Many American aviators have jumped from express trains in motion but none have ever failed on account of being stopped in the act. The toilet room windows are a favourite spot of exit.
Presumably some failed because they were horribly injured or killed when they hit the ground, but taking an insane risk like like this was worth it.
Time is of the essence
The best time to escape was immediately after capture. Conditions were often chaotic, and it could be easy to lose track of someone. Guards may be sympathetic, inattentive, or lazy.
In testimony given by a group of American aviators, they note plenty of chances early on, including this one:
Most of the prisons you are first taken to are converted buildings. You can best escape by dropping out of the second-story window about nine o’clock at night, as then there are lots of people in the streets and you will perhaps pass unnoticed. Get out of town as quickly as possible, people do not notice your uniform in the dark.
If you failed to escape here, then jumping from the train may be your next, and last, opportunity. Trains were taking prisoners to more established, permanent camps far inland from the front lines. Once there, the chances of escape grew far more difficult, even remote.
It’s a long shot, but…
Escape from a large camp was still possible, however. And why wouldn’t you try? I put myself in the mindset of a captured aviator. Waiting for help is futile. No one is coming to rescue me, and I could be stuck here for years at this rate.
Official advice to men in this situation included some things that sound naive, almost comical. Yet they were entirely serious, and they did work. Sgt Willis escaped after more than a year in captivity by disguising himself as a German guard and walking out (after several failed attempts). Like Lieut. Chainey, he headed for Switzerland. He made it, eventually returning to the front to continue fighting.
The experience of Willis and others made it into lectures and other official advice to aviators. Disguising yourself as a German soldier or civilian was plausible. Pieces of German uniforms could be obtained in the prisons. British aviators’ boots looked similar to those of German officers if blackened. Sometimes a civilian hat could be bought from a guard.
Also in the category of, ‘this’ll never work’ but apparently did: hide in a box or a crate that is then transported out of the camp.
Bribing a German guard was possible, but tough. A prisoner would need to find a sympathetic and trustworthy man, and they’d have to be alone. It wasn’t often successful and was “severely punishable.”
One other idea was strongly discouraged: tunnelling. Considered a last resort, officers were warned that it was almost never successful. (Over the years this idea may have become more believable in the public imagination because of the 1960s TV show Hogan’s Heroes, which was about POWs in the Second World War who frustrated their captors with a network of tunnels.)
Even if you fail, you have succeeded
A lecture given to British officers on how to escape tries to end on a positive note. It urges men to try, and keep trying, even if it doesn’t work. Why?
First, “as an occupation.” In other words, it will keep you busy. Boredom and despair might just drive you mad if you don’t have something to occupy your mind all day.
Second, it’s really annoying for the Germans! And it serves a strategic purpose. If escape attempts are constantly made, then more German soldiers need to stay in the interior guarding prisoners, leaving them unavailable to fight on the front lines.
Or so the story went. It seems unlikely that Germany lost the war because so many soldiers were held back guarding POWs. But it’s one of the stories British aviators were told.
Whether we succeed or not, we are all trying to escape.
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The Middle Eastern campaign of the First World War gets far less attention than the main fighting in Europe. War broke out in this region in 1915 after the German-backed Ottomans tried to raid the Suez Canal, which at the time was part of British-controlled Egypt. The fighting lasted almost until the Armistice. The British frequently used airplanes for reconnaissance in the region, partly because of the harsh desert climate, sparse population and long distances.