Fast-paced account of a forgotten episode of World War I history.
Say what you will about the Jerries: They knew how to mount a flying circus—and how to shoot down brave Britons in the skies over France. One of those brought abruptly to ground was a 19-year-old named Colin Blain, one of the heroes of Bascomb’s (The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, 2016, etc.) stirring tale. Determined to get back to his own lines and pick up the war where he had left off, Blain was eventually dispatched to a camp called Holzminden, a nasty bit of maximum security work designed for British officers who had a penchant for legging it when the guards weren’t looking. Holzminden was headed by a foul-tempered commandant named Karl Niemeyer, who greeted his new charges with a ration of acorn coffee and the promise that any attempt to escape would be severely punished. Naturally, Blain tried—and with him a company of like-minded prisoners. “Shorty Colquhoun, all six and a half feet of him, wanted to dig a tunnel,” writes Bascomb. So the men of Holzminden did, with the engineering mastermind behind the plan taking advantage of unforeseen weaknesses in the prison’s infrastructure. “They wanted to keep their cabal small, twelve officers at most, to ensure the tunnel stayed secret as well as to limit the number of individuals going in and out of the building,” writes Bascomb, but in the end 29 prisoners escaped, 10 of them traveling the 150 miles to the border of neutral Holland and returning to Britain against all the odds (and Bascomb reckons that of the 10,000 attempted British escapes from prison camps during World War I, less than 6 percent succeeded). Bascomb’s portraits of the principals are affecting, Niemeyer among them—and though he became unhinged following the escape, the commandant was sound enough of mind to slip away at war’s end to avoid being tried as a war criminal, another great escape in itself.
Expertly narrated, with just the right level of detail and drama.