Neal Bascomb brings the harrowing escape from Holzminden prison to thrilling life in The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War. Holzminden prison was Gemany’s seemingly inescapable POW prison, run by the tyrannical commandant Karl Niemeyer. Yet through meticulous planning and ingenious subterfuge, nearly a dozen prisoners were able to tunnel out of Holzminden and trek 150 miles to freedom in Holland. Bascomb’s assiduous research sweeps the reader into the action, from the claustrophobic rat-filled tunnels to the brutal journey home. Hailed as “expertly narrated, with just the right level of detail and drama” by Kirkus Reviews, The Escape Artists is sure to be one of fall’s hottest non-fiction reads. Bascomb spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on September 7th, 2018. Photo courtesy of Meryl Schenker.
The escape from Holzminden is such an amazing story. How did you first hear about it?
I first heard about the story from this book about the MI9, which was the British Escape Invasion Service. In this history of it, they talked about this escape at Holzminden, which was really only a couple of paragraphs in the book. The prisoners who escaped from Holzminden helped found MI9 after the war and before the start of World War II. These escaped prisoners were the ones who lectured and who gave ideas about how the service should be orchestrated and organized. I found it fascinating that these prisoners became these lecturers.
How did this escape effect the experience of future POWs?
In World War I the number of successful escapes were very small. The individuals were not trained to escape, not supplied to escape, and not prepared to escape in any way. The World War I individuals like the ones in The Breakout Artists learned on their own. You find that in the creation of MI9. All these lectures—plus outfitting pilots and soldiers with compasses that could be hidden, and giving them an idea of how your best chance of escape is at the start of your incarceration—led to tens of thousands of prisoners getting back to their squadrons and their regiments.
Why was this subsequent work of the escaped prisoners for MI9 done in secret?
Well, because MI9 was a secret intelligence organization. Not quite as top secret as MI6, per se, but definitely a service that the British wanted to keep under wraps. They didn’t necessarily want people to know who was working for them—who were the agents, who were the lecturers—because obviously the German spies wanted this information. Access to the escape networks that MI9 had in France and various other places would have been an absolute bonanza for the Nazis.
It was such a big story of its time, yet it’s not widely talked about today. Why do you think it’s not as well known as the infamous escapes during World War II?
I think that’s a question with a general answer, in the sense that the events of World War II have, in many ways, eclipsed World War I. Although I believe that you could argue quite easily that the repercussions of World War I were much vaster across the world on so many different levels, in terms of breaking apart the empires and starting mass warfare. Regardless, World War II has riveted the attention of not only readers but also filmgoers and historians to a great extent as well, where most of the attention is paid to the subsequent war and not the first. I think the Holzminden escape is wrapped up in that issue.
We get such an insight into the different character’s inner lives in The Escape Artists. Can you talk about what your research process was like?
Obviously the biggest issue was the lack of people to interview, because these events occurred over a hundred years ago and these individuals were, at the very least, nineteen at the time. I didn’t have anyone to interview so I needed the recollections of these prisoners and what they experienced. I found some of that in archives in England, here in the States, and elsewhere, but many of these individuals never donated any materials to libraries or archives.
I had the names, so I started hunting down the families of these people. Some of them had no idea that their great-great-grandfather was part of this and some did. Many had letters. Some had unpublished memoirs and various effects of their time in prison. It was just a bonanza once I tracked down the families.
One thing that was so striking was that it seemed World War I prisoners of war viewed themselves so differently than how we would view them now. Can you talk about what a prisoner of war felt like back then?
There was this general sense—particularly in the British Army but also in the Royal Flying Corps and elsewhere at the time—that to be captured was a great mark of shame. That you should go fighting to the death, as it were. In fact, the Royal Flying Corps did not issue parachutes—although the technology was there—to their pilots and observers because they didn’t want them to have an escape route. They wanted them to fight to the very last.
There was a general philosophy that you weren’t to be captured, but that simply wasn’t realistic. You’re shot down in this wire, wood, and cloth contraption; you land in a field deep behind enemy lines; and you’re automatically surrounded by German soldiers— what are you going to do other than be taken prisoner? There was this general sense felt among the prisoners that they were idle or that they had failed. For many of them, escape was a kind of clearing of their name, for lack of a better way of saying it.
It seems crazy that they would have this conception of themselves, especially with how little training some of the pilots received before they went into the air.
Absolutely. Less than thirty hours in the air and you’re suddenly a pilot flying in a squadron over the front! It’s absurd if you think about it, and very daring and very courageous.
So what were these group of men who were able to pull off this escape like?
The first important point is that only a very small population of these prisoners were the ones who were actually focused on escaping. I’m sure everyone in the prison would have been happy to be home, but only a small percentage were actively trying. The primary characteristic I found in those trying to escape was this rebellious nature, which in some ways the RFC was perfectly made for. You had these daredevils who thought, “Okay, there’s this fledgling service, the Royal Flying Corps, and I want to be part of this because I find it exciting.” I think that’s why you see a lot of the pilots are actually the instigators in this escape.
The other point of motivation tethers back to what we were saying about the prisoners and this black mark of shame they felt. I think those who felt that shame the greatest and were motivated by this rebellious nature, those two characteristics together made them very escape prone.
You show us a bunch of camps that the prisoners were housed in. What was the camp that they escape from like?
Holzminden was an officer camp. It was a camp specifically put together by the Germans to house the worst of the worst, or probably better to say, the most troublesome prisoners, the most escape-prone. It was considered the landlocked Alcatraz of Germany of the time; it was a ring within a ring within a ring of security. It was considered unbreakable in many ways. It was overseen by this commandant named Karl Niemeyer, this absolutely boorish tyrant of a man who promised that none of them would ever get out of there.
So you have Niemeyer oppressing them greatly, and then you have all of these escape-prone prisoners together. It created almost an escape university, where you have forgers, people who are expert at disguise, and people who are great tunnelers. You put all those people together and you have trouble.
Niemeyer is such a larger than life villain in the story. Can you tell us what he was like?
He would walk across the yard and occasionally shoot at people behind the windows of the barracks out of a random whim or fit of anger. I think his most oppressive characteristic, however, was this death by a thousand cuts. It was keeping prisoners from getting parcels from home, keeping them standing in the yard for an hour longer. It was making them wait in line after line after line. In the canteen, the prices were exorbitant. He would restrict them to the barracks for the day for no reason at all. He put prisoners in solitary for a nothing violation.
This sense of helplessness that he perpetuated was just exhausting for the prisoners. There’s something that was studied at the time called Barbed Wire disease, this sense where you lose hope and are in such a depressed state that you feel like you can’t go on. I think the way Niemeyer ran Holzminden made Barbed Wire disease rampant.
We see so many of the prisoners and how they reacted to their time there. One in particular is the poet, Will Harvey. Can you talk about him?
Will was actually one of my favorite people to write about, not only because I love World War I poetry, but he was essentially the thinking man in this story. He was writing constantly, keeping memoirs of his experiences at the camp, and he wrote about what that feeling was to be a POW. As he called it, it was almost like a green mold growing all over him; he felt he was becoming absolutely stifled as a human being. He relayed that in some very fine poetry. He made for a remarkable individual to study and track, particularly in contrast to these more escape prone prisoners. They spent most of their time figuring out the weaknesses in security and were constantly in a state of action, while Harvey was in a state of constant reflection.
Even though he himself had had some pretty daring exploits as well.
Oh, absolutely. He was a war hero. He attempted to escape a couple of times, once throwing himself out of a moving train. He was no coward and had no lack of action, but those characteristic were coupled with this very literary tone.
It’s heartbreaking to see the periods of times where his depression just takes over him.
It comes in fits and waves, which I found remarkable. There would be months where he wouldn’t want to do anything and then suddenly he’s all gung ho and ready to break through the gates.
And finally, what role has the library played in your life?
I still remember going to the public library as a kid and pulling out books. I think my greatest public library experience has been at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. When I moved to New York basically right out of college, I would spend days and days in that library, not only reading and looking at things, but it was kind of a harbor for me in the big city. It was literally the first place I went to when I came out of 42nd Street Station. I walked west, down a block, and up the steps past the lions into that library. It’s one of my happy places.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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