Sunday 24 August 2014

The Great Escaper

The aristocratic and ambitious Leutnant Otto Thelen had joined the German Army Flying Corps before the war. In late 1914 he served as an observer in Flieger Abteilung 5 but his flying career came to an early end on 22nd November when his Albatross aircraft was forced down by Lieutenants L A Strange and F G Small of No. 5 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, using an experimental and unauthorised Lewis gun mounting. In an incident recorded in the Official History of the War in the Air Vol I, Thelen crash-landed near Neuve Eglise with 20 bullet holes in his aircraft. The British officers landed nearby to claim their prisoners and saw that
 “the German observer… took little notice of them; as soon as his machine had landed he jumped out of it, and dragging the partner of his dangers and triumphs out of the pilot’s seat, knocked him down, and began to kick him heavily about the body.”
The frustrated Thelen was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Donington Hall in Lincolnshire, where he met a naval officer, Leutnant Hans Keilback. Escape featured regularly in their conversations, and soon they had got into the cellars under the library and dug an eight foot tunnel under the foundations of the walls using an old poker and a garden trowel, which they stole while undertaking voluntary renovation work on a private chapel in the grounds of the Hall. The excavated earth was dumped in the many rooms in the cellar complex. In the early morning of September 18th 1915 they escaped and the military authorities offered a reward of £100 for their capture. The two men managed to get to Chatham in Kent and actually board a ship bound for the continent before they were discovered and arrested. . Subsequently they were sent to Holyport Prison Camp outside Maidenhead but again attempted escape, this time tunnelling 34 feet from the prison bathroom. They were caught when a guard saw one of them sawing up floorboards while the other played the harmonica “vigorously” to deaden the sound. As punishment the pair were sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment at the Military Detention Barracks at Chelmsford Prison and driven there with an armed escort.
Chelmsford Military Detention Centre
Chelmsford held both British and German servicemen who had been convicted in the military courts. The wooden huts and wire fences of the run-of-the-mill camps elsewhere were here replaced by solid buildings and high walls, with the county police headquarters and an Army training ground across Sandford Road and a former military airfield behind. But on Whit Sunday, 27th May 1917, Thelen, with a new accomplice, Leutnant Emil Lehmann, managed to escape again. This caused immense excitement in Chelmsford and the district, with military, regular and special police, and even boy scouts forming search parties. Richard Godfrey’s father was a special constable and he remembers him being called out to hunt for the escaped Germans and returning home late that night, “with his thick boots worn right through with the tramping around the district”. Special Constable Herbert Gripper was also called out and spent the day searching for the prisoners. The two men were recaptured by soldiers of the Army Cyclist Corps near Billericay at around 5 am the following morning.

The ingenuity of the escape attempt drew grudging respect from the press and public. Thelen, described as 5’ 9” in height, clean-shaven, dressed in a German Army uniform with dark brown boots, and Lehmann, 5’ 7”, slight dark moustache, dressed in a German Navy uniform with brass buttons and heavy boots, had spent some time preparing for the escape. It was believed that they had at some point obtained a key which appeared to be able to open several doors in the prison. They were kept in separate cells in the same corridor but removed the locks on their cell doors and substituted them with imitation locks made from blackened cardboard. They had also constructed dummies, complete with hair removed from their mattresses, and arranged them in their beds in a way that satisfied the inspection of the guards viewing them through the peephole in the cell door. The escape took place late at night, passing from the cells into a corridor and through an iron gate, and two further locked gates, all of which were presumably opened by the stolen key. They made their exit from the prison through a small gate which led to the garden of the Chaplain’s house on Sandford Road. From here they made their way around the back of the prison, and down Hill Road towards the Gas Works and the footbridge across the Chelmer. They crossed the King’s Head Meadow where they stole Mr Greenwood’s boat from the boat house to cross the Can, and then they picked up the Baddow Road and finally made off towards Galleywood. On recapture they were in a dishevelled state, and a passing car was commandeered by their captors and they were driven back to Chelmsford “in a rather dejected condition”. Both men had altered their uniforms to resemble civilian clothes and wore ordinary cloth caps. They had no money, and little food but a fair amount of chocolate.

Thelen and Lehmann were moved out of Chelmsford and sent to Sutton Bonington camp, in Nottinghamshire. In September 1917 after tunnelling fifty yards in three months, they led twenty two fellow PoWs in a mass escape. They were all recaptured. Thelen survived the war and was eventually returned to Berlin, via Holland, in 1919.

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