Over 100 years ago in 1915, a German pilot, Lieutenant Gunther Pluschow, embarked on one of the great adventure stories of the First World War. Told that he was being sent to Donington Hall in Leicestershire, a prisoner of war camp for officers, he resolved to escape, and in the process became the only German escapee from Britain in either world war who made it back to the Fatherland. ‘The portals and wire fences opened before us,’ he later recalled, ‘the whole guard turned out and presented arms. The officer in command and two lieutenants stood at the right wing, their hands raised in salute.’ His extraordinary tale was one of courage and endurance, certainly, but also of good luck and on occasion high farce.
The outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 saw the 28 year old, Munich-born Pluschow stationed in the German colony of Kiao-Chow (modern day Jiaozhou) in China. Two Taube warplanes had been shipped there in crates before the war, and, although one had crashed, killing its pilot, Pluschow had flown the other with distinction, even shooting down one enemy Japanese aircraft with his pistol. As the British and Japanese siege of the capital city, Tsingtau, reached its height, Pluschow was ordered by the German governor to escape with his last set of despatches, which he did on 6 November, the very day before the city fell.
Such was the toll that the fighting had taken on his Taube airplane, however, that after 160 miles Pluschow was forced to crash-land in a paddy ricefield. ‘The clay was so soft and sticky that the aeroplane sank into the mud and the wheels held fast,’ he recalled in his autobiography in 1922, ‘my machine landed on her nose, nearly turning turtle at the last moment. The propeller shivered into fragments but luckily I escaped without hurt.’ With a heavy heart the resourceful young officer then set fire to ‘my poor, brave Taube’ to prevent it falling into Allied hands. ‘I had to surrender it to the flames,’ he later wrote, ‘I poured petrol over it, set it alight, and saw it turn to ashes before my eyes. I felt as if I were losing a dear and faithful friend’. He then resolved somehow to get himself across the nearly five thousand miles back to Germany, whatever it took.
Walking to the local town of Hai-Dschou, he was fortunate enough to be befriended by the local Mandarin [chief administrator], who offered him protection and facilitated his route to the port of Nanking by river junk. Once it became clear that the Chinese authorities in Nanking intended to intern him for the duration of the war, Pluschow escaped again, giving his minders the slip and boarding an overnight train to Shanghai, where he stayed in several different locations under four or five assumed identities, including that of a Mr MacGarvin, a sales representative of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
One night in early December, Pluschow escaped from Shanghai on a steamer. ‘The night was black as itch,’ he recalled, ‘the wind howled, and the dirty, dark water gurgled dismally as it flew by, driven by the tide.’ When he reached Nagasaki, the Japanese customs officials were persuaded not to inspect ‘Mr MacGarvin’ too closely, as the American ship’s doctor said that he was severely ill. By the time he reached San Francisco (via Honolulu) on 30 December, Pluschow was famous. ‘Dozens of newspapers reporters and photographers swarmed all over the deck,’ he recalled, ‘filled the saloons, and even invaded the cabins. The fellows had already got on my scent. They surrounded one on all sides; cameras clicked everywhere – it was simply revolting.’
America was not yet in the war, so Pluschow was not harassed as he made his way to New York – despite having arrived under a false name – and he spent three weeks trying to arrange his return to Germany. Travelling under a false passport in the name of a Swiss locksmith, Ernst Suse, that he bought from a forger, he took a steamboat to Naples (since Italy was then neutral) on the night of 30 January 1915, travelling in steerage to minimize attention.
‘I told myself that the voyage would be over in a few days,’ he recalled after the war, ‘and as soon as we had reached beautiful Italy, I should be back in my beloved Fatherland.’ But his extraordinary run of luck was over for the time being, because on the way to Naples his ship made an unscheduled stopover at Gibraltar. There a Royal Navy officer asked a genuine Swiss to speak to Pluschow and other some Germans who were also masquerading as Swiss to ascertain their true nationality, whereupon they were hauled off the ship and into British custody. ‘The Swiss traitor stood at the breast-rail of the ship and grinned gloatingly at us,’ Pluschow remembered, ‘whereupon I was unable to contain myself any longer, but jumped up and shook my fist at him, yelling out an invective. Hysterical, treacherous laughter sounded back.’
Donington Hall, near Derby, is a Gothic pile built in the late 18th century for the 1st Marquess of Hastings. It had been requisitioned in 1914 by the Army to house 120 German officer POWs, and Pluschow arrived there on 1 May 1915. Outside Derby railway station, he recalled, ‘We were greeted by a howling mob, composed of women and undersized lads and children, but few men. The women and the girls behaved like savages. Yelling and whistling, they ran alongside and behind us, and occasionally a stone or a lump of dirt hurtled through the air.’
Pluschow admitted that life inside the thousand-acre Donington Park – which was later to achieve fame as a motor-racing circuit – was generally comfortable, with three tennis courts, hockey tournaments, ‘very good’ food and a ‘distinguished, intelligent’ colonel as commandant. ‘We loved the beautiful park most,’ Pluschow recalled seven years later, except the grounds ‘were marked off by huge erections of barbed wire, which were partly charged by electricity, illuminated at night by powerful arc-lamps, and guarded sharply by sentries both day and night.’
‘In time captivity became unbearable,’ Pluschow noted. ‘When an English airman soared quietly and securely in the blue firmament, my heart contracted with pain, and a wild, desperate longing set me shivering. I became irritable and nervous, behaved brusquely towards my comrades and deteriorated visibly, both mentally and physically.’ He decided to try to escape. ‘Day and night I planned, brooded, deliberated how I could escape from this miserable imprisonment. I had to act with the greatest calm and caution if I hoped to succeed.’
Pluschow spent hours unostentatiously inspecting the barbed wire, feigning sleep in the grass near spots that he thought he might be able to climb it. He recruited a naval officer, Oberleutnant Oskar Trefftz, who spoke English well, to escape with him. ‘We possessed neither a map of England nor a compass, no railway timetable, no means of assistance of any kind. We were even ignorant of the exact location of Donington Hall.’
On Sunday, 4 July 1915 Pluschow and Trefftz and another inmate reported themselves sick, and their names were entered on the sick list at the 10am roll call. At 4pm they dressed, ‘ate several substantial butter rolls’, said goodbye to their comrades, and walked out into the park despite a heavy thunderstorm, while ‘the sentries stood wet and shivering in their sentry boxes’. They crept into the park’s grotto, where a third man stacked garden furniture over the two escapees before going back to the Hall.
‘We waited in breathless suspense,’ wrote Pluschow afterwards. ‘Minutes seemed like centuries, but slowly and surely one hour passed after another, until the turret-clock struck six in loud, clear chimes.’ The park then closed for the night, and two inmates rushed from the roll-call to occupy the two escapees’ empty ‘sickbeds’, so that when the British sergeant arrived he was able to account for the two invalids.
At 10,30pm Pluschow and Trefftz emerged from under the pile of garden furniture, listened for a lusty cheer from the Hall, the signal that all was well. ‘I was the first to climb over the fence, which was about nine feet high,’ the former recalled, ‘and every eight inches the wire was covered with long spikes.’ Wearing leather leggings, gloves and thick puttees, and making sure to avoid the electric wire placed 30 inches from the ground, they climbed over two fences, with only one tear to the seat of Pluschow’s trousers, ‘which I had to retrieve in order to put it on later.’
After crossing a stream, climbing a wall, jumping a ditch and traversing a village, the two men walked the 13 miles to Derby where they bought tickets to London, changing at Leicester, before the alarm was raised back at Donington. ‘When I passed the ticket collector I must admit that I did not feel quite comfortable, and that my hand shaked a little,’ he recorded. ‘But nothing happened, and after a few minutes I was swallowed up in the vortex of the capital.’
The two men split up – Trefftz was quickly arrested in Millwall Docks – and Pleschow slept in private gardens as the British press put out notices describing him as ‘Height, 5’ 5½”; weight, 135lbs; complexion, fair; hair, blond; eyes, blue; and tattoo marks: Chinese dragon on left arm.’ There was also a detailed report on the ‘smart and dapper’ clothes he wore. Pleschow went to Blackfriars station and left his mackintosh in the cloakroom. He dropped his hat into the river from London Bridge and his collar and tie elsewhere. ‘After that a mixture of Vaseline, bootblack and coal dust turned my hair black and greasy,’ he stated, ‘my hands soon looked as if they had never made acquaintance with water, and at last I wallowed in a coal heap until I had turned into a perfect prototype of the dock labourer on strike.’ He spent the next week killing time in the British Museum and hanging around the Gravesend dockyards until he could identify a ship that was sailing to neutral Holland on which he could stowaway.
Taking a rowing boat at midnight, the enterprising Bavarian rowed himself up to the Princess Juliana, a Dutch steamer. ‘Unnoticed, I reached the buoy. The black hull of my steamer towered high above me. A string pull, and I was atop the buoy. Then I climbed with iron composure – and this time like a cat – the mighty steel cable. Cautiously I leaned over the rail and spied about. The forecastle was empty. I jerked myself forward and stood on the deck.’
Pluschow got back to Germany on 13th July 1915, eight months after having escaped from Tsingtau. He was immediately arrested as a spy by the German authorities, but it was quickly established that in fact he was the heroic pilot of Tsingtau, and the man with the dragon tattoo. ‘I derived special satisfaction from reading an English warrant from the Daily Mail dated 12 July,’ he remembered, ‘when I was already safe, which ended by declaring “His recapture should be but a matter of time.”’
The Kaiser awarded him the Iron Cross First Class, and he was promoted to the command of a naval base but saw no more action in the war, and refused to join any of the Fascist groups that sprung up after it. Instead, Pluschow became the first man to explore and film Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia from the air, feats for which he is still honoured by the Argentine air force to this day.
In 1929 he made a documentary entitled ‘Silver Condor over the Tierra del Fuego’, but two years later, on 28 January 1931, while exploring the gigantic Perito Moreno Glacier there, Pluschow was killed in a plane crash, aged only 43. Although he was a German who fought against this country, and escaped from one of our prisoner of war camps, one century later it is right to pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of Gunther Pluschow, knight of the air.
Andrew Roberts is the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny.