Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The One that Got Away - Gunther Plushchow

Getting out of a POW camp is not easy.  They tend to be designed to prevent that sort of thing. But it did happen with some regularity.  The real challenge is getting all the way back home.  During World War Two for instance, all German camps had to be 1000 miles from the English channel.  And the British simply shipped a lot of the prisoners they held to Canada or later to the US.

So the "Big Time" of POW escapes, the so called "home run" was a very rare event.  If you set the standards to the maximum you would have to say that the ultimate escape would be for an Allied POW to make it back to England before D-Day or for an Axis prisoner to manage a trans-channel escape from England.  The first case happened about a half dozen times.  But a German POW getting out of England?  One singular example out of hundreds of thousands of captives in two World Wars.

Gunther Pluschow.

In a previous post I took Guther's story halfway around the world, from aerial combat over China to his detection and arrest in Gibralter.

Usually armies do not prepare extensively for prisoners of war - the delusion of a quick, victorious conclusion being pervasive - so the handling of captives tends to be rather slipshod and improvised. Pluschow was at various times held in a friendly local jail, a dismal prison ship and a former stable. But eventually he made it to Donington Hall, the primary lock up for German Officers.

On being marched from the train station to the Hall Pluschow was busy memorizing landmarks, already contemplating escape.

Life in captivity is not enjoyable even under civilized conditions.  And in 1915 it was still possible to yearn for the glories of combat, and the officers, so confident in eventual German victory, felt cheated of their opportunity to pitch in.

Donington had a deer park and one day a fawn that had become separated from its mother came up near the wire.  With much coaxing and calling the prisoners persuaded it to wriggle its way through the wire.  The British were furious and marched the fawn back out of camp with an armed guard of twenty men bearing fixed bayonets!

Pluschow's escape did not directly stem from this incident, but clearly the barriers had been shown to be vulnerable.

On July 4th, 1915, Plushchow and his fellow escapee, a naval officer named Trefftz, made their move.  As an escape plan it was basic but clever.  They had observed that the evening roll call was done at slightly different times for the general population versus those on sick call.  So the two naval officers simply reported that they were sick and hid outside the building.  Immediately upon completion of the evening roll call two men were sent to play the parts of Pluschow and Trefftz, who were duly counted in their beds.

Under cover of a rain storm the barbed wire fences were scaled and the two escapees walked into nearby Derby and caught a train to London.

Both men were selected because of their knowledge of England from prior visits, and from their excellent command of the language.  But Trefftz was caught lingering around the docks in London, looking to catch a ride on a neutral ship.

The newspapers were soon publishing a very accurate description of Pluschow, down to the distinctive coat he was wearing.  He decided to get rid of it, but instead of tossing it into a back alley bin somewhere he took it to the coat check at Blackfriar's Station.  When he handed it to the coat room attendant he was asked; "Whose coat is this?".  In an exchange worthy of a Black Adder episode he distractedly answered in German "Meinen", meaning "mine".  The clerk handed him a receipt with the name "Mr. Mine".

Plushchow managed to stay free in London for three weeks.  He had  minor adventures that included disguising himself with boot black and coal dust, joining a local Social Democrats club under his new name George Mine, even resisting the very aggressive recruiting efforts of a British sergeant at a rally in support of the Kitchener Army.  He frequented low saloons and music halls and the British Museum before finally managing to steal a row boat and stow away on a Dutch steamer that was about to sail.

On arrival in Holland he simply continued to play the part of a sailor.  He  helped secure the ship to its wharf, then just walked away from it.

He got an initially puzzled welcome back home in Germany, but was eventually feted as a hero who had seriously tweaked the nose of the British lion. In just over a year he had entirely circumnavigated the globe by train, airplane, and boat, assuming at least a half dozen identities in the process.

Like many patriotic Germans post WWI he had a difficult time.  Eventually he raised money by writing about his adventures, then continued his wandering ways by being the first man to explore the far reaches of South America by air.

Gunther Plushchow died in 1931 when he crashed while on a photographic survey of Patagonia.

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