At 1.30am on the morning of 25 September 1917, 22 military officers detained at a prisoner of war (POW) camp at Sutton Bonington escaped through a secret tunnel and dispersed into the countryside.
The camp was very different back then to the site as we know it today – it is now home to the Schools of Biosciences and Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham.
As part of our series commemorating a centenary since Armistice Day we look back at how this historic escape unfolded.
At the beginning of the First World War governments across Europe had little idea of what to do about POW. The British forces captured 328,000 enemy prisoners during the war and during the first year and a half all captured German soldiers were transferred to Britain to be imprisoned.
The Sutton Bonington camp opened for business in October 1916 and at times there were 600 or more German military officers based there. It was specifically an officers’ camp. Under the Hague rules, officers were kept separate from troops and in less harsh conditions.
Professor John Beckett from the Department of History at the University, said: “Escapers had all sorts of motives. Officers were more likely than other ranks to attempt to escape. Firstly, they saw it as their duty to return to active military service, or at least to divert to local manpower into searching for them; secondly, because officers had more time on their hands and opportunity to plan and prepare their escapes; and thirdly, because the punishment on recapture was generally limited to a period in solitary confinement. At Sutton Bonington it was fourteen days for the first attempt.”
By the summer of 1917 two attempts at tunnelling out of the camp had been foiled by the guards. After the first two tunnels were discovered, there were suspicions that a third tunnel was in progress.The driving force behind these tunnels was Lieutenant Otto Thelan of the German Army Flying Corps, the first airman to be made a POW when his aeroplane was wrecked and he was discovered floating on it in the North Sea. Once captured, he soon became an escaper and by the time he reached Sutton Bonington he already had a reputation for his escape attempts from several different camps. He was known as ‘Slippery Dick’ or ‘Germany’s Monte Cristo’.
Thelan was a veteran by the time he reached Sutton Bonington, where the tunnel took three months to build through the summer of 1917. It was about 40 yards long and between 12 inches and 2’6’’ high. It ran under the barbed wire fence through sandy soil which had made excavation easier than if it had been clay, especially as the officers had only improvised tools like a jam pot and a piece of zinc shaped like a trowel.
Tunnelling wasn’t an easy option and progress was painfully slow. Only one man could work at a time and he would need to wriggle back along the tunnel because there was unlikely to be room for him to turn around. They also could only work at certain times of the day, mainly between morning and evening roll call, and they had to appear publically looking clean and tidy, and there was the ever present dangers posed by roof falls, explosions of foul air, rats and obviously - being caught.
Eventually it was ready.At 1.30 am on the 25 September Thelan led the group of 22 military officers, complete with their belongings, through the tunnel to emerge in a field of turnips beyond the barbed wire. As the leader, Thelan reached the end of the tunnel first and cut a vertical hole through to the surface. Once Thelan was out, he helped to pull the other men to the surface. They moved quickly across the field and out of the range of the search lights.
The men needed to be clear of the area before daybreak.They set off in groups of four, each with a planned route to the East Coast and equipped with a map and home-made compass. They had to try and blend in to their surroundings, which was difficult as the men had to wear military uniforms in camp and had no way of getting a disguise.
The eights escapees wearing naval uniforms were able to remove their buttons and so turn their uniform into something very closely resembling civilian clothes. One was described as wearing a blue suit, two were in khaki twill and one had a civilian coat. Others had mackintoshes.The chances of success were stacked against the men from the start. They had intended to walk by night and hide by day. The men were in countryside they didn’t recognise, and walking by night was easier said than done. They also had no idea what they would do when they reached the coast.
The first sign that something had gone wrong at the camp was when a farmhand who passed through the turnip field spotted a suspicious hole in the ground and raised the alarm. At 4.30am, just three hours after the escape, the first of the 22 men was caught at Plumtree. He was taken to the police station and the county police were informed. An elaborate scheme was then prepared by Nottinghamshire Police authorities and hundreds of special constables were woken, sent to pre-arranged posts and instructed to keep up a continuous cordon around the area were the fugitives were likely to be located.
When it was clear to the Nottinghamshire authorities that the Germans were heading to the coast, the decision was taken to search the countryside, farm buildings and woodland.Four of the officers were detained by first light on 25 September and the others were captured during the course of the day. By late morning the same day, six of the runaways had been caught and three more were caught late on Tuesday evening. All of those arrested were sent back to Sutton Bonington on the evening of 25 September in what might have been seen as triumphal procession.
They were taken on a brake drawn by a pair of horses through Nottingham’s Lace Market to the yard at the rear of the police station within Shire Hall. Twelve of the men had been arrested by 27 September and of the ten still on the run, six had served in the German navy. As they were gradually arrested they were asked ‘what had happened to their fellow adventurer. All of them refused to divulge their plans.
Four more were arrested that evening in Hickling Pastures. A local woman spotted them drinking from a pond in a pasture and she informed a local farmer who enlisted the help of another farmer. They accosted the Germans, who claimed to be on a walking tour and were camping out. The farmers distracted them for long enough to call the police. The following Friday, two more were caught at Moor Farm near Ruddington. One of the most astounding aspects of the whole affair was the quantity of goods the officers had managed to take away with them. In addition to tinned fish, tinned cheese, bottles of tea, bread, cigarettes and tobacco, they also had mackintoshes, sweaters and an airman’s cap.
The last four officers to be recaptured were apprehended at Brimington Woods near Chesterfield, where a police sergeant found them on 30 September.The fact that all 22 POWs were captured within six days of the escape implies that they weren’t particularly good at escaping. Almost all the officers involved in the escape were sentenced to 56-60 days of military confinement, which was well above the normal 14 day sentence for simple escape.
The Sutton Bonington escape prompted local officials to question Britain’s approach to how the camp was run.The camp closed in February 1919. Who knew that this now peaceful campus was once the setting for such a daring escape.
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