Breakout From Britain

Gunther Plüschow, Germany’s legendary escape artist of the First World War, was born to a  well-traveled family in Munich on February 8, 1886.  He was taken by his family to Rome at an early age, and was fortunate to have grown up amid the Eternal City’s bustle, ruins, and excitement; it was there that he acquired his facility with languages and adroitness in maneuvering his way out of trouble. 

At the age of ten, he entered the cadet institute at Plön, located about twenty miles from the naval facilities at Kiel.  From there he entered the military academy at Gross-Lichterfelde in Berlin, which accommodated about a thousand cadets.  It was here that Plüschow set his sights on a career as a naval officer; by 1904 he received his first ship posting and soon after was off to the Far East.  The possibilities of naval aviation attracted him, and in early 1914 he learned to fly.  Like several other European powers, Germany maintained a concession in China; and it was here, in Tsingtao, that he was eventually posted.    

The outbreak of general war in Europe sent shockwaves throughout the world, but Plüschow found himself far from the action.  He need not have worried, for there was plenty of war to go around for everyone.  The growing Japanese Empire, which could have cared less about the jockeying for power in Europe, was nominally allied with Britain and saw the chance to pluck Germany’s outposts in the Far East like ripe fruit from an overburdened tree.  Japan issued an ultimatum to Germany in 1914 to turn over Tsingtao; Germany ignored the demand; and Japan attacked.  Plüschow was soon making reconnaissance flights; he even claimed to have shot down an enemy plane with a 9mm Luger pistol, although he made no official report of the incident and it was not witnessed.  Perhaps this was because he was not supposed to be engaging the enemy, and did not wish to get into trouble with his superiors.  If the incident actually happened, it would have been the first air-to-air combat kill in history.

In November 1914, Plüschow was ordered to conduct reconnaissance missions in neutral China.  On a flight to Haichow, about 155 miles south of Tsingtao, he was obliged to make a forced landing; from here he made his way to the city of Nanking, with the intention of continuing to Shanghai.  But in Nanking he was marked for internment as a foreign belligerent.  He managed to slip away from the local Chinese authorities, first evading his “handler” and then boarding an express train to Shanghai.  Safely in Shanghai, he laid low among the German community in the city, jumping from one safe house to another, and trying to plan his next move. 

From an acquaintance he procured false identity papers as an American national and employee of the Singer Sewing Company.  He then arranged for passage on a liner, the Mongolia, bound for San Francisco.  His lack of extensive luggage aroused some suspicion; and to avoid uncomfortable questions from other passengers, he adopted the manners and behavior of a man with mental illness.  Meanwhile, his old base in Tsingtao had fallen to the Japanese.  Plüschow had just engineered his first remarkable escape.

On December 29, 1914, the Mongolia docked in San Francisco.  His real identity as a daring flyer in the Far East had now become known, but the neutral Americans left him alone.  His goal, however, was still to return home to Germany; his plan was now to board a cross-country train and find a ship on the American East Coast willing to take him to Europe.  In January 1915 he found a ship suitable for his purposes.  But his run of good luck came to an end when he reached the Straits of Gibraltar.  The British, who controlled this choke point into the Mediterranean, were in the habit of stopping neutral vessels and inspecting them for foreign belligerents and spies.  Plüschow presented himself as a Swiss national returning to his country; he paraded his fluency in Italian as confirmation of his identity.   

The canny British, however, detected something amiss.  The “Swiss” passenger had a decided military face and appearance; his clothing bore no brand names or labels; and when searched, his pockets yielded two American $20 gold pieces and—most damning of all—a small Browning revolver.  The game was up, and Plüschow was taken into custody as an enemy belligerent.  He was now officially a prisoner of war.  Like it or not, he was now on his way to England. 

Arriving in England, he was sent to Dorchester in the county of Dorset.  He was soon after transported to an officers’ camp in Holyport.  His fellow prisoners were an interesting group, but a prison is still a prison; the walls, barbed wire, and posted guards made it very clear that he would be forced to spend the rest of the war in confinement.  In April 1915 he and some other officers were transferred to a fortress at Castle Donington, located in western Leicestershire.  But Plüschow yearned to escape; he was a man of action, and nothing could be more debilitating than to languish in a prison while momentous events were taking place on the continent. 

One day he observed a small deer make its way through the prison’s barbed wire, and this gave him the idea that Donington’s security could be breached.  He began to monitor the movements of every sentry, and investigated every inch of the prison yard’s perimeter.  Cleverly worded questions to the local English guards enabled him to determine the precise location of the prison from the town of Derby.  Just over two months after first arriving at the prison, Plüschow launched his escape attempt with two other prisoners in the first week of July 1915.  Gathering together food and some clothing, the party made its way to a summerhouse on the prison grounds.  They would hide there until night, and then try to slip through the wire.  They were reported sick by their fellow prisoners, so as not to arouse the suspicions of the guards. 

The barbed wire obstacles proved to be far more difficult than they imagined.  Torn and bleeding, the escapees finally cleared the last of the fences, including one that was electrified.  But they made it out, and dodged the observation of the guardhouse, which was located outside the prison.  The plan then was to walk to Derby, pretending to be a trio of local comrades out for a day’s stroll.  From Derby they hoped to catch a train to London, and from there board a ship to a neutral country on the European mainland.  But it would not be easy.  At any moment, their accents or clothing could give them away. 

Luck was with them.  They made it to London without incident.  The first thing Plüschow did was to buy a large meal; but he spread his consumption out in several different places, so as not to attract attention to himself by eating too much in one place.  Finding a ship along the Thames proved to be far more difficult than he expected; schedules and boarding lists were tightly controlled, and the British authorities did not publish advance notices of departures.  By this time, of course, the prison officials at Donington Hall had broadcast a nationwide alert about their escaped German prisoners.  One of the escapees, a man named Oskar Trefftz, had already been recaptured at Millwall Docks. 

At one point, Plüschow himself almost blew his own cover in an incident that is retrospect is amusing, but at the time was anything but this.  He had ducked into Blackfriars station to ditch his raincoat in the cloakroom.  An attendant asked him what his name was.  Exhausted and without thinking, Plüschow answered the man in German, saying “Meinen”?  Without raising his eyes from his desk, the clerk wrote out a receipt with “Mr. Mine” written on it, thinking that this was the tall stranger’s name.  This was how he assumed the identity of “George Mine.”  Plüschow actually spoke English fluently, but as a non-native speaker, there were always opportunities for minor mistakes to give him away.  He decided to reduce his contacts with the locals as much as possible.  A Chinese dragon tattoo he had on his left arm was also a detail the authorities were broadcasting, a fact that contributed to the need to keep a very low profile in London.

Finally an opportunity presented itself for Plüschow to stow away aboard a neutral ship along the London docks.  He learned that a Dutch steamer was due to leave on July 7 from Tilbury Docks.  While waiting for the ship to arrive, he enjoyed a large meal with local dockworkers.  He later said he was afraid someone would notice his foreign inability to stack peas on his knife the way the English could do it.  While eating, he was asked for his papers, since the dining-hall was for dockworkers only.  He told the proprietor that his name was George Mine, and was an American who had lost his identification.  The proprietor told him he could buy a membership, but would have to pay a fee; Plüschow did, and continued with his meal.

He found the Dutch ship, the Mecklenburg, in the late afternoon.  He was unable to board her, and had to bide his time among East End dives, flophouses, and churches.  One bizarre encounter occurred when a British Army sergeant tried to get him to enlist.  “George Mine” told him he was an American and could not do this, but the indefatigable recruiter answered that it didn’t matter.  Plüschow put him off by saying that he would speak to his ship captain about it.  After other minor adventures on the London streets, he was finally able to steal a small boat and make his way to the Dutch vessel Princes Juliana.  Again, luck was with him; the sentries aboard the ship failed to notice his hauling himself on deck.  In the early hours of the morning, he secreted himself in a lifeboat deep in the hold of the ship, and there collapsed in exhaustion.  But he had made it:  he was on his way out of England.

The vessel soon landed at Flushing in The Netherlands.  Plüschow had pulled off a feat that would not be duplicated in either the first or the second World War:  escaping confinement on the British Isles and returning safely to the European continent.  He had been “at large” for a full harrowing week.  He debated whether to introduce himself to the ship’s captain, as he did not wish the man to get into trouble for unknowingly transporting an escaped prisoner of war, but then thought the better of it and walked off the ship without incident.  He walked off the pier, and was back in Germany by the end of July, 1915.  He was home free.    

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