We think of ingenious escapes from prisoner-of-war camps as a British prerogative. But one of the most extraordinary escape stories of modern warfare was achieved by Gunther Pluschow, a German PoW in the 1914-18 conflict. Pluschow set a remarkable record. He was the only enemy prisoner to escape from mainland Britain in the course of either world war. His almost superhuman exploits and hairbreadth getaways, not just from recapture but form death, make Steve McQueen's exploits in the Great Escape look like a charity fun run. Other German escapers have failed for the time-honoured reason that Britain is an island.
But in July 1915, Pluschow, having escaped from Donington camp in Derbyshire, managed to stow aboard the Dutch ship Princess Juliana. Overnight, he crossed the North Sea to the neutral town of Flushing, in the Netherlands, and walked away a free man.
His adventure made him into a national hero, and won him the Iron Cross, first class. His account of the escape, published after the war, sold half a million copies. Even without this great escape and smack in the eye to Britannia, the pioneer pilot and aero explorer would have been a German hero. Among his achievements, was becoming the first man to fly over the southern tip of South America. Yet the tensest and most dangerous moments of his life were spent, not in the air, but on the banks of the Thames Estuary, in Essex.
Here, over the course of two weeks, Pluschow fought a running battle with the River Thames. On various spots along the stretch of the river between Tilbury and Canvey, he came close to drowning, as well as almost perishing from that distinctive form of Essex death, being wedged in river mud. Time and again sentries and others going about their business on the river, failed to notice the bedraggled escapee. The Thames proved to be an altogether more formidable adversary.
Pluschow's name has been little known in this country, but a new biography by historian Anton Rippon now does full justice to him, including a chapter devoted to that epic struggle between man and estuary.
As a young naval pilot, Lt Pluschow had been captured in Gibraltar, while trying to make his way back to Germany from America. He ended up at Donington Hall, near Derby, later, of course, to become famous for its motor racing circuit. The prisoners were humanely treated, but, just as much as any of the British PoWs played by John Mills or Richard Attenborough, the German counterpart was also desperate to escape and get back to the wartime action,
Pluschow "would lie on the grass, hands behind his head, gazing up at the sky, and wish with all his heart that he could be up there".
An escape plan began to hatch when he discoered a fawn from the deer park at Donington had managed to work wire. If a deer, why not a man? Having located a weak point in the camp's defences, Pluschow and a fellow officer went over the wire in a daring night-time escape, walked to Derby, and took a train to London, where they lost themselves among the crowds. While he plotted the next stage of his getaway, Pluschow slept on the Embankment, and, on one occasion, in the garden of a posh house, while a late-night party was taking place on the balcony above.
He attempted to cultivate the appearance of what he called "a surly and unkempt British working man". He slouched, whistled and spat a lot. It worked. Nobody gave him a second glance on the streets, or in the greasy spoon cafes where he ate. passing ladies gave him a wide berth because of his smell. While his fellow officer was swiftly recaptured, Pluschow stayed free. But he was stuck, an anonymous figure trapped among the thronging humanity of the enemy's capital city.
Eventually Pluschow made his way downriver to Tilbury. Sleeping in rubbish heaps and timber stacks, he began to stalk ships lying in the estuary, and one ship in particular. This was the Princess Juliana, which , Pluschow discovered, plied a regular shuttle between London and Flushing. She, Pluschow was convinced, was his exit ticket. But first, he had to get aboard. So began a series of night-time assaults that lasted almost a fortnight. Pluschow tried every conceivable means of boarding the vessel. He tried swimming, unaware of the lethal currents along Tilbury Reach. On his first attempt, he was almost swept out to sea, before the river deposited him on a mudbank near Stanford Le-Hope.
He tried, in best pirate style, to swing along the hawser. But in pouring rain, his clothes became waterlogged, and the weight caused him to drop in the mud. He tried to steal boats, at one point lowering himself by rope from a jetty to the ship, and , of course, ended in the mud once again. he tried to wade out at low tide.
On one occasion he had almost reached the Juliana in a stolen dingy when the boat sank under him.
Sever times, he literally missed the boat, and had to wait until his chosen ship returned from her North Sea crossing. But Pluschow was not a man to be easily beaten by a challenge. Eventually, frozen, starving, mud-coated and exhausted, he succeeded in stealing a fishing boat. The outgoing tide swept him downriver, but he managed to improvise a mooring on a hawser, until the spate had subsided.
Then he paddled back upriver to the Juliana;s mooring buoy, climbed the cable, and hid in a lifeboat. Utterly drained, he fell asleep. When he woke, it was to find the ship docking at Flushing.
The story of Pluschow's escape is the very stuff of action movies, and indeed, after the war, it featured in a German movie about his life, Ickarus, made in 1931.
By then, Pluschow was dead. Surrendering his officer's commission, he chose to pursue a precarious existence as an adventurer. Perhaps he felt that by now his luck was never going to run out. But it did. Exploring and filming in South America he ran out of funds, and was unable to keep his aircraft in working order, and he crashed over the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia.
Pluschow was not the most appealing of individuals, at least to modern sensibilities. Haughty and conceited, an enthusiast for war, he seems a template of the sort of German who happily reduced Europe to flames and rubble in the 20th Century. Yet even an English reader is likely to find himself rooting for Pluschow during those desperate days on the Essex shoreline, when he tried to reach a ship in the river,
His status as a German officer and the gut determination to escape, made him the emblem of naked humanity batting for survival against the primeval elements of mud, tide, current and foul weather. Yet he reached his goal in the end. Pluschow must be one of the few men who take on the Thames Estuary and win. How many people can claim that for their epitaph? --Castle Point Echo, Thursday December 31st, 2009