History on the River Thames

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Great War escape through Tilbury Docks

There was more in the paper Pluschow purchased from a nearby news-stand, 'Extra late war edition - Hunt for escaped German!' Screamed the headlines.

A few words overheard on the top of a London Omnibus one morning in July 1915, only a snatch of half-heard conversation between two businessmen, but enough to let Gunther Pluschow know he had found the solution to his problem: how, as an escaped prisoner of war hunted by the police, he could get out of England across the Channel. 'Dutch steamer......departure......Tilbury......' one of the businessmen was saying. Pluschow sat in the seat in front of them, straining his ears to hear more. Then, 'Destination......Flushing......' the man went on. 'Sailing......seven'.

Pluschow could not sit still a moment longer. Long before the bus arrived at its next stop, he was out of his seat, down the stairs and standing impatiently on the platform. As soon as the bus slowed down sufficiently, he leapt off and pelted towards the nearest station - Blackfriars. From there, he would make his way to Tilbury, where he fervently hoped he could get on board that Dutch steamer and at long last escape home to his native Germany.

People glared at Pluschow as he hurtled into Blackfriars station, slammed his fare down at the booking office, snatched up his ticket and dashed for the platform to await the train. The sight of what they took to be a dirty, malodorous docker - Pluschow's grimy disguise - naturally attracted disapproving attention when he went barging around like that. Had these Londoners known his true identity, their reactions would have been a lot stronger. As Pluschow well knew, The British harboured such hatred for Germans - their enemies in the First World War - that shopkeepers with names that merely sounded German had had their windows smashed and themselves and their families beaten up and threatened.

It was an unnerving thought for Pluschow as he waited for the Tilbury train to arrive. He felt very tense and nervous. Relax, he told himself sternly. There was plenty of time: it would be foolish for him to risk making himself too conspicuous, and perhaps get caught again, on the very last lap of the long escape that had taken him halfway around the world.

It had begun thousands of kilometres from London, in the German-controlled city of Kiaochow, in China. Soon after war had broken out in August 1914, Kiaochow had come under siege by strong British and Japanese forces. Gunther Pluschow, First Naval Flying Officer at Kiaochow, managed to get away by aircraft in November and crossed the Pacific to San Francisco. From there he travelled by train to New York, where he disguised himself as a Swiss locksmith and boarded an Italian steamer. Pluschow crossed the Atlantic safely but then, in January 1915, bad luck struck: the ship made an unscheduled stop at Gibraltar, where he was recognised and arrested by the British authorities. He was shipped to England and sent to the Donington Hall internment camp near Derby.

There, Pluschow schemed and waited for the right moment to escape. That moment arrived on the night of 4th July, 1915, and Pluschow scaled the barbed wire fence surrounding the prison camp, together with a naval officer called Trefftz. Both men were scratched all over and their clothes were ripped and torn, but both got clean away from Donington Hall and out into the quiet countryside around Derby. After a shave and a change into the clothes they had brought with them, the two Germans boarded a train then separated until they reached London.

The next evening, Pluschow arrived on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral where he and Trefftz had arranged to meet. He waited for an hour, but there was no sign of Trefftz. Another hour passed; still no sign. Pluschow decided to search Fleet Street and the Strand, hoping to meet Trefftz on the way. But he was nowhere to be found. When Pluschow got to the Strand, he learned why: 'Mr Trefftz has been recaptured', huge, yellow posters announced. 'Mr Pluschow is still at large, but the police are on his track.'

There was more, far too much more, in the paper Pluschow purchased at a nearby news-stand. 'Extra Late War Edition - Hunt for Escaped German! screamed the big headlines. To his dismay, Pluschow saw the paper had printed a short, but very detailed description of him: 'Height, 5ft 51/2 ins; weight, 135lbs: complexion, fair; hair, blond; eyes, blue; and tattoo marks: Chinese dragon on left arm.'

Pluschow's sleeve was drawn well down over that tell-tale tattoo, but the paper had also described what he was wearing. He must get rid of some of his clothes. Pluschow left his coat in the cloakroom at Blackfriars station, dropped his hat into the Thames at London Bridge and dumped his collar and tie further along the river. Then he set about the messy business of disguising himself. He rubbed oil, bootblack and coal dust into his hair until it was black and greasy. Next, he wallowed in a coal heap until his trousers, green shirt and blue sweater were smothered in black dust. At the end of his dirt-bath, the German looked exactly like a scruffy London docker who had probably not seen a washbasin for weeks.

The two businessmen who were travelling in the morning bus must have recoiled inwardly at the sight, and the smell, of Pluschow as he sat down in front of them. But they did the polite thing: ignored him and went on with their conversation. Pluschow sat half-listening to what they were saying; suddenly, he pricked up his ears.

Unknown to them, the two businessmen were giving away wonderful news for an escaped POW - they revealed that a Dutch steamer sailed at seven o'clock each morning for the port of Flushing, having cast anchor close to Tilbury Docks the previous afternoon.

It took only a few minutes from the time Pluschow heard that welcome information until he was waiting impatiently for the Tilbury train on the station platform at Blackfriars. At last, the train appeared, Pluschow found a seat and settled down.

Now he was on his way, Pluschow relaxed a little. The smoke-blackened houses of east London passed before his eyes as the train clattered along the track. Here and there, between the houses, he caught a glimpse of the mean streets with their shabbily dressed inhabitants. This poverty-stricken part of London was so different from the clean, elegant, fashionable areas of Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Bloomsbury. Pluschow was relieved when the last depressing suburbs slipped past the trains windows, to be re-placed by the serene and warm July green of the Essex countryside. He began to concentrate on what he was going to do.

Not long afterwards, Gunther Pluschow lay in the long grass by the riverside at Tilbury, pretending to doze in the sun. In reality, he was keeping a very sharp eye on what was happening along the waterway. As ship after ship went by, Pluschow anxiously scrutinised the names painted on their bows and the flags fluttering from their masts. Hours passed, and there was not a single Dutch vessel to be seen. Then, at around four in the afternoon, Pluschow saw the ship he had been waiting for. The Dutch steamer for Flushing came sailing majestically by and, with a sudden upsurge of emotion, Pluschow read the name on its bows: Mecklenberg. Mecklenberg-Schwerin was Pluschow's home province in Germany. Surely, he thought, this must be a sign of good luck. It was natural and comforting to think so, but over the next few days, it seemed as if luck had deserted, not favoured, the escaping German prisoner.

After spotting the Micklenberg, Pluschow hid among some wood and rubbish until midnight. Then, he crept out and looked around for a small boat that would enable him to row out to where the steamer lay at anchor. Almost immediately he noticed a dinghy moored just by some barges. He at once headed for it, scrambling over the rough ground as fast as he could go . Then, without warning, the ground gave way under him and with arms flailing wildly, he began to sink into a squelchy mass of swamp ground. Pluschow struggled with all his strength and was just able to fling himself far enough out of the swamp to grab a plank that fortuitously lay nearby. The swamp tried to suck him back, but he clung on and at last hauled himself free.

Exhausted by the effort and frightened at how close he had come to choking to death in the slime, he crawled back to his woodpile. At seven next morning, he watched dismally as the Mecklenberg sailed without him.

The next night, Pluschow tried again. He found another small dinghy moored by the river at a wharf which was watched over day and night by a sentry. When it got dark, Pluschow crept over the river embankment wall and crouched on the other side, listening to the heavy tramp of the sentry walking up and down. The little dinghy was rocking back and forth on the river only a few metres away. When the footsteps receded, Pluschow ran quickly down to the wharfside, snaked himself down into the boat feet first and huddled in some shadow at one end while the sentry, who was now returning, paced closer and closer. Any moment, thought Pluschow, heart thumping, the sentry might see him lurking below in the boat and yell a challenge. But the sentry saw nothing; he turned again and tramped away from the wharf. Pluschow sighed with relief and was just blessing his luck when he saw the oars, They were shackled to the boat by great padlocks. For one dreadful moment, Pluschow thought his second bid to get to the Mecklenberg had met an untimely end, but he managed to saw through the padlocks with the Indian knife he carried, and then slipped the mooring ropes and began to row out towards the centre of the river. All seemed to be going well until, a few minutes later, the boat started taking in water. It poured in steadily, causing the boat to sink lower and lower until, with a terrible harsh grinding noise, the keel ploughed into the river bed and stuck fast.

Nothing could move it. Pluschow kicked at the gunwale, pushed with the boathook and shifted his body around in the hope that altering the weight inside the boat would make some difference, but nothing worked. Soaked through, utterly weary, despairing and stranded, Pluschow could have wept. Soon afterwards, the tide began to fall fast and before long, Pluschow found himself in the ludicrous position of sitting in a boatful of water on a mudbank laid bare by the receding waters. He sidled down onto the mudbank without the sentry seeing him, and wallowed around like an amphibian till he reached the embankment wall. Then he squelched back to his hiding place, still unseen, but caked in sticky mud and thoroughly dispirited.

Nevertheless, next night, he was determined to make another attempt. He combed the river bank until he found a small skiff bobbing in the water near some fishermen's huts. The group of fishermen sitting on a bench by the riverside, gossiping among themselves, failed to spot the swift-moving figure slipping down to the water only six metres away. Pluschow climbed into the skiff, loosened its moorings, gave a mighty push at the mooring post and glided off towards the middle of the river. Seconds later, he found himself being whirled round helplessly by the ebb tide. It took all his strength and nerve to regain control of the boat and steer it downstream, floating along with the current. Quite unexpectedly, a military pontoon bridge appeared in front of him with soldiers pacing along its length. One of the soldiers shouted out when he saw Pluschow and his boat, but the German ignored him and steered the boat quickly past the bridge and out of earshot - and gunshot.

Pluschow brought his tiny craft to a halt close to the shore and settled down to wait for dawn to break. As the sun rose, lighting up the summer sky, the outlines of ships at anchor took shape before him. He could see Mecklenberg, back once more from Flushing, lying not far from him to starboard. Then, he realised something was very wrong. When he pushed off again, the tide felt far too strong. In so tiny a boat, he could never steer his way close enough to Mecklenberg's side. With sinking heart, Pluschow realised what that meant - escape had eluded him again.

Glumly, he let the skiff drift downstream until he reached a crumbling old bridge. Tall clumps of coarse grass grew on the river bank at this point and here, Pluschow dragged his boat out of the water and lay down to wait for his next chance. Shortly afterwards, he had the infuriating experience of seeing Mecklenberg set sail and vanish down the waterway without him for the second time.

The day passed and Pluschow remained in hiding, hungry and thirsty, but determined to succeed next time. Darkness descended and he floated the boat out once more. As he was steering it upstream with the incoming tide, a wonderful and unexpected sight made his heart leap with joy. A Dutch steamer, Princess Juliana, lay straight ahead, moored to a buoy.

At midnight, when it was still and quiet on the river, Pluschow rowed silently out towards the steamship. The huge black hull of Princess Juliana towered above him as he pulled himself up onto the buoy, gave the skiff a hefty kick, which sent it spinning away, and then began to climb up the thick steel cable that led onto the steamer's deck. He reached deck level, poked his head over the rail to make sure that there was no-one about, then hauled himself up and pelted across the deck to the shelter of the windlass. All was quiet. No-one had noticed him. After resting for a moment, he crept along the deck, slipping past two sentries who were engrossed in conversation. Still undetected, he reached a lifeboat, tore a hole in its cover with his hands and teeth and pulled himself down inside it.

The next moment, or so it seemed, Pluschow was abruptly awakened from a deep, exhausted sleep by the shrill blasts of the steamer's siren. Cautiously, he lifted the side of the lifeboat cover and peeped out. He only just managed to stop himself shouting out with excitement at what he saw: the Princess Juliana was steaming into Flushing! He was in Dutch territory, neutral free territory.

On 13th July, 1915, only nine days after climbing the barbed wire fence that surrounded Donington Hall, Gunther Pluschow arrived by train in Germany. His remarkable escape from England had already come to the attention of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the flamboyant ruler of Germany. Wilhelm loved a brave deed above everything else, and he was very impressed. The reward he gave Pluschow for his escape was the Iron Cross, First Class, the most coveted award for valour and enterprise his country could offer.