Mementos reveal history of brave wartime escape acts

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Great escapes are more readily associated with World War Two – with some of the most famous forming the basis of films and TV series.

But World War One also saw a mass outbreak of British inmates from German prisoner of war camp Holzminden.

Lieutenant James Wilfrid Johnson

Lieutenant James Wilfrid Johnson

Allegedly escape-proof, it was where “troublemakers” were sent. These men dug a tunnel through which, in July 1918, 29 men wormed their way to freedom – and 10 of them evaded recapture.

Among the escapees was James Wilfrid Johnson, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who spent his retirement years in Cornelian Drive, Scarborough, where his daughter Margaret still lives.

A marine engineer with his own business, Lieutenant Johnson volunteered at the start of the conflict to serve in Q-ships – armed ships disguised as merchant vessels to attract and fight U-boats.

Lieutenant Johnson’s ship was torpedoed and he was picked up by submarine.

“They disembarked at Hamburg. Sailors were standing at the bottom of the gangplanks with buckets of iron crosses to give to the German crew.

“Dad held out his hand and got one – which was just like him,” said Miss Johnson, a 
retired French teacher who taught at St Augustine’s in Scarborough.

“We had this for years but, sadly, it was stolen with the rest of his medals.”

The lieutenant was recaptured and spent the rest of the war in another camp.

Miss Johnson also has a copy of the telegram sent to her mother, Sarah Jane, telling of her husband’s fate.

This arrived after months of uncertainty, through which Miss Johnson said her mother never gave up hope that her husband was alive.

A declaration the Germans tried to make their prisoners sign is also among her late father’s papers. This was signed on April 7 1918 and is complete with his crossings out of the rules he refused to obey. Miss Johnson also has a copy of a letter sent to every prisoner of war from the then king, George V, and an exercise book signed by the lieutenant’s fellow prisoners of war.

“I only opened this recently,” said Miss Johnson, “I saw the words ‘Household Accounts’ on it and just put it to one side.”

Among the signatories are several members of the Canadian Royal Flying Corps including a Lieutenant Stephenson shot down at Saponay, France, in 1918, George C Logan shot down by a Fokker near Laon, and G Tambling shot down in France on July 28 1917.

Lieutenant Johnson was in three prisoner of war camps altogether. After the war he returned to England and the family lived in London where he returned to the shipping business and was also a lift inspector.

He and his wife retired to Scarborough, a relative found them the house in Cornelian Drive, in the early 1950s. Lieutenant Johnson died in 1971.