An Airman’s Escape from the Kaiser’s Germany
Imprint: Pen and Sword Military
224 Pages, 6.1 x 9.1 in, 16 mono illustrations
- January 2024
Harding was an observer in a Bristol FE2b of 25 Squadron RFC; prior to that he had served for eighteen months with the 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment and had won its first Military Cross for his bravery in leading a successful trench raid near Mametz, on the Somme, in December 1915. His aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Gerald French, was shot down by a member of Richthofen's recently created so-called 'Flying Circus', flying the Albatross Scout. His career with the squadron had been a very short one, as he joined it after the Battle of Arras had commenced on 9 April 1917.
After a few weeks imprisoned in Karlsruhe he was moved to Strohen. Always keen to escape, he was joined in the attempt by Roy FitzGerald, a NewZealand born officer who was captured while serving with the 12th Glosters.
Although this is a relatively short book, like so many memoirs of escaping officers, it is well observed throughout, from his first arrival with his squadron, and it gives a lasting impression of life in a Prisoner of War camp, its tedium, broken by the schemes and work put in hand to escape. As he admits, many prisoners were willing to see the war out, so such accounts as Harding's are far from describing the usual PoW.
No matter how many accounts one reads of escapes back to the UK, the striking impression of extraordinary ingenuity in making an escape and providing necessary materials from the most unlikely of objects always stands out. Perhaps more impressive is how such young men found such depths of endurance and fortitude and, yes, bravery, in making the initial breakout and then surviving several days (in this case) on the run in hostile country and with hardly a word of German between the two of them.
Lieutenant FitzGerald, alas, was killed before the war's end. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps on his return to England but was lost in aerial combat while flying as an observer in an aircraft over Morlancourt (Somme) on 1 July 1918.
Harding's account is written in a typical understated style of such British memoirs. It was a late arrival in the post war publishing frenzy. In his comments he notes that many of the memoirs then coming out: 'Some of the best sellers are those dealing with the sordid side of human nature …'. 'What stands out in relief against the drab background of prison life is the fine comradeship of my fellow prisoners.'