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Gunther Plüschow: The man who circled the world in the most daring of escapes


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The story of a "smart and dapper" war-time flying ace who escaped invading forces in China, crash-landed, fled to America, crossed the Atlantic and ended up captured by enemy forces before mounting a remarkable escape from a prisoner-of-war camp, sounds like a rather far-fetched big budget Hollywood adventure.

But the tale of Gunther Plüschow - and how it was in Kent he staged perhaps his most daring exploits - is both true and often forgotten.

Gunther Pluschow pictured in 1927
Gunther Pluschow pictured in 1927

They say the history books are written by the winners, and it is perhaps that which has obscured the truly remarkable story of this German airman at the dawn of the First World War.

Because he was the only German prisoner-of-war to successfully escape capture in the UK and return to the Fatherland during either of the two world wars.

And it is only now, more than 100 years after his exploits, that historians are shining a light on his efforts.

So who was Gunther Plüschow - and just how did he end up making a daring escape from Kent disguised as a dock worker?

Born in Bavaria in 1886 to an upper-middle class family, he set his sights on becoming one of the new breed of airmen - joining the air division of Imperial Germany's Navy, and becoming a lieutenant.

Gunther Pluschow's plane in Tsingtao - the start of his remarkable journey
Gunther Pluschow's plane in Tsingtao - the start of his remarkable journey

He was posted to TsingTao, a city on the east coast of China - then an outlying part of the reducing German empire - and perhaps most famous today for the beer which shares its name.

However, when the First World War erupted in August 1914, the city was invaded and the Germans forced to flee.

"Gunther was given secret documents by the German governor of TsingTao and told to fly the port's only plane to neutral China to see if he could get back to Germany," explains Gravesend historian Christoph Bull, who regularly gives talks on the subject.

"So Gunther flies off on his own, runs out of fuel, and crashes into a paddy field.

"The Chinese who saw it thought a dragon had landed as they'd never seen a plane."

Historian, guide and speaker Christoph Bull
Historian, guide and speaker Christoph Bull

Having travelled only 160 miles, he torched the plane to prevent it falling into enemy hands and went to a local village where, according to Mr Bull, "the local head honcho was a German sympathiser".

He arranged for Plüschow to travel to the port of Nanking. But when he arrived, he realised he was being watched and fled - boarding an overnight train to Shanghai where he assumed a number of false identities before finally boarding an American boat bound for San Francisco.

Still determined to return to his homeland, he travels the breadth of the US, which at that stage was still neutral, eventually arriving in New York.

Acquiring a forged passport, he travelled under the name of a Swiss locksmith, Ernst Suse, getting on a ship due to sail to Naples in the then still-neutral Italy.

But the boat made an unscheduled stop off at Gibraltar and it was boarded by members of the Royal Navy.

Gunther had to scale barbed wire fences and electrified fences to escape
Gunther had to scale barbed wire fences and electrified fences to escape

"There he was arrested when his cover was blown," says Mr Bull, "and sent to the Donington Hall prisoner of war camp in Leicestershire, close to Castle Donington."

Arriving on May 15, 1915, Plüschow would later describe the site's grounds as being "marked off by huge erections of barbed wire, which were partly charged by electricity, illuminated at night by powerful arc-lamps, and guarded sharply by sentries both day and night".

In the book he would eventually pen, the airman explained: "In time, captivity became unbearable.

"When an English airman soared quietly and securely in the blue firmament, my heart contracted with pain, and a wild, desperate longing set me shivering. I became irritable and nervous, behaved brusquely towards my comrades and deteriorated visibly, both mentally and physically.

"Day and night I planned, brooded, deliberated how I could escape from this miserable imprisonment. I had to act with the greatest calm and caution if I hoped to succeed."

Gunther Pluschow and his son in Patagonia
Gunther Pluschow and his son in Patagonia

Less than two months after arriving, he was out.

Explains Christoph Bull: "Gunther and a friend of his escape by climbing over the fence.

"They got to a railway station at Derby and then decided to go down to London to then try and get on a ship back to Germany.

"They decided to split up - which is just as well as his friend was arrested very shortly afterwards.

"So he now had the whole of the British media telling everyone about him and what he looked like."

Historians Victor Smith and Christoph Bull who long campaigned for Gunther Pluschow's remarkable brush with the town to be marked
Historians Victor Smith and Christoph Bull who long campaigned for Gunther Pluschow's remarkable brush with the town to be marked

A newspaper report, dated July 7, 1915, said police had issued a description of him. It read: "Plüschow is particularly smart and dapper in appearance, has very good teeth, which he shows somewhat prominently when talking or smiling, is very English in manner, and knows this country well.

"He is quick and alert, both mentally and physically, speaks French and English fluently and accurately and was dressed in a grey lounge suit or grey and yellow mixture suit."

Scotland Yard added he was "blond, blue-eyed" and had a "Chinese dragon tattoo on his left arm".

Explains Mr Bull: "So to hide his appearance, he got some vaseline, put it in his hair and covered it in soot. He managed to get old clothes and an old cloth cap, tatty old trousers, a jacket and a scarf, and then lived between London and Gravesend.

"He was constantly looking for a way to which he could escape back to Germany. Remember, he's completely on his own, completely cut off, he can't speak to people much because his accent will give him away, and the police and Army are looking for him. How he managed to deal with this, mentally, I have no idea.

Gravesend's Gordon Memorial Gardens - where Gunther Pluschow is believed to have slept during this time in the town
Gravesend's Gordon Memorial Gardens - where Gunther Pluschow is believed to have slept during this time in the town

"He described in his diary how he used to sleep in a little park - which we know now to be the Gordon Memorial Gardens. He could hear the band play in the fort next door, and of course Fort Gardens was a working fortification then."

He kept an eye out for the vessel which could get him back to mainland Europe - while simply trying to survive.

On one occasion he had crossed the river to Tilbury where he spotted a dock workers mess hall. Desperate for food, and looking like one of the workers, he sat at one of the tables.

Explains Mr Bull: "As soon as he was about to eat, a hand came down on his shoulder and said 'You can't be in here'.

"He turned around and assumed he'd been caught. But he hadn't.

A display at the Three Daws pub in Gravesend
A display at the Three Daws pub in Gravesend

"The man just pointed out he could not eat there because he wasn't in the union. So he joined up and became a fully paid up member of the Tilbury Docking Union."

Eventually, he identified a boat which offered him an exit - a Dutch vessel.

Mr Bull explains: "He tried about four times and on three occasions he failed.

"Once he got stranded on the mud, on one occasion he got knocked unconscious and it was a wonder he didn't drown - he was washed up on the shore at Chalk. He had to hide under upturned boats and piers - can you imagine being wet, cold, alone and hunted?

"Eventually, one evening he was walking along Gravesend and there was a courting couple. They had come over with a rowing boat, so he sneaked into it while they were involved in other things and rowed away. He rowed right underneath a temporary military bridge built between Gravesend and Tilbury, which was absolutely swarming with British soldiers, rowed under their noses, got over to Tilbury, at night, climbed up the anchor chain, got onto the boat and climbed into a lifeboat and hid."

Gunther Pluschow finally got a vessel by crossing the Thames and sneaking on to a Dutch ship docked at Tilbury. Picture: Mick Wenban
Gunther Pluschow finally got a vessel by crossing the Thames and sneaking on to a Dutch ship docked at Tilbury. Picture: Mick Wenban

The boat sailed to the Dutch port of Vlissingen. He waited for the passengers to disembark before emerging from his hiding place.

Adds Mr Bull: "He got through customs, got on a train, and reached Germany where he was immediately arrested as a spy because they didn't know who he was.

"Fortunately, he was identified by someone else in the Navy who recognised him."

He had returned to Germany on July 13, 1915 - almost exactly two months since arriving at the PoW camp. And after a journey which had seen him travel the globe.

Unsurprisingly, he was lauded for his bravery by the Germans. Kaiser Wilhelm II presented him with the most prestigious of military awards - the Iron Cross.

The unveiling of the plaque to remember the airman in 2015
The unveiling of the plaque to remember the airman in 2015

He returned to the Navy and served for the remainder of the First World War - taking responsibility for two ports; one in Germany, another in East Prussia.

When hostilities ended, and Germany was left in tatters, he resigned from the Navy. He wrote his memoirs in 1921. He wed his sweetheart, not in a church, but an aircraft hangar.

He rejected the fascist movement which was emerging in his homeland, opting, instead, to travel to South America where he helped Argentina and Chile by flying over the landscape and providing survey information.

But in 1931, while flying above a glacier his plane crashed and he died. He was just 43. He left behind his wife and son. Germany mourned his loss.

Adds Mr Bull, who was alerted to the story of Mr Plüschow by Gravesham historian Linda Smith, when she first stumbled upon his story in the 1980s: "There's a memorial for him in Argentina and he was hailed, there, a great hero.

Gunther Pluschow's funeral procession in Berlin following his death in South America in 1931. Picture: German Federal Archive
Gunther Pluschow's funeral procession in Berlin following his death in South America in 1931. Picture: German Federal Archive

"And he's a great hero in Gravesend. In 2015, a wonderful plaque was unveiled in his honour at the Three Daws pub, we had representatives from the German Navy and embassy and we'll be doing something along those lines on July 10 of this year as part of a celebration of him."

Details of the events are still to be announced.

The historian concluded: "Gunther Plüschow's adventure is a wonderful story of human endurance.

"People who read this should remember that heroes don't only wear khaki."

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