Saturday, 12 December 2015

Winston Churchill's incredible escape from prison, 1899

Winston Churchill was one of our finest Prime Ministers. His resolute spirit during the war is widely celebrated. Few are aware though that this stubborn streak is part of his character even from a young age and gets him into a lot of scrapes when he is only a young man.

Back in 1899 Winston Churchill is caught up in the Boer war between the South African Boers and the British Government over sovereign rule in his role as a news reporter. He is anxious to be right in the thick of the action so he stays alongside the British Army as they travel on a train.

All of a sudden the Boers carry out a surprise ambush attack and manage to derail his train at 40 mph. At this point the safe and maybe sane thing to do would be to leave but Winston can not resist adventure and decides to stay. Seeing the problem he immediately sets out to help the driver barge away three carriages that are blocking the track.  

According to him the next thing to happen is for two men in plain clothes to appear who are ‘tall figures, full of energy, clad in dark, flapping clothes with slouch, storm-driven hats’ ready to fire at him for around a hundred yards away. Winston rushed to escape to the engine as bullets whistled past his face. He finds a bank nearby but it offers little in the way of cover so again he rushes onward. In the distance he can see some masonry and further ahead at about two hundred yards away he sees the rocky gorge of the Krantz river. Just as he makes a rush cavalryman gallops up to him and aims right at him.

He now has two choices fire back with his pistol or surrender. Being the plucky man that he is he decides upon the former but then realises that he has left it behind so he resigns himself to surrender. This is despiriting for him but as he notes ‘"When one is alone and unarmed," said the great Napoleon "a surrender may be pardoned."

After capture Winston is marched off and on November 18, 1899 he arrives in Pretoria and settles into a prison that is known as the State Model School. Whilst here he tries to claim status as a non-combatant. In the belief that it might garner him enough sympathy that he will be allowed to leave. Not leaving anything to chance though in his letters he also claims to be a soldier so as to improve his chances of leaving should a prisoner of war exchange take place.

Alas for him it helps him not one bit and so being an impatient young man he decides he absolutely has to escape. On the night of December 12th his opportunity comes along with his fellow Prisoners of War, Captain Aylmer Haldane and Sergeant Major Brockie. Noticing that the prison guards have turned their backs on him he seizes the moment to climb over the prison wall at a spot where it is poorly lit. He waits for his two friends to join him but when it seems that this will not happen he departs in a leisurely manner so as not to arose suspicion whilst wearing a brown flannel suit with £75 (the equivalent of $375) and four slabs of chocolate in his pocket to keep him going.

He makes his way straight to the Delagoa Bay Railway in the hope of making a quick and rapid escape straight to British held territory. When Winston arrives he sees a passing train and jumps on it. He then hides among the soft sacks covered in coal dust. He stays there for several hours all the time conscious and fearful of being caught. By daybreak he feels the risk of capture on an obvious escape route is now too great he must leave so he jumps off the train and moves on.

As he moves further and further along Churchill grows increasingly desperate through exhaustion and fear of being caught so he takes a bold risk and knocks on the door of a nearby home ready to plea for sanctuary. It happens to be owned by Mr. John Howard, manager of the Transvaal Collieries. When Mr. Howard sees him and hears his request for help he replies “Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Winston is lucky. Mr. Howard first hides him in a coal mine then transports him to safety by having Churchill squeeze into a hole at the end of a train car loaded with bales of wool. Whilst there he is aided by another Englishman, Charles Burnham who owns the consignment of wool. He helps out by bribing any Boers who might otherwise have discovered him. This is critical as the Boer leaders are now offering £25 (a then considerable sum) for him to be found dead or alive.

Finally Winston arrives safely to Durban, South Africa where he is in British held territory and feted as a hero. Some controversy now exists as to quite how Winston managed to escape. His fellow captives, Captain Haldane and Sergeant Brockie seem to have felt that Churchill spoilt their plan and did not try to help them over the wall. Perhaps Winston is only seen as successful by history because in his words ‘I will write it’. The South African General, Joubert held a different opinion of him at that time. When told that Winston had escaped he referred to him dismissively as ‘a little bit of a newspaperman’. What is not in doubt is that he is a very strong willed man even as a young man and thank goodness nothing changes when he becomes Prime Minister.

Churchill was an amazing man and his life was full of bravery, surprise and disaster. The definitive book about him is by Martin Gilbert 'Churchill; A Life'.