Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp (RCAF Journal - WINTER 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 1)

Cover of Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp

Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp

By Lieut. Pat O’Brien

New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1918
297 pages
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42490/42490-h/42490-h.htm

Review by Daniel J. Demers

Photograph of Lieutenant Pat O’Brien in his Royal Air Force uniform.

An American Pilot in the Royal Flying Corps

A number of websites have emerged which are digitizing public-domain books and articles for free use. The oldest of these is Project Gutenberg. Started in 1971, Project Gutenberg is a mostly volunteer archiving effort that relies on donations and contributions to operate. It and similar websites are exciting treasure troves of original-source material for military historians. Project Gutenberg has digitalized 47,542 books and is adding 50 more each week. One of its gems is Lieutenant Pat O’Brien’s 1918 bestseller Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp.

In August 1917, O’Brien, an American pilot who joined the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was shot down over Belgium. A German bullet “went through my upper lip, came out of the roof of my mouth and lodged in my throat,”[1] he wrote. As his plane spiraled to the ground, he remembered saying over and over again to himself, “I’m killed, I’m killed.”[2]

After recuperating in a field hospital, he was put on a train en route to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. As the train moved across Germany, O’Brien leaped out an open window, landing on rock ballast which closed “my left eye, skinning my hands and shins and straining my ankle … [and] knocked [me] out.”[3]

O’Brien’s book is an exciting, action-packed story about a real-life wartime experience. In a sense, it’s a “how to” manual that should be read by air-force professionals who might find themselves shot down behind enemy lines or in hostile territory. Historians and scholars will gain a genuine sense of the struggles and deprivations that civilians experienced during that horrible conflict, which took so many lives—military and civilian. O’Brien’s book was a best seller in 1918. While the story is nearly 100 years old, it is still relevant today and is a very enjoyable read.

Bleeding profusely from his wounds, he began his 73-day trek to freedom. O’Brien hid during the day and walked at night—fording and swimming across numerous ditches, rivers, canals and streams. Starving, he subsisted on cabbage, sugar beets and carrots unearthed in farm fields during his night-time hikes. Crossing through Luxemburg and finally back into Belgium, he visited farmhouses begging for food. The farmers fed him at great risk; if found out, they would be executed for helping escaped prisoners.[4]

Top of page

O’Brien had started flying in 1912—one of the so-called “early birds.” For a time he flew for the United States Army’s Air Corp during the Poncho Villa incursions across the Mexican border. Frustrated by America’s reluctance to join Britain and France during the early days of World War I, he moved to Canada and volunteered for the RFC. In May of 1917, he and 17 other flyers were dispatched to England; 9 of the 17 were Americans like O’Brien.

A month later he was assigned to the “Pool Pilots’ Mess,” located in Flanders, Belgium. “Whenever a pilot was shot down or killed the Pool Pilots’ Mess [was] notified to send another [pilot] to take his place,”[5] wrote O’Brien. Soon the 27-year-old flyer was notified to report for a vacant scout pilot position. His new squadron was located 18 miles [30 kilometres (km)] behind the Ypres line. Scout pilots had no particular purpose other than to fly a thousand feet [305 metres (m)] higher than the “bomb droppers” and protect them. His duty was “just to fight, or, as the order was given to me, ‘You are expected to pick fights and not wait until they come to you,’”[6] O’Brien explained. The squadron’s regular routine was to fly twice a day for two hours’ duration.

On August 17, 1917, O’Brien shot down two German planes and was in turn shot down by anti-aircraft fire. He safely landed his aircraft close to his aerodrome, but artillery fire directed from German observation balloons completely demolished his craft while he hid in an artillery shell crater. He was picked up, driven to his headquarters and assigned a new aircraft; by evening, he was again on patrol, when he was shot down for the second time. He awoke in a German field hospital the following morning. In addition to the bullet wound in his mouth, he “had a swelling from my forehead to the back of my head … . I couldn’t move an inch without suffering intense pain … .”[7] O’Brien was told by German officers that he had plummeted “in a spinning nose dive from … between eight and nine thousand feet [2,438.4 and 2,743.2 m], and they had the surprise of their lives when they discovered that I had not been dashed to pieces. They had to cut me out of my machine … .”[8] The following day, several German fliers visited him and “treated me with great consideration,”[9] he recalled. They presented him the red cap of the Bavarian pilot he had shot down, and he, in turn, acceded to their request that he give them one of his flying shoulder straps with his “star of rank” and also his RFC badges as souvenirs.[10]

Top of page 

Photograph of the biplane in an open field with three airmen.

The aeroplane [Sopwith Pup] which Lieutenant O’Brien used in his last battle with the Huns when he was brought down and taken prisoner.

After several weeks in the hospital, he was moved to a German prison camp at Courtrai, Belgium, where he remained three weeks. On September 9, he was placed on a train that was to take him to a prisoner of war camp at Strasburg, Germany.

The railcar, full of cigarette smoke, justified his feigning a coughing fit. He opened the window to exhaust the smoke. All the while the train was traveling between “thirty and thirty-fives miles an hour [48.3 and 56.3 kilometres per hour] … as it rattled along over the ties,”[11] he wrote. O’Brien stood up on his bench seat “as if to put [my] bag on the [overhead] rack, and taking hold of the rack with my left hand and a strap that hung from the top of the car with my right, I pulled myself up, shoved my feet and legs out of the window, and let go!”[12] When he came to he realized “I was free and it was up to me now to make the most of my liberty.”[13]

Bleeding profusely from his wounds caused by the fall from the train, he began his trek to freedom. He figured he spent nine days and nights traversing Germany before entering Luxemburg, which took him another nine days to cross. By the time he entered German-occupied Belgium, he was “in a very weak condition,” barely able to “cover more than five miles [8 km] a night.”[14] On one occasion while swimming a river, he remembered choking and gasping. His “arms and legs were completely fagged out [exhausted]. … I prayed for strength to make [the other side] … . … I finally felt the welcome mud of bottom … .” O’Brien dragged himself up the bank grabbing grassy reeds of which “I could not retain my grip. I was afraid I would faint … I kept pulling and crawling … and finally made it.” There on the bank for the first time in his life he “fainted from utter exhaustion.”[15]

Top of page

After about two months, O’Brien finally met up with Belgian insurgents who put him up in an abandoned house [in an unnamed city] with a forged passport. They later abandoned him after he refused to pay them for their help, leaving him to continue on his own. At night, he would “steal quietly out of the house to see what I could pick up in the way of food. … I scoured the streets, the alleys, and the byways for scraps … .”[16] On one occasion he stole a piece of stewed rabbit from a scavenging alley cat. Bored, he found an old copy of the New York Herald which he “read and re-read from beginning to end.”[17] During the days he would occupy himself by catching flies and putting them in a spider’s web. He then “rescued the fly just as the spider was about to grab him.”[18]

One night he heard soldiers marching towards his house and then entering. He hid in the wine cellar finding “a satisfactory hiding-place in the extreme rear of the cellar”[19] between two big wine cases. The cellar contained 1,800 bottles of choice wine. O’Brien writes that “rats and mice were scurrying across the floor” [20] and that “some of the creatures ran across me … .”[21] Standing in the dark with “a bottle of wine in each hand,” he prepared to defend himself against the Germans who “were smashing and crashing” upstairs searching for him.[22]

Just as the soldiers were outside the cellar door, he heard “Halt!” and the soldiers turned “right about face”[23] and left. When O’Brien finally got the courage to creep upstairs, he discovered the “water faucets … water pipes … everything brass or copper … torn off, and gas fixtures, cooking utensils … [and anything of metal] the Germans so badly needed [for their war effort] had been taken from the kitchen.”[24] They hadn’t been searching for him after all—just badly needed war supplies. He stayed in the house for five days before resuming his hike to the Dutch border and freedom.

Finally reaching the Dutch border, O’Brien was confronted by a nine-foot [2.7-m] electrified fence. Feeling “like a wild animal in a cage,”[25] he contemplated pole vaulting the structure or building a pair of stilts. He settled on two fallen pine trees. Stripping off all the branches, he used the branches as ladder rungs, “tying them to the poles with grass and strips from my handkerchief and shirt the best I could.”[26] Placing the ladder against a wooden fence post he began climbing. The ladder slipped into the wires—“a blue flash … and I fell heavily to the ground unconscious!”[27]

When he came to, he decided to dig a hole with his bare hands under the fence, a three-hour ordeal—all the while ducking and dodging German sentries. Once under the fence, he was free in Holland. The week before Christmas he was back in London and presented with great public fanfare to King George V. He had become an Allied hero; his story was broadcast around the world. The King spent three hours interviewing O’Brien about his “wonderful escape.”[28] The young aviator found the British sovereign “keen on everything … [and] a very genial, gracious, and alert sovereign.”[29] O’Brien told the King he was anxious to rejoin his unit but was bluntly told “that is out of the question. … [I]f you were unfortunate enough to be captured again [the Germans] would undoubtedly shoot you. … I think you have done enough … ,” the King told him.[30] Without a compass and only the North Star (when visible) to guide him, O’Brien reckoned he traveled 250 miles [402.3 km] during his escape, even though “the actual distance from his starting point [in Germany] to Holland … [ was] only about seventy-two miles [115.9 km].”[31] He dedicated his book to the North Star.

In January 1918, O’Brien was honourably discharged and returned home to Momence, Illinois. That same year he wrote his bestseller, which was serialized in numerous newspapers worldwide. Additionally, he went on a national speaking tour. By 1919, he was a wealthy man. He moved to Hollywood where he wrote and produced a movie in which he starred with Virginia Allen whom he married. His “yellow scare” movie was financially and critically unsuccessful, and his marriage collapsed. Busted and unsuccessful in his reconciliation attempts with Virginia, O’Brien shot himself a week before Christmas 1920. He was 30 years old.

O’Brien’s book is an exciting, action-packed story about a real-life wartime experience. In a sense, it’s a “how to” manual that should be read by air-force professionals who might find themselves shot down behind enemy lines or in hostile territory. Historians and scholars will gain a genuine sense of the struggles and deprivations that civilians experienced during that horrible conflict, which took so many lives—military and civilian. O’Brien’s book was a best seller in 1918. While the story is nearly 100 years old, it is still relevant today and is a very enjoyable read.

Top of page

A photograph of a number of Allied prisoners standing behind and sitting on the ground in front of a German guard.

A group of prisoners of war in the prison camp at Courtrai, Belgium. Lieutenant O’Brien, in his RFC flying tunic, is standing in the centre behind the German guard seated at the table. This picture was taken by one of the German guards and sold to Lieutenant O’Brien for one mark.

 

Top of page 


Daniel Demers is a semi-retired businessman whose hobby is researching and writing about 19th- and 20th-century historical events and personalities. He holds a degree in history from George Washington University and a master’s degree in Business Administration from Chapman University.

Abbreviations

km―kilometre

m―metre

RFC―Royal Flying Corps

Top of page

Notes

[1]. Lieut. Pat O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1918), 33, accessed December 17, 2014, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42490/42490-h/42490-h.htm.  (return)

[2]. “Flier O’Brien Safe at Home, Potsdam Papers Please Copy,” New York Tribune, January 21, 1918, accessed December 17, 2014, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1918-01-21/ed-1/seq-12/#date1=1836&index=8&rows=20&words=Canadian+Corps+Flying+Royal&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1922&proxtext=Royal+Canadian+flying+corps&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1. (return)

[3]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 86. (return)

[4]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 124, 142. (return)

[5]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 9. (return)

[6]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 12. (return)

[7]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 35. (return)

[8]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 36. (return)

[9]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 37. (return)

[10]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 37–38. (return)

[11]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 85. (return)

[12]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 85. (return)

[13]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 87. (return)

[14]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 113. (return)

[15]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 115. (return)

[16]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 187–88. (return)

[17]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 194. (return)

[18]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 194. (return)

[19]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 197. (return)

[20]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 198. (return)

[21]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 199. (return)

[22]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 199. (return)

[23]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 200. (return)

[24]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 201. (return)

[25]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 239. (return)

[26]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 240. (return)

[27]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 242. (return)

[28]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 277. (return)

[29]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 278. (return)

[30]. O’Brien, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 279. (return)

[31]. “Flier O’Brien Safe at Home.” (return)

Top of page

Table of contents

Date modified: