Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-028
2 Apr. 2019
Review by Jeff Schultz, Luzerne County Community College
Eleven Months to Freedom: A German POW's Unlikely Escape from Siberia in 1915
By Dwight R. Messimer
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 196. ISBN 978–1–68247–065–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War I, World War II Print Version

In Eleven Months to Freedom, the prolific military historian Dwight Messimer provides a fascinating look at the career of Erich Killinger, the First World War German naval observer and aviator, and Second World War Luftwaffe officer later charged with war crimes. The book comprises fourteen chronological chapters enhanced by endnotes, a fine selection of photographs of ships, people, and artifacts, as well as indispensable maps showing locations in the Baltics, Siberia, and elsewhere. The author has also made excellent use of documents in the vast collection of the US National Archives.


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Messimer begins with Midshipman Killinger's capture by Russian forces near occupied Memel, East Prussia, in March 1915, when he was a naval observer aboard an unarmed Rumpler 4B-12 seaplane piloted by Ens. Karl von Gorrissen. Chapter 1 introduces a critical theme of the work: "If there is a single outstanding feature of Killinger's wartime service, it is his sheer good luck; at crucial moments his salvation was a matter of pure serendipity" (5). Besides good luck and an indomitable spirit, his fluency in English and French was immeasurably helpful to him.

In chapter 2, we read of Killinger's service, prior to his capture, aboard a captured British freighter, the SS Glyndwr, converted into a seaplane tender, the first such vessel in German naval history (16). The story moves briskly from East Prussia to St. Petersburg, then to Siberia via the Trans-Siberian Railway. In an early escape attempt, Killinger suffered bayonet wounds to his hand and chest, the latter "inflicting a small, but painful wound" (34). These injuries tormented him during the early days of his incarceration, when he was denied medical attention. The solitary confinements, interrogations, and sufferings he endured made him "determined to escape" (38). While imprisoned at St. Petersburg, he and his comrade von Gorrissen communicated with something like the Vietnam-era "tap code" used by captured Americans in North Vietnamese prison camps (42–43).[1]

In chapter 6, Killinger and other German prisoners are sent to Omsk and later Udinsk, Siberia, before being consigned to an even less hospitable "reprisal" camp at Spassk (62). During the journey there (chap. 7), Killinger and three other German POWs jumped from the train into the unknown (73). They benefited from a recent windfall—Killinger had fortuitously pocketed a railway map in an abandoned station during a trackside break, another instance of his impeccable luck (66).

Chapter 9 details the efforts of the German Foreign Office and the secret German Naval Supply system (Etappendienst) in trying to get escaped German servicemen back home. "The efficiency of the escape pipeline was impressive" (87). After six weeks on the run, Killinger reached the German consulate in Mukden, Manchuria. His travel from there to China and then the United States was facilitated by German officials who provided him and others with forged identity papers, money, and material support; the escapees moved along a sort of German underground railroad, receiving help from hired locals, such as the Chinese tailors who made new clothes for the fugitives (87). Killinger chose a (much longer) eastward sea route across the Pacific to the United States and then on to Germany, rather than risk using the Trans-Siberian Railroad, after his bitter experiences in Tsarist Russian custody (93–95).

In chapter 10, Killinger manages to visit the old interned German warship SMS Geier in Honolulu and, in his reckless style, got in touch with its captain to learn more about German contacts he needed to make for his journey across the United States (107). Beyond merely telling Killinger's story, Messimer offers a glimpse of the prewar United States in all its opulence (chap. 11). Killinger journeyed from San Francisco to Chicago on the California Limited, then took the Twentieth Century Limited to New York, passing through a country untouched by war, which offered luxury trains to the wealthy (117). The author's knowledge of period travel and his skillful storytelling based on primary sources make for an evocative tour of a long-ago America.

In New York City, Killinger faced the challenge of finding a ship for the dangerous transit to Europe; this would involve breaking through the British cordon, which few Germans had managed to do since 1915. He traveled to Baltimore under a new alias and signed on as an able seaman aboard a Norwegian freighter, affecting the appearance of "a cross between an Apache dancer and a railroad hobo" (125). He remarked of his time aboard the SS Storfjeld that "I never worked as hard as I did during those four weeks" (129). To look the part, he modified his hands with a knife and washed them in dirty fuel.

In an encounter with a British guard during a merchant ship inspection at Stornoway, Outer Hebrides, Killinger made his own luck. The guard

was away for only a moment, but in that moment Killinger quickly stepped from one group [about to inspected] to another [already inspected]. It was an amazing piece of good luck, made more amazing by the fact that none of the crew raised an alarm. None of the men standing outside the door could have missed seeing him make the move, and every one of them knew or suspected why he did it.… Luck aside, … Killinger was quick to see an opening and bold enough to take the opportunity. On the other hand, he had nothing to lose. (134)

Killinger kept quiet upon his return to Germany (Mar. 1916), exactly eleven months after his capture, in order to keep the escape pipeline from public knowledge so as not to endanger others attempting to use it. By contrast, another German naval aviator, Gunther Plüschow, who escaped via another route from England in 1915, received a hero's welcome and became a "perfect propaganda poster boy" (138).

The Foreign Office pipeline ended in 1917, when both China and the United States joined the war against Imperial Germany and such ease of movement became impossible. Killinger's book about his experience[2] did not receive much notice (138).

Upon his return, Killinger was eventually assigned to Seeflugstation I (Naval Air Station 1) at Zeebrugge for the rest of the war. He earned several awards and successfully defended Zeebrugge during a British raid in April 1918 (142–43). After the war, he went back to various business-related jobs in the aircraft industry. He married and fathered three children. In 1938, he joined the Nazi Party and served as a major in the Luftwaffe, first with a naval air unit on the Baltic, then as a staff officer in France. Given his experience as a prisoner, he was assigned to command a POW camp, "Dulag Luft" near Frankfurt am Main, in 1941 (148). This facility included an "aircrew interrogation center," Auswertestelle West (149). Known as a "stickler for discipline" (150), Lieutenant Colonel Killinger brought the camp up to "peak efficiency" (151). After the war, his luck ran out, as he spent several years imprisoned for lesser war crimes against Allied POWs. He returned to civilian life in 1948, worked as a salesman for a ship equipment company, and died in 1977.

Dwight Messimer's Eleven Months to Freedom will appeal to readers interested in World War I, POW escapes, or risk-filled tales of high adventure along the little studied German Foreign Office escape pipeline.

[1] See Stuart I. Rochester, The Battle behind Bars: Navy and Marine POWs in the Vietnam War (Washington: Dept of the Navy, 2010) 25—available online.

[2] Die Abenteuer des Ostseefliegers [The Adventures of a Baltic Flier] (Berlin: Ullstein, 1917).

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