||‘…Dutch steamer…departure…Tilbury…’ These
are three words that may not sound particularly significant.
However, for Gunther Pluschow, nothing could have given him more
hope when he overheard a conversation between two businessmen on
a London bus.
Pluschow never planned on going to Thurrock. It all started when
the German-controlled city of Kiaochow in China had come under
siege by strong British and Japanese forces shortly after war
had broken out in August 1914. As a First Naval Flying Officer,
Pluschow had managed to get away by aircraft in November. He
landed in San Francisco and travelled to New York whilst
disguised as a Swiss locksmith. By January 1915, Pluschow
decided to begin his journey home to Germany and boarded an
Italian steamer. However, the unscheduled stop at Gibraltar
culminated in his recognition by the British authorities and his
arrest. He was shipped to England and sent to Donington Hall
internment camp near Derby.
For months, Pluschow schemed and waited for the right
opportunity to escape. This moment came on the night of 4th July
1915 when he scaled the barbed wire fence surrounding the prison
camp. Having successfully escaped Donington Hall, Pluschow
boarded a train to London. It was in this city whilst travelling
on a bus that the revelation of Tilbury Docks became apparent.
To a passer-by, someone laying in the long grass
by the riverside at Tilbury in July would not necessarily be unusual;
many were convinced of the health benefits of the sun during this
period. This is certainly what Pluschow hoped as he was in fact looking
out for the Dutch vessel. As expected, the Dutch steamer did appear,
with the name of ‘Mecklenberg’, which, coincidentally, had the same name
as his home province in Germany. However, it seemed that it was not
meant to be. Whilst making his way over, the ground below him suddenly
gave way and he sank into a squelchy mass of swamp ground. If it were
not for a plank that lay nearby, it is almost certain that Pluschow
would have been consumed by the swamp.
Despite the exhaustion from his struggle with slime, as well as having
had no food or drink for several days, Pluschow’s determination
continued. When ‘Princess Juliana’, a Dutch steamer, was moored to a
buoy, Pluschow succeeded in his escape.
Only nine days after climbing the barbed wire of Donington Hall,
Pluschow was back on German soil by 13th July. His remarkable escape
from England had already come to the attention of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the
flamboyant ruler of Germany. Wilhelm loved a brave deed above everything
else, and he was very impressed. The reward he gave Pluschow for his
escape was the Iron Cross, First Class - the most coveted award for
valour and enterprise his country could offer.