100 years ago this week, Llandudno was in total lockdown, but why?
The Great (Orme) Escape!
It was cold and damp on the evening of August 16 1915 when Walter Wood, accountant to the Llandudno Urban Council, left the town’s County Club. Outside, he was buttoning his coat up against the weather when a soldier approached him, offered him a polite greeting and started walking with him down Lloyd Street. Fearing that he was about to be the victim of a robbery, the accountant turned and ran back to the building in which he had spent the evening. He burst into the lobby followed by half a dozen soldiers, excitedly, shouting “We’ve got him; we’ve got him”.
For two days hundreds of soldiers had been searching for three German prisoners of war who had escaped from a camp in Llansannan. Dyffryn Aled had been requisitioned in 1914 to accommodate captured German officers and while interned there, Lieutenant-Commander Hermann Tholens and Captain Heinrich von Hennig hatched a plan to escape and rendezvous with a German submarine off the Great Orme.
Korvettenkapitan Hermann Tholens was one of the first German naval officers to be interned at Dyffryn Aled after being picked up by a British destroyer during the Battle of Heligoland. He had been second in command on the bridge of the German cruiser Mainz when she was destroyed by the Royal Navy and spent an hour in the cold waters of the North Sea. He spent his first week of captivity at Chatham’s naval hospital before being transferred to North Wales. He was later joined by Kapitanleutnant Heinrich von Hennig, himself rescued from the sea by the Royal Navy off the Pentland Skerries, after his vessel was sunk by HMS Garry.
The thoughts of the captives soon turned to escape and a number of plans were hatched by the German prisoners of war with varying success. During a prisoner exchange program in December 1914 the opportunity arose to get a message from the captives in Dyffryn Aled to the Commander-in-Chief of German submarines requesting for a submarine to rendezvous with Tholens and von Hennig off the Great Orme. The affirmative to their proposal was sent in code to the pair at the camp in a series of letters and the date set.
On the night of August 13 1915, Tholens and von Hennig, along with their cell mate, Captain Wolff-Dietrich Baron von Helldorf, forced their way through the barred windows of the 18th century mansion and walked the twenty miles to Llandudno. Security had been stepped up in the wake of another escape attempt five months earlier but the three Germans still managed to evade the sentries and searchlights and walk through the front gate. Dressed in civilian clothes they casually strolled into the seaside town of Llandudno shortly after dawn. Tholens later recounted how they “Crossed a large training field in the middle of the town and admired, at our leisure, the exercises and drilling of a whole army of soldiers”. Confident that they would not be missed until the camp’s morning roll call, the three enjoyed a meal in a café before hiding for the day.
Meanwhile, out at sea, submarine U-38, captained by Max Valentiner, had been making her way to the North Wales coast since leaving the North Sea naval base of Wilhelmshaven on August 4. She had made her way down the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland and after torpedoing a number of merchant vessels headed north through the Irish Sea arriving 50 miles off the Great Orme on the evening of the 13th.
Back in Llandudno the three Germans left their hideout at dusk and tried to scramble down the cliffs below the Great Orme’s lighthouse. In the dark waters below U-38 moved towards them waiting for a signal which never came as the officers failed to find their way down to the beach. All was not lost for the three, however, as the plan was for the U-boat to rendezvous at the same position for three consecutive nights.
They returned to their hideout, under a thicket of brambles, and tried to sleep for the day. At dusk the three successfully made it to the foot of the Orme. In the moonless night they signalled to their naval comrades waving a torch in a circular motion over and over again, but got no reply. In desperation they built a fire of driftwood, scavenged from the rocky foreshore, and waved a large log of flaming wood into the dark night. By now, Tholens and his non English speaking compatriots assumed, wrongly, that the submarine was not coming. It actually turned out to be only a few hundred yards away, but so close in shore, that their view of each other was blocked by a limestone buttress.
Dejected, cold and hungry the Germans decided to walk into Llandudno, split up, and try and get a train to London. After buying a packet of cigarettes, Tholens went into a café in Mostyn Street where waitress, Nellie Hughes, served him a cup of coffee and piece of cake. He left the coffee bar and outside the Tudno Hotel was approached by Police Constable Morris Williams who asked his identity, the German replied:
“I am a Lieutenant-Commander in the German Navy, I am one of the officers who escaped from the camp at Denbigh. I want to be arrested”.
Williams escorted him to the police station.
Unable to locate the other two fugitives the authorities staked out the railway station but no men matching the descriptions entered the concourse. To be sure the London-bound train was stopped at Colwyn Bay and every compartment searched but to no avail as von Hennig and von Heldorf had just entered the offices of the Silver Motor Company in Llandudno. They asked for a car but when staff tried engaging them in conversation the Germans departed abruptly.
That evening, around the same time the innocent council accountant was being harangued, cab driver, Alfred Davies was on his way to pick up a fare from the Pier Pavilion. He noticed two men standing under an ornamental lamp in North Parade in the pouring rain. He pulled over and asked if they needed a cab and understanding that they did, he opened the door for them and they climbed in. In broken English they asked to be taken “to the colonel” so he took them to the headquarters of the London Welsh battalion who were billeted in Gloddaeth Street.
So what became of the three Kaiserliche Marine officers?
The following day all three were taken back to the camp in Llansannan in an ambulance belonging to the London Welsh and were subsequently put before a military court held at Chester Castle. They were sentenced to 84 days imprisonment in Chelmsford Gaol, without hard labour.
In September 1917, Tholens was sent to Switzerland and interned there until May 1918 as part of a prisoner exchange. In 1931 he joined the Nazi party and during Hitler’s reign served with the rank of Obergeneralarbeitsfuhrer (Upper General) in the regime’s state labour service – an agency which helped militarise the German workforce and indoctrinate it with Nazi ideology. Tholens survived the Second World War and died in 1967 aged 85.
Heinrich von Hennig remained in Llansannan until early 1918 when he was moved to neutral Holland for internment. After the First World War he continued his naval career until retirement in 1931. In April 1940 he re-joined the German Navy.