John Ross, author of Formosan Odyssey and You Don’t Know China, shares insight into a new (re)publication about the German naval aviator Gunther Plüschow (pictured) in a special two part series. Read Part One here. John writes: “Gunther Plüschow’s bestselling 1917 account first appeared in an English translation in 1922 with the underwhelming title My Escape from Donington Hall. Republished in March 2014 as The Aviator of Tsingtao by Camphor Press, this ebook edition has new material to help modern readers, including notes throughout the text, additional photographs, and an introduction by British author Anton Rippon, whose 2009 biography Gunther Plüschow: Airman, Escaper, Explorer is the standard work on this remarkable figure. The Aviator of Tsingtao is available from www.camphorpress.com and Amazon.
The Aviator of Tsingtao – Part Two
Part One of our story ended with Japanese and British forces launching a massive final assault on Tsingtao in early November 1914, the Germans about to surrender after a two-month siege, and Gunther Plüschow, the defenders’ lone pilot, preparing to run the blockade. Here in his own words he describes his dramatic last minutes in the German enclave:
“There was no more time to lose. The aviation field had become extremely uncomfortable through the continuous shell and shrapnel fire.
Once more I examined my machine, shook hands with my men, stroked the head of my faithful dog, then I opened the throttle and my Taube shot like an arrow into the night.
Suddenly, as I was just about 30 metres above the centre of the aerodrome, my machine received a fearful jar, and I was able to prevent her crashing downwards only by putting forth all my strength. An enemy grenade had just burst, and the air-pressure caused by the detonation nearly sent me to the ground. But, thank goodness, a big hole in my left plane [wing] caused by a shell-splinter was the only damage.
The usual hail of shrapnel followed — my last farewells from the Japs and their English Allies.”
Plüschow flew his Taube monoplane southwest towards the city of Haichow (now Lianyungang). As neutral territory, China meant safety – on paper at least. At the onset of the war, China’s leaders – hoping to avoid entanglement in the costly and bloody conflict – had wisely chosen neutrality; with the fall of the Qing dynasty just a few years previously they were fully preoccupied with domestic political matters, and with the on-going crippling indemnity payments to the Great Powers as punishment for the Boxer Rebellion of 1898–1900, they could ill afford any added expenditures. Despite its neutrality, China was more closely tied to the Allies through trade, investment, and the many treaty ports, so it favoured them over the Germans, for example, allowing Chinese labourers to be sent to France. In August 1917, China decided to end its neutrality and – four months after the United States came in – formally joined the winning side.
On the morning of November 6, 1914, his plane out of fuel, Plüschow crash-landed in a padi field near Haichow. A crowd of peasants soon gathered around, pressing forward in awed wonder. Plüschow says they “were all convinced that I was an Evil Spirit bent on their destruction. So when I clambered out of my machine and tried to signal to them, there was no holding them. They all fled, howling and screaming, the men first, leaving the children who dropped behind as peace-offerings to the devil.”
With some urging, and the encouragement of a few coins, the onlookers returned and helped Plüschow right his plane. Through the crowd came a “Good morning, sir,” from Dr. Lorenzo Morgan, an American medical missionary, who invited the stranded aviator to his home, and acted as translator when Plüschow was interviewed by the local officials.
The German was taken to the city of Nanking, where he found himself under a de facto house arrest. En route he came across and read a copy of the Shanghai Times, eager to learn of the fate of Tsingtao. Plüschow, who was fluent in English, was outraged by the headlines: “COWARDLY CAPITULATION” and “THE FORTRESS TAKEN WITHOUT A BLOW. THE GARRISON DRUNK AND LOOTING.” The Shanghai Times was owned by a Briton with pro-Japan views, and backed by Japanese money. After reading through the false account of the fall of Tsingtao, Plüschow threw the paper aside in disgust. Recalling his anger, and innocence, he later wrote: “Ah, but I did not know the English papers then! Later in Shanghai, and also in America, I had to get used to much worse from the American press, to say nothing of the English.”
Slipping away from his solider guard in Nanking, Plüschow made his way to Shanghai. He went into hiding and then on December 5, under the alias of McGarvin, set sail for San Francisco. Now a celebrity for his flying exploits at Tsingtao and his daring escape, the German had great difficulty staying in the shadows, and his “cover” was blown mid-voyage by an American journalist. Upon reaching New York and about to embark on the next leg of his journey across the Atlantic, he had to assume a new identity. He was, however, captured in Gibraltar, immediately shipped to England, and interned in a series of POW camps, the last of which was at Donington Hall in the Midlands.
I’ll leave the details of the escapes from the POW camp and from England to Plüschow himself in The Aviator of Tsingtao, but in summary, he broke out shortly after midnight on July 6 with a fellow officer. His companion was soon apprehended but Plüschow remained on the run for a week, evading the police and the watchful eye of the public alerted by posters and the newspapers.
Below is a police description of the fugitive from the Daily Chronicle. Rather in keeping with the stereotype of Brits being dentally challenged, the paper warns citizens to be on the lookout for someone with “very good teeth.” As noted, Plüschow had a tattoo of a Chinese dragon on his left arm, something he obviously took pains to keep hidden. His blonde hair was soon black and greasy with an application of Vaseline, boot polish and coal dust. And a change of clothes and a bath of coal dust transformed the “smart and dapper” officer into what he describes as “a perfect prototype of the dock labourer on strike.”
After a week on the run and several failed attempts, Plüschow managed to stow away on a Dutch ship to the neutral Netherlands. From there he travelled home to a hero’s welcome. He was, as far as is known, the only German in either world war to escape from Britain and get back to the Fatherland.
For the rest of the war, Plüschow commanded a naval air station, the authorities not wanting such a famous flyer to risk capture or death. He wrote an account of his exploits, Die Abenteuer des Fliegers von Tsingtau (The Adventures of the Airman of Tsingtao) which quickly became a huge bestseller and helped make him a household name.
It’s a pity Plüschow’s story isn’t better known today; not only is it a gripping many-faceted tale but it’s a well told one. His book is beautifully written, fast-paced and rousing. And though the author is always chaffing to see action against the enemy, it is no mere work of propaganda. Considering its wartime publication, Plüschow is surprisingly even-handed when describing the British. Of his internment at one camp he says:
“The prisoners were extremely comfortable, as the food was good and plentiful, the treatment irreproachable…. Captain Mitchell and Major Owen especially deserved praise for the treatment of our men. Both were true old regulars, had been through many campaigns and battles, and knew how to handle troops. These two and the English Medical Officer presented the men with games, gymnastic outfits and a band, and did whatever they could for them.”
In the post-war years Plüschow added another exciting chapter to his colourful life, exploring the wild expanses of Patagonia. It was there in 1931 on an expedition that he was killed in an aircraft crash at the age of forty-five.