Swimming the Danube to safety

This story concerns three men who escaped from a working party at Ippingen, indicated on this Google Map. Their adventure included swimming the River Danube and crossing the international border into neutral Switzerland, from which they were repatriated home to England.

One of the escapers, George Carle, was among my earliest soldier research projects that I carried out on a paid basis. His extraordinary story came as a complete surprise and certainly encouraged me to develop this type of work. Let us begin with him.

George Gottheil Carle (served only as George Carle)

George was born on 13 January 1897 at Shadwell in East London, the third child and only son of George Gottlieb Carle and his wife Christina Friedricke (Freda). His father was a naturalised German from Tiefensall in Wurttemberg and had the occupation of pork butcher; his mother was also German by birth, but all of their (eventually) four children were born in England. By the census of 1911, the family lived at 113 Wanstead Park Avenue in Manor Park (the house still exists) and evidently faring quite well. George junior became a Civil Engineering student at London University.

On 4 November 1914, George went to France with the 5th (City of London) Battalion of the London Regiment, also known as the London Rifle Brigade. He was the battalion’s Private (styled Rifleman) 84, and his number implies enlistment into this prestigious unit of the Territorial Force on 7 August 1914.

George was wounded when the battalion was holding the front line near Ploegsteert, and was reported as such in the War Office list of 20 December 1914 (“Times” 18 February 1915). He was evacuated home for medical treatment, and did not rejoin his battalion in France until 2 September 1915.

George went missing near Hébuterne on 1 July 1916, and he was reported in the War Office casualty list that appeared in the “Times” on 10 August 1916. He was confirmed as a prisoner of war in the “Times” of 18 September 1916. In accordance with regulations, despite being in captivity he was renumbered in a new scheme in spring 1917, becoming Private (Rifleman) 300267. The details of his time as a POW come from a debriefing interview carried out once he was home. It appears in National Archives collection WO161. Although it is lengthy, it repays reading:

Place and date of capture

Hébuterne, 1 July 1916.

Nature of wound, if any

Slightly wounded in left foot.

My present age is 21, and before the war I was a student of Civil Engineering at the London University.

We were captured at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, having been surrounded by the Germans.

I did not report myself as wounded, and therefore did not receive any attention at a field dressing station, nor was I detained in any hospital in France or Belgium before being sent into Germany.

I was captured with Private Martin, of the London Rifle Brigade, in at sap-head, and we were at first taken into what was then the German first line. We remained in a dugout for about two hours, and were then taken back to what appeared to be Headquarters in about the 5th line. We were not officially interrogated, but the officers put some questions to us, probably more out of curiosity than anything, but we did not give them any information.

After about a quarter of an hour at the headquarters we were taken to a village in the rear and placed in a church for the night.

We were given a little bread and coffee, and we were interrogated there.

The next day we marched about 15 kilometres and entrained at another village for Cambrai.

Cambrai, July 2-13,1916

At Cambrai we were taken to permanent barracks in town which was surrounded by a moat. I do not know the name of these barracks. I have little to say about my treatment at these barracks, except that we were almost starved to death. There were about 600 prisoners in our party. All that we had was about a of a loaf of bread per man per day, weighing about 250 to 300 grams, a little vegetable soup in the middle of the day, and coffee substitute. After 14 days at Cambrai we were all sent to Dülmen in Westphalia.

Journey April 13-15, 1916

The journey to Dülmen was made in closed cattle-trucks. They were very crowded. There were seats arranged in rows and we were able to sit down. The journey was not by any means a comfortable.

Dülmen July 15 – August 17, 1916

We arrived at Dülmen July, and left again on the 17th August 1916. On 17th August 1916 I was sent to Heuberg in Baden.

Heuberg, August 17, 1916 – April 24, 1917

Heuberg is a camp for prisoners of war, situated about 50 kilometres from Constance. There is a village called Stetten in the neighbourhood, but quite a small place, containing, perhaps, 600 to 1000 inhabitants. The village was about one kilometre from the camp. Stetten is about seven kilometres from the Danube.

Heuberg is a camp which is capable of holding a large number of prisoners. I think its capacity is 13,000, but while I was there it was fairly empty. 7000 would be the largest total of prisoners while I was there. Of these, about 300 were British.

The commandant of the camp was Freiherr von Plattenberg. He was a stern man of about 50 years of age, with grey hair and a grey moustache. He held the rank of Oberst, or Colonel. I cannot say anything as to his treatment of prisoners, as he never had anything to do with them. I think the second in command was a Major Rücket, but we saw nothing of him either.

We were lodged in wooden barracks capable of holding about 120 men each. The camp is built on a hill, on rocky soil, and these dry and very healthy. The huts were built with single walls-probably of half-inch planks. The huts were roofed with wood covered with felt, tarred and sanded. The climate there is very cold, and in winter we felt the cold a great deal in these huts. Each hut contained four coal stoves, and we received about a scuttleful of coal for the whole hut for the day. When on working parties we used to collect wood and bring it in for fuel, but this was chiefly for cooking. Generally speaking, the heating was insufficient. Our washing arrangements were basins in huts, and we drew water from a standpipe in the compound. The sanitary arrangements were good. At first no beds were provided for us, and we had mattresses on the floor and two blankets and no pillow, but after a time I found some wood and made myself a bedstead, and about the same time beds were supplied. These consisted of rough wooden framework made of pine wood, and were constructed by the prisoners. We had some Russians there who were rather good at this work, and they evolved their own scheme of making these bedsteads, and they were all made after the same pattern. I do not say that they were comfortable, but the mattress which was stuffed with straw and leaves, took away the rough edges.

The main work for the prisoners employed in the camp was that of making a road running roughly in a north-eastern direction from Stetten. British, French and Russian prisoners were employed on this work. We received 30 pfennigs a day for the work. I myself was engaged on this work. The men who were told off for lighter work on account of the state of their health were employed on the ordinary camp fatigues and in connection with the rationing of the camp, and received no pay for this. No attempt whatever was made to force either myself or, so far as I know, any other prisoners to make munitions. There are practically no factories in Baden.

The food supplied to us was wholly inadequate for the men to work upon. We used to get a loaf weighing 1500 grams, which had to last us five days, and in the summer, when bread were short, I have known this ration to be made to last for six and a half days. At midday we always had the same food, viz., a vegetable soup, and at night we were given coffee substitute and sometimes a small quantity of potatoes. We had no other food whatever, except that on Tuesdays and Fridays we had salt fish boiled up in the soup. It did not improve the flavour of the soup, but I never used to eat it after I got my parcels. I have seen cheese served out, a very small piece once a week or so. There was a canteen, but all that we could get there were cigarettes, matches, lemonade and an inferior kind of apple cider which was passed off as “wine”. Cigarettes were a penny each, matches 60 pfennigs a box, lemonade twopence a bottle, and cider 1.5 Marks per glass. The bread which I received at Heuberg came from Copenhagen, and was excellent bread and arrived in good condition. The food in the parcels from England arrived in good condition.

The only clothing with which I was supplied by the Germans was a white cotton shirt and two pieces of square flannel which they called “socks” but I did not quite know how to put them on. Until my first clothing parcel came I was wearing the uniform in which I was captured. I asked for the shirt and socks, as I had no change of these.

We were able to exercise in the compound. The huts consisted of two rows of four, and there was an open space at the side of each line of huts – probably about 50 yards wide – and we had made a path in the compound and could walk on this. We also play football in the spaces at the end of the line of huts. We used to box with gloves sent out from England, but no formal boxing competitions were allowed. We used to play baseball also, so far as our means allowed, though we only had the ball and mitts. Indoors we played cards and chess. Smoking was allowed out of doors, and we used to smoke indoors, but I’m not sure whether this was officially permitted. When we were new prisoners an attempt to stop smoking in the huts was made, but, as a matter of fact, we all used to smoke and the officials used to see us doing so.

There was no epidemic while I was at Heuberg, and I was never in camp hospital.

We had no regular religious services for Protestants, but the Reverend Mr Williams came once and conducted the service according to the form of the Church of England. This was held in one of huts which was ordinarily used by the French for the Roman Catholic services.

Letters at Heuberg arrived regularly on Thursdays and Sundays, and parcels at irregular intervals. In January 1917 we were three weeks without them, but sometimes they would come as frequently as every day for a week. I cannot say who opened the letters. The censor’s office was at a place called “Immendingen” and letters were always delivered to us after having been opened, and I noticed that they always smelt of some chemical.

Parcels had been opened before been delivered to us, but they had again been fastened up. Paper and mustard were taken out of our parcels. We were not allowed to receive newspapers. We were allowed to write two letters per month and four postcards per month. Parcels for men on commando were censored, the idea being that they should go direct, after being censored, to the men on commando instead of being sent into the camp and forwarded from there. Until about the 15th January this year the tins were taken from our parcels. They were then opened in the presence of a sort of committee of NCO’s and the contents were issued at the rate of about eight tins per week per man. The men on commando lost their tins in this way up to July 1917 as the tins were sent in to Heuberg and the contents were not forwarded to the commando, but distributed among to the men in the camp. There were many complaints about this, and after July 1917 an order was issued that if the burgomasters of the villages in which a men were working would take the responsibility of censoring the tins they could be sent up to the commando. The empty tins were removed from the camp in a wagon to the Landsturm barracks at Heuberg, and were there afterwards removed from there, and I do not know what was done to them. During the last few months parcels and bread, etc, have been received satisfactorily.

I have no complaint to make of a general treatment at Heuberg. I saw no cases of cruelty to British prisoners, but I was a witness of one case in which a Russian was bayoneted. This man was working outside camp, and was not moving fast enough to please the sentry, and there was some argument between them and I suddenly heard him yell. I saw him afterwards and found that he had been bayoneted in the side. I did not actually see the wound, nor did I see the sentry bayonet him, but I know that he was so injured that he was taken into the camp. I never saw him again. This was the only case of cruelty I saw. I do not know either the name or the Regiment of the sentry. He was a Landsturmer, but I do not know the number of his battalion.

Discipline was well-maintained at the camp. There were regulations posted up in various languages informing us of these regulations. Approaching the wire was an offence. If a man approached the wire and failed to halt after being called upon three times by the sentry, the sentry would fire upon him. Failure to salute was an offence punishable with anything from 7 to 14 days imprisonment. Damage to German property was another offence, punishable with death, but I never heard of the death penalty being inflicted for this. Attempting to escape was punishable with 14 days imprisonment. Striking a German civilian, officer or soldier was another offence punishable with 14 days imprisonment in the case of striking a civilian but the penalty for striking a soldier was two years imprisonment, and this punishment increased in proportion to the rank of the person assaulted.

The only visit which we had while I was at Heuberg Camp from the representative of a Neutral Power was the visit of a representative of the American Ambassador about February 1917. He spoke to us in the presence of German officers, who could hear our conversation. Complaints were made to him, but some of these were very frivolous. We complained about the food, and the men on light work complained that their work was too heavy. His visit was a surprise, and no special arrangements were made for it. We noticed no improvement after his visit.

Todtnau, April 24 – May 11. 1917

About the 24th April 1917 I was sent on commando to Todtnau. This is a village about 70 kilometres due north of Basel. There were, roughly, 30 men in the commando – 11 English, 14 Russians and 6 French. We were employed on wood cutting in the forest at 30 pfennigs per day. The commando was in charge of two Landsturmers. We were housed in a disused garage at Todtnau, in which we were rather uncomfortably crowded, and our sleeping accommodation consisted of palliasses on the floor. I was there about three weeks without a blanket. Our treatment on this commando was good. The food was certainly better than it was in the camp. The civilians felled the wood, and we used to saw them up into metre lengths. The civilians showed no hostility to the prisoners. We had a long day’s work, from 6 o’clock in the morning until 6.30 at night, with three breaks – half-an-hour at 9 o’clock, an hour and a half at midday, and half-an-hour at 4 o’clock. The men working on this commando were very fit, and the guards treated as well. This commando was attached to Heuberg.

1st Escape. May 11, 1917

On 11 May 1917 I escaped, but was recaptured four days afterwards and had 10 days’ solitary confinement in a dark cell at Heuberg on bread and water, and was then sent back to Todtnau.

2nd Escape. July 28, 1917

I escaped again on the 28th July, and was recaptured two days afterwards, and this time I did my punishment at Todtnau, where I had 11 days imprisonment in a little local gaol. Again I was in solitary confinement on bread and water.

3rd Escape. August 24, 1917

On the 24th August I escaped again, and was again recaptured three days afterwards. This time I was sent to prison at Heuberg, in the camp, and served 7 days’ solitary confinement and 18 days’ confinement and hard labour. At first I was not allowed my parcels whilst on hard labour, but we – that is, myself and the two other men who had escaped with me – demanded them and succeeded in convincing the Germans that we were entitled to them, then we then got our parcels delivered to us. Our hard labour consisted of removing stumps of trees which had been cut down. For this work we were given crowbars, axes and shovels. We marched out at 5 o’clock in the morning and returned at 6 o’clock at night. It was very hard work. Except that the guards were continually keeping us up to our work, they did not treat us badly. At the beginning of October I was sent to Mannheim on a strafe commando , and remained there until about the 22nd December last.

Mannheim, Oct-Dec 22, 1917

I saw very little of this camp, as the men on the strafe commando were housed separately in a small compound and we only saw the camp for about two hours every day, being out at work the whole day. We were liable to be taken on Sundays, if required. We were employed on straw-pressing at a factory in a field adjoining a railway siding about three kilometres from the camp. We were employed from 6am to 6pm, and received 40 pfennigs per day for the work this work was hard. It consisted of unloading trucks and feeding the straw into the pressing machines. For a month we did not get any parcels, and the feeding was very bad during this time, the food being just the same as that supplied at Heuberg except that the ration of bread was always one loaf for six-and-a-half days. Our party consisted of 20 prisoners under a guard of six Landsturmers. I have no complaint to make of that treatment by the guards. The barrack accommodation at Mannheim was just the same as at Heuberg. There was nothing to choose between them. The only recreation we had was that occasionally on a Sunday we were allowed to walk about the compound. The same acts were offences at Mannheim as they were at Heuberg.

The reason I was sent to the Commando was that I had made so many attempts to escape. The punishment consisted in hardness of the work. We were kept at it for a whole day, instead of half a day as in the case of ordinary prisoners. The postal arrangements at Mannheim were the same as those at Heuberg, except that we were allowed to keep our tins there.

Heuberg, December 22, 1917 – March 5, 1918.

On the 22nd December I returned to Heuberg, and was sent with a working party to Ippingen on 5th March.

Ippingen, March 5-12, 1918

This is a very small village, about 12km north-east of Donaueschingen, where I was employed on farm work, for which I received 30 pfennigs per day of the. We were lodged in a disused house in the village, and were more comfortable there than we had ever been. The farm people for whom we were working gave us proper beds with sheets. Men who had no parcels were supposed eat with the persons for whom their working, but this did not apply to my case, as I had my parcels. To rule is that the employer has to provide food for the prisoners, but they have a dreadful way of eating, and we preferred to have nothing to do with them, but to live on our parcels. There was one guard over this party, a Landsturmer, who lived in the village and used to return to the barrack at night. He treated us properly, and did not interfere with us. I should think he would be about 45 years of age. I escaped from here on the 12th March 1918.

Opinion of Examiner

Lance-Corporal George Carle, whom I have today examined at 4 Brick Court, Temple, has given a statement which I regard as being absolutely straightforward and free from exaggeration, and I consider that it may be accepted as quite reliable and a fair and impartial record of his experiences. From the manner in which his witness replied to questions put to him I formed the opinion that he is an educated young man of considerable intelligence, and he appeared to appreciate fully the object of his examination”.

R. C. Swain, solicitor.

Transcript of National Archives Piece WO161/100/136
An image said to be the arrival of French POWs at Heuberg camp in 1915. I cannot locate the original source but thank ScholarWorks@WMU for their online portrayal of this photograph.

Unfortunately the text of the interview does not cover George’s actual escape route and I have been unable to find any reference that gives details. I am sure however, that it must be written somewhere. Contemporary articles refer to George having swum the Danube, which is obviously a strong possibility given his escape from nearby Ippingen. He still had a considerable journey from that point, presumably crossing the Rhine somewhere near Schaffhausen to reach neutral Switzerland.

George was reported repatriated from Switzerland and admitted to the King George Hospital on Stamford Street in SE London on 24 March 1918.

The London newspaper “Daily News” reported the escape on 22 March 1918 (British Newspaper Archive). The men landed back in England on the day of publication, and by 28 March, newspapers were saying that the three had arrived in London.

Henry Butler

Private, later Lance Corporal, 5620 Scots Guards. Henry, then an 18-year-old draper from Faversham in Kent, enlisted on 6 October 1904. He chose to join the Scots Guards and agreed to the standard term of engagement, committing himself up to October 1916. Henry spent his colour service with 1st Battalion, and was then transferred to reserve on 5 October 1912. He was recalled, mobilised and posted to 2nd Battalion on 6 August 1914 and went to Flanders with his unit in October 1914. Taken as a prisoner of war during the First Battle of Ypres, he was held at times at held at Hameln, Heuberg, and a hospital at Gottingen. He was admitted to the King George Hospital at the same time as his fellow escaper George Carle, and treated for exposure and lumbago. He had apparently been in the river “for some days” (which may explain the cramp referred to in the newspaper report). Downgraded to medical category Bii, Henry was posted to his regiment’s 3rd (Reserve) Battalion and in September 1918 sent for duty at the POW Camp at Blunham, Sandy, Bedfordshire. He transferred to Z Reserve on 3 March 1919, at which time his address was 8 Hogarth Place, Earls Court, London SW8.

Richard Edward Thompson

Richard served with the “D” Company of the 14th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment, also known as the London Scottish, as Private 5764. Born in 1886 and the son of a Major-General of the Indian Army, he enlisted on 24 November 1915 from his home on Lansdown Road in Bedford, and went to France on 29 March 1916. His service was much shorter than that of Carle and Butler, for he was also taken POW at Hébuterne on 1 July 1916, wounded in the head. He was held at times at also Cambrai, Dulmen, and Heuberg, and in 1917 was renumbered to 512038. Richard was discharged from service on 29 February 1919 to his home at 77 Warwick Avenue in Bedford.

The escapers were awarded the Military Medal, with all three being named in the “London Gazette” of 30 January 1920. This edition became known as the “POW Gazette”.

Post-war life

George Carle married Ethel Evans in 1920 and they had a daughter, Hazel who was born on 18 May 1921. The 1921 census has them as boarders living at 91 Church Road in Richmond, Surrey and gives George as a clerk for Lloyds Bank. The 1939 register lists them living at 8 Onslow Avenue Mansions in Richmond, and George was given as a bank manager. Hazel married a Robert Rowland in 1946. George died in Ashridge Hospital in Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire on 20 February 1945, survived by his widow, daughter and father.


  • International Committee of the Red Cross POW records
  • “London Gazette”
  • POW debriefing interviews (National Archives WO161 series)


How to trace records of prisoners of war

Ippingen web page