Otto Koehn was a Dorchester prisoner of war nicknamed ‘Jack in a Box’ for his extraordinary exploit. He was a distinguished-looking young man with fair hair and a slight fair moustache. Just 22 years old, he wore a pince-nez. Travelling on a Dutch vessel from the USA to Germany, Otto had been arrested when it berthed at Falmouth. At the start of World War I, he was interned in the prisoner of war camp at Poundbury just outside Dorchester. This was a large camp with as many as 4,500 German and Austrian prisoners.
No sooner had Otto arrived in Poundbury, he started to scheme his escape. The opportunity arose when he heard that a group of elderly interns were being sent back to Germany, for humanitarian reasons, as a part of a prisoner exchange agreement with the British. They would travel to Tilbury by train and join the steamer, SS Batavia. After arriving in Rotterdam, they could easily return to the Fatherland.
In the prisoners’ canteen Otto bought a box which had contained matches for which he paid five shillings (25p). Stamped across it was ‘Matches non-poisonous.’ The case measured just three feet by two feet by two feet. He then acquired a lid, staples and a padlock. Otto was a strapping six feet tall man but he still planned to escape hidden inside this packing case. He made some ingenious preparations to minimise the hardships of the journey. He padded the box with a rug and also smuggled in a small pillow containing oxygen in case of an emergency. He then climbed in and the unlikely package was sealed by a fellow prisoner. The escaping German officer had stuffed his pockets with bananas, chocolates, dates, biscuits and some cheese. He also found room for an old champagne bottle which he had filled with cold cocoa. There was a roll call twice daily in the Poundbury Camp and when Otto Koehn’s name was called someone always called out ‘present’. Otto travelled to Tilbury as ‘luggage belonging to some elderly Germans who had permits to return to their country.’
All went as planned until the party arrived at Tilbury Docks where the unlikely package had to be loaded onto the SS Batavia. The deck of the vessel was slippery and one of the men lifting the case slipped and let it fall. When it struck the deck, the lid opened and the fugitive was revealed. To the surprise of the stevedores, a tall, well-dressed but quite dazed German officer emerged from inside the case. Otto put his hand in his pocket, took out his pince-nez and placed it on his nose. One of the dockers remarked:
‘He looked so comical when he came sprawling out on the wet deck that for the moment we could not help laughing.’ Another added:
‘It was a regular Jack in a Box business and there was just that spice of reckless devilness about the German officer’s act to make him a hero in our eyes.’
Hand cuffed and surrounded by guards with fixed bayonets, Otto was returned to Poundbury. As he descended from a train at Dorchester station he was welcomed by a large crowd of onlookers. Back in the prisoner of war camp he was penalised for his suffocating escapade by having to report personally to the office of the camp commander every hour of the day. The Gravesend & Northfleet Standard of 22nd January 1915 reported that a decision had been taken by the British authorities not to court marshal Otto Koehn but that he was being moved to a more secure camp on the Isle of Wight.
Had Lieutenant Otto Koehn survived just a little longer he would have become a free man.
(Source: Western Guardian - 17th December 1914.)