Eleven Months to Freedom

Eleven Months to Freedom

A German POW’s Unlikely Escape from Siberia in 1915

Dwight R. Messimer

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2016, 224 pages

Book Review published on: August 4, 2017

If you are looking for a historical book with daring escapes, close calls, and intrigue, then Eleven Months to Freedom: A German POW’s Unlikely Escape from Siberian in 1915 is what you are looking for. This book is very well written and an easy read. Unlike most World War I books, which focus on the western front, this book discusses events on the eastern front near the Baltic Sea. Through his extensive research, Dwight Messimer tells the story of Erich Killinger, who as a young German naval aviation aerial observer is captured by Russian forces in April 1915.

Messimer is a U.S. Army veteran and military historian often recognized as an expert in German World War I naval history. Fluent in German, it is evident that he conducted exhaustive research for the book by utilizing many different resources. The use of historical maps and photographs helps to assist readers in feeling like they are actually there with Killinger throughout his journey and escape. Messimer’s writing style allows for the words to flow smoothly, and he does a very good job in simplifying complex ideas.

The first two chapters provide background information on Killinger’s upbringing, early military service as a midshipman in the German Imperial Navy Academy, first wartime assignment aboard an Imperial Navy ship, and training as a naval aviation observer. His early hopes of seeing combat were dimmed by the possibility of spending the war as a midshipman on an obsolete ship, chipping paint and picking rust. He felt that this duty was not for him and repeatedly requested a transfer until he was ultimately assigned to the expanding naval aviation aircraft branch as an observer. His sense of entitlement and risk taking would often cause lapses in judgement that brought him to the brink of trouble before his incredible luck saved him. The cause and effect of these lapses in judgement and resulting close calls is a common theme throughout the book.

In April 1915, under unusual circumstances, Killinger’s plane crash landed in the Baltic Sea during a reconnaissance patrol where he and his pilot were rescued/captured by Russian forces. Falsely accused of bombing a railway station, Killinger and his pilot spent a month in the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison in Saint Petersburg, where they were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison working the coal mines in Siberia. What followed was nearly five months of arduous travel by train on the Trans-Siberian Railroad toward Vladivostok as Killinger and other prisoners debated about and planned their escape. The opportunity came in late October 1915 while the train was traveling inside Manchuria, Killinger and three other escapees jumped out of a window into the freezing winter weather.

With very little food and poorly clothed, the group headed south into China. To survive the journey, the escapees had to avoid troops from Japan and Russia, bandits, and Chinese government officials. Along the way Killinger’s group had to rely on generosity from the local populace, all while fearing capture and experiencing a few close calls. In Shanghai, Killinger chose the longer, less popular and more dangerous escape route of Japan–United States-Norway.

By 1 January, Killinger began the return journey to Germany outfitted with a forged passport, several hundred Mexican silver dollars, and first class passage to the west coast of the United States, then traveled across America to the east coast. The most dangerous part of Killinger’s escape journey was the trans-Atlantic journey and getting past the British Royal Navy inspectors. In a risky maneuver, he was able to avoid being caught by the inspectors and safely arrived in Norway. Exactly eleven months after being captured, Killinger was the first escapee to return to Germany utilizing the sea route.

The conclusion of the book provides a summary of Killinger’s life after World War I, providing one last ironic twist of fate.

Killinger’s escape and return to Germany is a little-known backstory in a backwater theater of World War I. The author’s ability to tell the historical story in an entertaining manner will be appreciated by both the serious and casual readers. I highly recommend this book for someone looking for a historical adventure.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. David E. McCulley, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas