Soldier gave up his life by going back into Nazi Germany to save his friend
Lake Constance was a breathtaking sight but, for Lance Corporal Antony Coulthard, it was all the more beautiful because as soon as he had crossed it, he would be free.
For three years, he had been a prisoner of war at German camp Stalag XXA in Poland and after escaping, he travelled 250 miles through the heart of Hitler’s Germany.
Now, he was feet from the lake and the Swiss border, feet from safety.
Then, he did the unthinkable – he turned around and walked back towards the German border.
It was a decision that led to Antony being recaptured and dying in the Nazis’ last act of vengeance against PoWs during the final days of the Second World War.
He had turned back to save his friend, Sergeant Fred Foster, who was stopped by the German border guard Antony had just slipped past. In a heartbreaking twist, the selfless act meant that while Antony would never go home, Fred did.
The story is all the more remarkable as it only came to light when Fred’s son Steve found his old letters to his mum in a suitcase in the loft two years ago.
Steve, 68, and author Alan Clark have now turned the story into a book called The Soldier Who Came Back.
“I wanted to do this for both my dad and Antony, to make sure what they went through was understood,” he says. “They went through such suffering but never gave up hope. My mum mentioned Dad had been a PoW. But I had no idea of the extent of his time in the war until I opened that suitcase.
“He and Antony had a true friendship forged in the darkest of times and it felt right to honour that by piecing together their story.”
Fred was a self-taught solicitor’s clerk from Newark, Nottinghamshire, who went to fight five weeks after getting married. He was captured in Norway in 1940 and knew he had to do whatever it took to get home to his beloved wife Peggy. Antony was the son of a well-to-do family and had graduated with a first in Modern Languages from Oxford. He was on a reconnaissance mission in Amiens, France, in 1940 when he was captured.
They both found themselves in Stalag XXA in Thorn, Poland, and struck up a friendship. Fred had laughed about how Antony’s mastery of German slang earned him the nickname “Professor”.
And while they were very different, they had one thing in common – their hunger to escape. So they spent two years developing a meticulous plan.
The idea was for them to try to pass as German businessmen once outside the camp and get to the Swiss border. So Antony began teaching Fred German… but there was a flaw in the plan.
“Day by day, week by week, the pieces of the jigsaw slotted into place.
"But by mid-June 1942, there was still one that didn’t fit properly,” the book reveals.
“Fred’s German. During those 15 months of blood, sweat and tears, he had become highly proficient in both vocabulary and grammar. But, despite Antony’s best efforts, his accent was poor. Fred could not suppress his strong Nottinghamshire vowels. Any native German hearing Fred might do a double take and wonder where he came from.
So they eventually came up with a solution. “It was decided Fred would play the part of a German-speaking Hungarian,” the books says.
“They would just have to pray any German person he spoke to had never gone on holiday to Budapest.”
For the next part of the plan, Fred became editor of the camp newspaper to access a typewriter with German characters and forge ID cards. Then they stole letterheaded paper and wrote letters claiming to be two marketing men.
The final pieces were two suits, made by members of the Polish resistance. With the group’s help, the pair walked out of a hole cut in the fence of Stalag XXA in August 1942 and dashed to the nearest train station.
They then zig-zagged across Poland and Germany towards the Swiss border, a journey full of close shaves. On the train, they gave Heil Hitler salutes to a carriage full of German soldiers on leave and only barely avoided detection in Berlin after a suspicious granny reported them to a Gestapo detective. Finally, they made it to the banks of Lake Constance.
But after Antony was waved through by the border guards, Fred was stopped, as his ID didn’t look quite right. Antony came back, hoping his fluent German could help but it was too late. Arrested at gunpoint, they were taken to Gestapo headquarters, beaten and held for days without food before being separated.
“For my dad, it had been his soldier’s duty to escape but it was also about his deep love to get back to my mother,” says Steve, of Horton Heath, Hants.
“I never knew the scale of what he and Antony attempted, and the cost it had.”
Fred was taken to Stalag 383 in Bavaria. He made another escape but didn’t get as close as in 1942. But he did survive the war and got home to Peggy. He later heard of Antony’s fate in a letter from Antony’s mother, Dorothy. It read: “My son, or ‘The Professor’ from Stalag XXA, perished on his way home on one of those torture marches from Poland.
“I believe you were the co-escapee with my son to the Swiss border… and from what I have heard he made the fatal mistake of returning to help you at the last moment. And now he is gone, perished miserably and unnecessarily.”
Steve, a retired Navy commander, has since discovered Antony had tried in vain to escape again.
My mission to find grave and honour a hero
Antony’s grave was lost for almost 70 years until Steve discovered dad Fred’s letters and set out to find it.
After hearing Antony died during the Forced March of 1945, he scoured the National Archives and came across an account of the march by Staff Sergeant Thomas Aitken. It said Antony had died at Kaltenhof, Lower Saxony.
Steve tracked down Antony’s niece, Barbara Willoughby-Thomas, who flew over from Australia to meet him in Germany. And after making an appeal for witnesses in the local paper, they found the barn where Antony died.
Steve then had to convince the MoD. He says: “I was so lucky I had found the man who had found the body, we’d had the documentation and I put together a paper trail that was convincing.”
In July 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the marches, Steve heard Antony’s unmarked grave would be rededicated. “It felt like I had finally done something which needed to be done,” he said.
Steve has since found the grave of Private GH Thompson, who died on the same march, and is planning to track down the remaining men.
“He tried to escape a further eight times. One time he and another prisoner managed to board a ship due to leave Gdansk but they were betrayed by an Italian sailor.”
As the German army collapsed, camp guards began the Forced March in freezing temperatures, a brutal and needless crime that killed an estimated 100,000 PoWs.
Stricken with dysentery and weak from sharing his food with other prisoners, Antony died after being made to march into the icy waters of the Elbe, aged 27. Fred built a career at the family’s builders’ merchant and became Mayor of Grantham, Lincs, in 1957. He knew Margaret Thatcher and her father Alf Roberts, and died in 1990, aged 75.
“My father didn’t share stories of the war,” says Steve. “I knew it was difficult for him, for all the men of that generation to talk about. I was always proud of my father but finding out the whole story has given me a huge admiration for what he did.”
Steve remembers one day in 1986 when Fred circled the name of a modern language prize in the guide for his grandson’s school: “Antony Coulthard”.
He said only: “It’s an old friend from the war.”
Now, Steve knows just how much that friend meant to his father – and to him.
- Buy The Soldier Who Came Back in hardback for £11.99 plus P&P, saving £5 on the RRP of £16.99, by calling 0845 143 0001 or visiting mirrorbooks.co.uk
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