From the Gobi to Gargrave: Film star unveils memorial at site of forgotten PoW camp

It was a stowaway’s journey from the Gobi Desert to Gargrave, an epic flight that outlasted the First World War. Newly unearthed, it is a new chapter in a forgotten history of the Dales.

Wolf Kahler, whose grandfather, Fritz Sachsse, was a senior German officer at the recently excavated World War 1 PoW camp at Skipton. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Wolf Kahler, whose grandfather, Fritz Sachsse, was a senior German officer at the recently excavated World War 1 PoW camp at Skipton. Picture by Tony Johnson.

Fritz Sachsse was a naval captain taken prisoner at a German base in China in 1914 and sent to a PoW camp in Japan.

Escaping with a comrade, he took a false name and spent the rest of the war trying to get home to Germany. But after an incredible journey that took in Korea, Norway, the US and the Mongolian desert, it came to a dead end on Orkney.

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Rumbled by the British Navy, his war ended at Raikeswood Camp in Skipton – a training base for the Bradford Pals regiment that had been converted into a prison for captured German officers.

The funeral of POWs who died of Spanish flu taking place at Morton cemetery, Keighley, in March 1919 when Sachsse was Senior German Officer. Sachsse can be seen in the dark coat (Reproduced with permission of Bradford Libraries)

Dismantled nearly a century ago and forgotten for generations, the camp had been lost to history. But the chance discovery of a diary left behind by the inmates shed new light on a time when the boots of 500 Germans echoed Skipton and the surrounding villages.

Last year, an archeological dig on what is now a residential estate unearthed a trench whistle and other artefacts from the camp. And a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has helped translate the memoirs.

But only now has the story of the most senior captured officer emerged. Last night, Fritz Sachsse’s 79-year-old grandson added the final postscript, by unveiling an information board where the huts had once stood. Descendants of the Pals of 1914 watched as Wolf Kahler pulled back the curtain. Some even recognised him.

He is a film star, who has portrayed other wartime escapades, mostly fictitious. The Dirty Dozen, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Eagle Has Landed are among his credits.

Fritz Sachsse, Senior German Officer in the POW camp and co-editor of Kriegsgefangen in Skipton

He said it was “surreal” to have been invited to the site and that he felt “extraordinarily lucky and honoured” to be unveiling the memorial. A long-time resident of London, he had last been in Yorkshire as a star of the 1970s espionage thriller, Sandbaggers, which was shot in Leeds.

Mr Kahler was about 14 when his grandfather died, and remembers flying kites with him as a child. He also recalls visits on a farm after his parents fled their home in the heavily bombed Baltic port of Kiel during the Second World War. His family went east, he said, and had to flee again before the Russians came.

The story of his grandfather’s journey had been passed down through the family, but he said: “We only knew that he had been in Skipton. It was something that happened a long time ago.”

Anne Buckley, a lecturer at Leeds University, who has been leading the translation, said: “We began ask ourselves, who these men were, and started looking through the Red Cross records. It was a real labour of love.”

Bradford Pals at Raikeswood Camp where they trained from January  May 1915 (Reproduced with permission from K. Ellwood, V. Rowley, and NYCC, Skipton Library)

She said it fell to Sachsse, as the most senior ranking prisoner, to raise morale following not only the German defeat but also an outbreak of Spanish flu which killed 47 men at the camp.

Fritz Sachsse was sent to Skipton in the summer of 1918, five months before the end of the war but a year-and-a-half before the German prisoners were repatriated. He remained in the camp until October 1919.

While there, he helped to edit the memoir, Kriegsge­fangen in Skipton, which was smuggled back home and published in German in 1920.

The British translation will be released next year, as part of the project to tell the Raikeswood camp’s history.