A poignant tale of wartime friendship and sacrifice in aid of SSAFA

05 November 2021

Some 170,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, and airmen were captured during World War Two, and of these, fewer than 1,200 escaped and made a “home run” back to Britain, and while the Great Escape and Colditz Cock stories are well known, there are scores of attempted escapes most people are unfamiliar with.

Fred, who later became Grantham Town Mayor, is one such story. He made it back to Blighty once the war was over, but his fellow escapee Antony Coulthard did not, instead forfeiting his chance of freedom – and ultimately his life – to save his friend.

This story – both daring and poignant – of sacrifice has only recently come to light, since Fred’s son Steven unearthed the story years after his father’s death. It will be told at Grantham Museum on Saturday, November 13 at 1.30pm with donations going to SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

Steven, late of the Royal Navy, discovered the story of friendship and sacrifice in letters sent by his father to his mother, and co-authored a book – The Soldier Who Came Back – which historian Dan Snow featured in an episode on his History Hit channel.

Peter Reichelt, who is organising the talk, gave more detail, saying: “Fred, a sergeant in 8th Sherwood Foresters, was wounded and captured in the Norwegian Campaign in late April 1940 after the village of Tretten [some 15 miles north of Lillehammer] fell to the Germans.

“Fred was eventually incarcerated in Stalag XXA at Thorn, Poland, where he met Antony, a lance corporal in the Intelligence Corps – and a fluent German speaker – and, after months of planning, including forging documents and letters, broke out of XXA in August 1942. They then began a 250-mile trek to the banks of Lake Constance and freedom in neutral Switzerland.

“Though Antony was waved through by border guards, Fred was stopped because his papers 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.”

While Fred made it home in 1945, Antony – Tony to some, but to Fred always “The Professor” on account of his education and language skills – died on a forced march back to Poland less than two months before the end of the war.

Concluding, Peter said: “Antony – just 26 when he died – could have pressed on to freedom, but instead he helped his mate, and that is why he died, a generous act of friendship for a fellow soldier in the worst of times.”

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