POW NUMBER: 2216
AGE: 31 YEARS
COMMANDO: DE VILLEBOIS MAREUIL
CAPTURED: 1900/04/05, KALFONTEIN
POW CAMP: FORT HIGH KNOLL, ST HELENA
Possibly the most enterprising escape attempt was that of Andries Smorenburg, who fashioned a crate marked “Curios Only”, in which he did with clothing, matches, and food and water for 20 days and posted himself from St Helena on a passing ship. But although the crate was marked “With Care” and “This Side Up” it was tossed about and overturned on board and as a result Smorenburg was given concussion and lost most of his water. In the meantime back on the island, Smorenburg’s absence had been discovered when he did not appear for roll call. The authorities on St Helena contacted Ascension Island and Smorenburg was recaptured there and returned to St Helena after only five days at sea.
The New York Times of 27 December 1901 reported as follows:
Boer tried to escape in a box
ASCENCION, Dec 26 - The British steamer, Goth, from South African ports, arrived here today. A Boer prisoner, who was smuggled on board the vessel in a box at St Helena, was handed over to the British naval authorities here.
Photo scanned from Jackson, E. L. St Helena: The Historic Island, Ward, Lock & Co, London, 1903
One man, as I have said, succeeded in outwitting all the guards and leaving the island. He was Commandant A. Smorenburg, a tall Hollander who had settled in the Transvaal in the 'eighties of last
century and had served as a policeman and detective.
Smorenburg formed his escape plan when he overheard a British officer telling someone that he was sending a case of Boer curios to his address in England. Very soon Smorenburg obtained a crude
packing case, and enlarged it so that he could sit inside with provisions and water. The case finally measured four feet in length, two feet one inch in height and two feet broad. Smorenburg consigned it
to the address in Gloucester, England, of the officer commanding Deadwood Camp in St. Helena, knowing that this officer had already forwarded several cases of curios to his home, and hoping that one more would not arouse suspicion.
The case was marked: "Boer curios - this side up with care." But Smorenburg took the precaution of fitting the case with three doors so that he could let himself out whatever the position of the case might be in the ship's hold. The doors were disguised with iron bands which appeared to be clamped round the corners.
Smorenburg had decided to allow himself to be loaded on board the Union-Castle intermediate steamer Goth, which was to call at Ascension and Las Palmas after leaving St. Helena for England. He
hoped to land at Las Palmas, where the ship was to load bananas, and then make his way to Holland. To be on the safe side he allowed himself food and water for twenty days. Army biscuits, bully beef, MacConnachie's rations and jam were packed in a bag weighing fifteen pounds, and fastened to the floor in such a way that he could rest his knees on it when reclining. Water was carried in two tin containers specially moulded to fit round his chest, and he had several military water bottles as well. A few empty bottles and containers completed the equipment of the packing-case. A censor's seal should have been affixed, but this was not available and Smorenburg took the risk of going without it.
It was on December 20, 1901, that the packing-case (with only the food and water inside) was taken to the hospital in Deadwood Camp and loaded on to an ambulance bound for the wharf at Jamestown. This clever piece of trickery was achieved by J. W. Smorenburg, nephew of the escaper, who acted as his uncle's orderly. The plan almost came to grief, however, on the way down the steep valley road to Jamestown. The ambulance was simply a mule cart, and the driver managed to upset it and the packing-case landed in a ditch. Fortunately it did not break open. No one on the wharf suspected anything, and the case was left outside with a pile of baggage belonging to a detachment of Royal Marines who ere going to Ascension.
Commandant Smorenburg had a parole pass which enabled him to leave Deadwood Camp during the daylight hours on four days a week. This was an embarrassment to him, for he was unwilling to break his parole. However, the parole did not apply at night, and in the early hours of December 21 he slipped through the sentries at Deadwood Camp and reached the wharf. To his dismay he could not locate his box.
It looked as though the plan had failed. Smorenburg was a most determined man, however, and he made up his mind to search the lighters offshore before giving up the attempt. A man-o'-war in harbour was using her searchlight intermittently, and Smorenburg had to avoid the beams as he swam away from the wharf. The first lighter was empty, but he was delighted to find his box under the tarpaulin in the second lighter. He pulled out the pegs which held each door in position, crept inside, and secured everything. The discomfort of wet clothes was forgotten in the excitement when he realised that the first stage of his escape had been successful. Then, exhausted after his long swim, he fell asleep.
Smorenburg awoke to the rattle of winches. They were hoisting the cargo out of the lighter, and the packing-case of "Boer curios" landed on the deck of the Goth with a crash, but without breaking open. Then it was man-handled, turned over and over and lowered into the baggage-room. Some hours later the hatch was closed. Then the engines started and Smorenburg decided that it would be safe to leave the box. This was difficult, for it had been placed upside down among the marines' kit-bags. However, Smorenburg lit a candle which he had in his pocket and crawled out at last.
His first task was to move his packing-case, and the kit and heavy cases surrounding it, so that he could slip into his hiding place at a moment's notice and come out without being trapped. This was hot work, and it had to be done as silently as possible. By the time Smorenburg had arranged everything to his satisfaction he was suffering from a raging thirst, and drank more of his fresh water supply than he could really afford.
Seamen entered the baggage-room next day and moved some of the cases without disturbing Smorenburg in any way. The next day was Christmas Eve, and Smorenburg could hear the
passengers singing on deck. The ship slowed down early on Christmas Day, and Smorenburg knew she was approaching the Ascension Island anchorage. He had been in the habit of sitting under a ventilator and sleeping on the floor of the baggage room; for although the whole compartment was hot, his packing case was almost intolerable. When the anchor went down, however, Smorenburg had to take cover. The hatch was removed and all the Ascension baggage was hauled out. When the hatch was closed Smorenburg felt that he was safe.
Perhaps he would have reached Las Palmas and escaped but for the newly-laid cable between Ascension and St. Helena. Smorenburg had been missed at roll-call on the day after his departure,
and the fact that the Goth had just left the island provided an obvious clue. It also seems probable that when the hue and cry was raised, some prisoner-of-war gave away the story of the packing-
case. At all events a cable was sent to the naval captain in command of Ascension Island instructing him to have the case of "Boer curios" opened.
Thus the unhappy Smorenburg heard the baggage-room hatch being removed for a second time. He hurried back into his case, and saw through the peep-hole an officer and a number of seamen coming down the ladder. The officer was Mr. John Attwood, who retired in 1934 as captain of the Balmoral Castle. "I was so overcome with excitement and despair that I grabbed and drained two botties of water," Smorenburg told his friends. Attwood rapped on the case, and Smorenburg called weakly: "Stop! I'll come out."
Dr. Paisley, surgeon of the Goth, who examined Smorenburg that morning, remarked: " I think Jonah in the whale's belly had a more comfortable time than Smorenburg."
Smorenburg was in a fainting condition when he reached the deck. Attwood revived him with a brandy and soda, followed by a bath and eggs and bacon and coffee. He was sent back to St. Helena (with the packing-case as evidence) in H.M.S. Gibraltar. A court of inquiry was held, and Smorenburg was imprisoned in High Knoll fort, reserved for "turbulent Boers", until peace was signed. He had not broken his parole, and was not charged with any such offence. That was just as well, for an officer who breaks his parole as a prisoner-of-war is liable to the death penalty.
Smorenburg' s box and a number of documents bearing on the escape were presented by the Governor of St. Helena to the Africana Museum in Johannesburg some years ago. Smorenburg, I may add, became a motor-car licensing officer for the Johannesburg municipality, a sworn translator for the Supreme Court, and a Justice of the Peace.
"Time heals all wounds," wrote Smorenburg in a letter to Captain Attwood not long before World War II. "I bear no grudge or ill-will against anyone. If the present unsettled world conditions should
unfortunately result in war my services, if required, are at the disposition of the British Commonwealth of which my country forms a part."
Dr David Biggins
The following user(s) said Thank You: Brett Hendey, Elmarie
It is a long time since I have seen a reference to a Lawrence Green book. They were once "in fashion" in South Africa. Green was able to uncover a wealth of interesting stories about people and places in South Africa. Recently, there have been references to Knysna on this forum, and I have a memory of a chapter on "George Rex of Knysna" in one of Green's books.