Amazing act of self-sacrifice by New Milton soldier Antony Coulthard to save his friend
IT was an astonishing act of self-sacrifice. In 1942 two British soldiers escaped a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland through an audacious plan in which they disguised themselves as German businessmen, echoing the famous movie The Great Escape.
It worked so well they made it as far as the Swiss border. But just as one walked to freedom, the other was stopped and questioned by guards.
The men’s agreement had been that if only one made it over the border, the free man should press on.
Instead Lance Corporal Antony Coulthard, from New Milton, turned around and came back, unwilling to leave his pal.
Antony, who served in the Intelligence Corp, and his fellow PoW, Sgt Fred Foster of the Sherwood Foresters, were sent back to the camp they had escaped, Stalag XXA.
After serving punishment Fred was held in Bavaria from where he was eventually liberated.
But Antony was not so lucky. In 1945 he became part of the notorious death march from Poland. As the Soviets advanced, Hitler ordered all PoWs to be taken to Germany. Many died – including Antony who was just 27.
The amazing story of his brave action in 1942 may never have come to light had it not been for a remarkable discovery by Fred’s son, Steve.
He told the A&T: “Dad never talked about his time in the war, ever. Then, around 2011, by which time he was dead, I found an old suitcase in the loft.
“When I opened it and started reading the letters and documents in it, I was just stunned. There was a three-page letter from dad to the military authorities outlining what Antony had done and letters between him and Antony’s mother which gave further detail.
“In one he told of their agreement and said he ‘could not believe it’ when Antony returned.”
In one letter, Antony’s mother, Dorothy, breaks the news to Fred, who went on to become the mayor of Grantham, that her son had died. She called his self-sacrifice “a foolhardy but praiseworthy act”.
Fred’s description of the brave deed led to Antony being awarded a posthumous mention in despatches in 1946 in recognition of his gallantry and distinguished service.
Using details from the documents, Steve managed to put together the whole remarkable story of the escape plan.
A talented scholar – he was nicknamed “the Prof” by other PoWs, Antony had obtained a first-class degree in German from Oxford University. He had also spent some time in Germany before the war.
For 18 months he taught Fred German in preparation for their escape – the 10th attempt by Antony. After obtaining civilian clothes and forged papers they seized their chance in August 1942, cutting through a wire fence then pressing on to the Swiss border at Lindau hundreds of miles away.
It was only there that their plan came unstuck. At a barrier Antony walked to freedom unhindered, but Fred was stopped by a suspicious guard.
Steve said: “It was very emotional for me to read about how Antony turned round and came back for my father.”
Steve discovered that Antony had been buried in an unmarked grave near to where he had died on the march. A retired naval commander, he felt Antony’s amazing act of courage had to be repaid.
He set out to find the grave and have it re-dedicated by the military, a task that took him nearly five years. Through frequent visits to the national archives in London and the documents in his father’s case, he discovered Antony had died on 24th March in a barn at Kaltenhof, Lower Saxony.
He was buried in a cemetery nearby, but his body was later moved. He was finally laid to rest at the war graves cemetery in Becklingen, Germany, where he was reburied as an unknown soldier.
Steve said: “I discovered there were two unknown soldiers at the cemetery and feared I would not be able to discover which was Antony’s. But when I got there the other soldier had been identified, meaning that the other grave had to be Antony’s.”
On July 30th 2015, a ceremony with full military honours was held at Antony’s grave, attended by members of both families.
Steve said: “It was a very emotional day. I feel I have given Antony back to his family. Sadly, his parents died never knowing where his body was. But at least his grave now has a headstone with his name on it.”
Steve has written a book about Antony and Fred’s escape, called The Soldier who Came Back, published by Mirror Books.