It was a surprise attack. Well almost. The British had been preparing for weeks, bringing in materials at night under cover of darkness and hiding everything by daybreak. Historian Alan Roberts writes about the British attack on Cambrai, in 1917.

The tanks came at the last minute, over 400 of them. Unfortunately Lieutenant Hegermann had captured several men in a daring night-time raid on the British trenches. The Germans now knew an attack was imminent, but, with less than 48 hours’ notice, could do very little about it.

The attack at Cambrai on November 20, 1917 was ferocious. Young Lieutenant Erich Dunkelgod was in charge of a company at the front line. Facing him were three battalions of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment containing men from all over the West Riding. The attack began at 6.00 a.m. The British immediately began to lay down a heavy artillery barrage, including incendiary shells. Dunkelgod, who was just twenty years old, said there was nowhere to take cover. Anything made of wood caught fire. Around 6.45 a.m. he saw his first tank steadily lumbering along at a modest walking pace. There were others right behind it. There was no news from the forward positions. They must have already been captured. A non-commissioned officer volunteered to take a message to headquarters. He arrived there exhausted and reported, ‘Dunkelgod can no longer hold on. The British have broken through on our right with 20 tanks.’ Dunkelgod withdrew his men to the next line of defence. There he learned from a wounded soldier that the British had overrun them on the left and that they were now surrounded. He surrendered outside a nearby first-aid station.

Hegermann and Dunkelgod were both sent to Skipton. In fact more German officers at Raikeswood were captured that day at Cambrai than on any other day of the war. And 2/6th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment made up of men from in and about Skipton pushed on to complete a record advance of four and a half miles.

Dunkelgod contributed thirty illustrations to the German memoir ‘Kriegsgefangen in Skipton’. The book was written for several reasons: for the comrades who had shared so many difficult times together as captives, for future historians to discover the realities of life in a British prisoner-of-war camp, and for the relatives of the deceased officers and men who had died in the flu pandemic. The book features contributions from over 50 German prisoners. Judicious editing by Senior German Officer Sachsse and Lieutenant Willy Cossmann has produced an entertaining and interesting read. One of the most appealing features is the large number of line drawings. More than half of them were produced by Dunkelgod who also contributed artwork to the two camp newspapers produced in 1919.

Forty years later Erich Dunkelgod is encountered as a spokesman for Hamburg Police. One Sunday in October there had been serious assaults on two girls, one aged sixteen and a seven-year-old who was left with life-threatening injuries. The public whipped up by the local press was outraged. A lynch mob of around 2,000 people had assembled outside the Davidwache a police station a stone’s throw away from the city’s notorious Reeperbahn. Shouting, ‘We don’t need a trial’, ‘We’ll sort him out’ and ‘Break his neck’, the police chief admitted that if the suspect had actually been there, he would hardly have escaped with his life. Every lead was followed. 45 people who had been wearing the same kind of straw-boater hat as the suspect were taken in for questioning.

In a familiar scenario, the newspapers were battling for every scrap of news, no matter how implausible. Eventually the Hamburg Evening News announced that it had a ‘hot tip’, but had been requested by the police not to reveal any further details. Presiding over the resultant media scrum was Erich Dunkelgod who was given a rough ride by the press. He afterwards commented that he would rather sweep the floor with a broom than go through that again.

The real perpetrator had in fact slit his wrists and had also attempted to emasculate himself. Taken to hospital the following day doctors had become suspicious at the nature of injuries and informed the police. The man was in no condition to be interviewed and charged until three days later. During those few days Dunkelgod had found himself at the centre of a veritable media storm.

Less than a year later five young musicians from Liverpool would arrive in the city with Stu Sutcliffe on bass guitar and Pete Best on drums. These were the Beatles who would play in the nightclubs on the other side of the Reeperbahn. McCartney and Best would spend a night in the Davidwache accused of setting fire to the cinema in which they were sleeping. Dunkelgod was now close to retirement, and a new younger generation was anxious to make its voice heard. This was the start of the 1960s, and arguably the start of the modern world. Whatever trials and tribulations would be endured, The Beatles’ generation and those that followed would at least be spared the catastrophe of a further world war.