The Long Read: In 1936, a school group from south London went on a hike in the Black Forest. Despite the heroic rescue attempts of German villagers, five boys died. Eighty years on, locals are still asking how it happened
The lilac was in full bloom when a group of boys from the Strand school in Brixton and Kenneth Keast, their 27-year-old master, left Freiburg for the opening hike of their 10-day Easter trekking tour in the southern Black Forest. It was the morning of 17 April 1936, as they set off for the village of Todtnauberg, over 15 miles away, across the summit of the Schauinsland mountain. By the time they emerged from a wood about three hours later, snow was falling steadily but they were full of spring-time optimism. The boys broke ranks to throw snowballs.
Keast noted that some of his boys who wore shorts, mackintoshes, and even sandals, rather than appropriate gear for hiking through snowy mountains were beginning to find the going tough. With the snowfall worsening, he put a stop to their skylarking and urged them to concentrate on the path ahead.
When they had set out from their youth hostel that morning, Keast had been warned that the snow would make his planned route hazardous. Even without snow, the locals considered it a challenge. The weather map for 17 April that hung in the hostel gave clear indication that conditions were going to turn. The previous day, the tourist office had warned Keast about the approaching storm, to which his response was: The English are used to sudden changes in the weather. The 13-year-old Ken Osborne, who had already written his first postcard home, wrote in his small black notebook: Had breakfast. Left Freiburg about nine oclock. It was snowing and we lost our way.
With snow now falling heavily, and having lost the path and circled back on themselves, they were soon behind schedule. Keast stopped at an inn to ask for directions. The landlady advised him that the paths and signposts would be buried in snow, at which the schoolmaster shrugged and said they would brush it off.
By now they were forced to kick their way through the snow. On an open hillside, they met two woodcutters heading home because they could not continue their work. They advised Keast to take a path to the left of the valley. At around 3.15pm, they passed the local postman, Otto Steiert, who urgently warned Keast against continuing the ascent. Steiert offered to help the party return to Freiburg, or to bring them to the shelter of the miners hostel, where they would have found beds and food. Keast declined.
He had not yet started to panic, but the slippery, slow-going conditions prompted the teacher to stop and question each boy as to how he felt. Some complained of cold. But Keast decided that to go back would be more perilous than continuing towards the nearby village of Hofsgrund, where he hoped to find shelter in a hotel or peasants house. Unfortunately, the map Keast had received from the School Travel Service in London, which had organised the trip, had a scale of 1:100,000, meaning major routes were shown, but not the gradients or the small pathways. This meant he failed to realise that between them and the village rose the steepest and most dramatic ridge of the Schauinsland. As a result the boys, now weary, cold and wet, took a gruelling route up the Kappler Wand, a 600-metre, 70% gradient face.
The first boy to collapse was Jack Alexander Eaton, the schools 14-year-old boxing champion. He was given an orange and a piece of cake and told to buck up.
When they left the protection of the rock and came out on to the ridge, the bedraggled group was exposed to the force of the wind. Had they moved eastwards into the wind, they would have arrived at the safety of the summit station within less than a mile. Instead they were pushed westwards and they quickly became disoriented. By now Eaton and two of the youngest boys had to be carried. Three more boys were in great difficulty.
Hofsgrund was a typical Black Forest village of just 300 inhabitants, consisting of one inn, a church and a scattering of farmhouses with steeply pitched slate roofs, where animals and humans shared living quarters over the long winters. On that bleak April evening, the 7pm chimes of Hofsgrunds church bells were carried on the wind. Keast sent two of the older boys to follow the direction of the bells down the hill, leaving most of the others on the slopes trying desperately to revive those who had collapsed.
It took about an hour for the two boys to reach a farmstead on the outskirts of Hofsgrund. Like most villagers, Eugen Schweizer had spent the day at home, and was bracing himself to go out to meet the weekly bread delivery when two boys, bareheaded and dressed in short trousers, knocked on the door, and spluttered in broken German: Zwei Mann, krank am Berg (Two men sick on the mountain).
Schweizer summoned a party of rescuers, hammering on the window of the Gasthaus zum Hof, the village inn where he had seen that lanterns were burning and people were playing cards. They put on skis and headed out towards the road. By now the trekking group was strewn across a wide stretch of terrain. Some of those who had collapsed were almost completely covered in snow. Some of the boys were making their way down the hill, and Schweizer stumbled across two lying motionless in the snow. Hermann Lorenz, the grocer, brought one unconscious boy into his shop, while a farmer, Reinhold Gutmann, carried the other on his back to a nearby farmhouse. The men had planned to use their skis like stretchers and lie the exhausted boys on them, but the snow proved too deep and powdery. Instead they fetched a sledge on which to drag them down. Stanley Lyons, who had collapsed about 10 yards from the inn, was probably already dead, but the rescuers tried to revive him.
Schweizer, along with four other local farmers, headed further up the mountain, carrying one carbide lamp between them. They found the schoolmaster Keast next to two other unconscious boys. In German, Keast told them the size of the group. After climbing alone up the mountain for a full 45 minutes, Hubert Wissler, one of the first to have heeded the cries for help, found three boys suffering from exposure. The rescue effort lasted until well after 11pm. The rescuers clothes were soaked from the snow, their bodies drenched in sweat.
A doctor holidaying nearby was summoned to attend to the most serious cases. The rest of the boys were beaten with brooms to shake off the snow and get their circulation going, before being allowed anywhere near the huge woodburning stove. They were wrapped in blankets and given food and coffee before being put to bed. In spite of these efforts, by the end of the evening, four of the boys were dead: Francis Bourdillon, 12, Peter Ellercamp, 13, Lyons, 14, and Eaton, who was two months away from his 15th birthday. Arthur Roberts and Roy Witham, both 14, were still dangerously ill.
Roberts and Witham were taken to the university hospital in Freiburg the next day, but Witham died without regaining consciousness. The bodies of the dead boys were placed in the cellar of the Hofsgrund village hall, and later transported to Freiburg and laid in the chapel of rest at the main cemetery. The survivors were taken by sledge to a nearby village, where the road was clear enough for them to travel by omnibus to Freiburg, where they had medical checks. So dazed were the survivors, none of them had taken in the gravity of what had happened. They didnt understand until two days later that five of their school friends were dead, and one was fighting for his life. Nor could they have known that they would become embroiled in a Nazi propaganda coup of spectacular proportions.