In January 1918, a British flying officer turned up in the Hague, telling an unbelievable story: that he was the leader of a band of pilots who dropped off aeroplanes for use by aviators escaping from prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. He had passed papers to one such prisoner, then escaped dressed as a German officer, in a German Albatross fighter, which he had crashed in Holland. The story was unbelievable because it was untrue, one of the delusions that Walter Biheller told as his mental state collapsed.
The officer who arrived in Holland initially called himself J.W. Brent, an escaped British prisoner of war – writing back under that name to the War Office. The next week he admitted that he was in fact Captain Biheller, and he had in fact visited the man Brent to help him escape. This too was untrue; Biheller was only a Second Lietuenant and had never visited this supposed prisoner in Germany.
The real Walter Biheller was born in London in November 1895, the only son of Simon Biheller and his wife Elsie, who lived in Compayne Gardens, Hampstead. Simon was a glass and china merchant, born Sifred Biheller in Vienna but later naturalised as a British citizen. Simon was wealthy enough to send his son to school at St Paul’s, where he joined the Officer Training Corps in September 1914. In April 1917 he joined the Royal Flying Corps; that summer he was commissioned and trained as a pilot, qualifying in September. After reacting badly to a high-level flight and suffering a ‘nervous attack’, he was declared unfit for general service and assigned to home service duties and was sent to 42 (Training) Squadron at Wye aerodrome. In January 1918, he was declared fit for general service again.
Although he was apparently a very good pilot and a good instructor, Biheller was keen to get to France now that the was fit again. He soon began to tell people that he had already been at the Front and fed them stories about his supposed active service record and heroism. Arriving at 42 Squadron, he promoted himself to Captain (apparently believed, since the new rank appears on his medical inspection records). While he told people that he had been out to France as a pilot and lost close friends there, he also began to show signs of depression. This may have been seen as an effect of active service, perhaps in reality it was his desire for (or perhaps fear of) active service at the Front that caused it.
On 17 January, he went to London to meet his father. At lunch at the Charing Cross Hotel, Biheller showed his father a Colt revolver he had just bought, and showed off his new medal ribbons – describing how he had saved a French airman from a burning aeroplane the previous summer at Northolt aerodrome, and gone back to rescue despatches the man was carrying. For this action, he had supposedly earned the Military Cross and the French Medalle Militaire (the photo above shows him wearing the ribbons of these medals).
A few days later, after breakfast one morning, Biheller took off in a Sopwith Camel from Wye Aerodrome, supposedly (and oddly, given his medical history) for a high-flight test and disappeared.
He was next seen, posing as Brent, in Holland. He sent a message back to the War Office as Brent, then corrected it the next day as ‘Captain’ Biheller. He then told his fellow officers in the Hague his fantastic tale of flying aeroplanes out to prisoners of war and picking up the latest models of German aeroplanes back to the UK. When they picked holes in his story, he gave flimsy excuses (mainly involving the destruction of anything that might have been useful corroborating evidence in the wreck of his aeroplane).
That first week in Holland, he was seen to be acting strangely. He told a number of additional tales, including having been captured by the Germans when serving as an officer in the (regular) British Army at the Front early in the war, having killed the prison commander, stolen his uniform and escaped back to the British lines. He also told stories of his daring and gallantry, all told in a convincing manner but apparently not believed by his fellow internees.
After telling people that he was being followed, one day he went out in a civilian suit, stating that he was going to Germany for the weekend. On his return he claimed to have visited a prisoner of war camp in Germany, dressed as a German officer. He fainted on his return, and was found to be carrying German papers, although these turned out to be innocuous sections of newspapers.
The other officers who lived with him during his initial stay at the house of John Harker in the Hague, felt that he was ‘a harmless lunatic’ whose brain had been affected by his crash. Other than the lies he told them, he was found to be an intelligent and humorous companion. They felt he genuinely believed the stories he told them.
Over the following months, after leaving Harker’s house, Biheller’s mental state collapsed. And his worried father – in touch with the Dutch doctors – appealed for his repatriation. When he was returned to Britain later in 1918, Walter Biheller was sent to the Maudsley Hospital and then to the Highfield Hospital in Golders Green. In September, he was sent home on leave and passed into the treatment of Harley Street doctors.
In December, a medical board concluded that Walter Biheller was suffering from ‘dementia praecox’ – a severe mental disorder that was said to affect cognition rather than mood. It was related to the (not then well-established) condition of schizophrenia. A few months earlier, the War Office had decided that there his case was not one that warranted a court-martial (despite the theft and destruction of an aeroplane), presumably because Biheller was not deemed to be responsible for his actions.
Another medical board in January described a potentially long gestation for Biheller’s illness: “Manifestations of nervousness since early childhood. Precocious and interested as a you.” They also described the pitiful state to which he had declined since January 1918:
“interned as P[risoner] of War in Holand. At that time apparently fairly normal. Subsequently developed functional deafness, aphemia, blindness and became very negativistic. […] Now Negativism. Does not talk […], but makes articulatory movements. Does not hear or see. Frets, gesticulates, grimaces. Physical debility. Pains in L[eft] temple.”
In June 1919, Simon Biheller appealed for the military to release his son – who had been at home since September but was officially still a serviceman. His civilian doctor felt that release from the RAF would be a first step towards a cure. The RAF had no objections, and Walter Biheller’s service record ends at this point in August 1919.
A few bits of information about Biheller emerge from the years after 1919, though. In the 1920s, he lived with his parents at 19 Frognal Lane, Hampstead. In 1927, he married fellow an Austrian-born woman named Hertha Hedwig Paula Louise Stölzle (see p. 5 of this pdf). In the early 1930s, the couple are recorded as living at 5 Albert Terrace, Regent’s Park (next to Primrose Hill). When his father died in Germany in 1932, he inherited the family’s commercial property at 70-71 Chiswell Street, Finsbury. Not long afterwards, though, Walter Biheller died – on 27 December 1932 at the German Hospital in Dalston. How he died, and whether it was linked to his illness, is not clear. Hertha remarried a few years later and lived until the 1990s.
Walter Biheller’s story is a sad reminder of the havoc that mental illness can play on the mind of an outwardly healthy young person. Whether it was exacerbated by his altitude sickness or his frustrated desire to get out to the front, or it emerged during 1918 of its own accord, the illness severely affected this young man, making him tell (and apparently believe) wild stories and to disappear across to Holland in an effort to live them out. Combat stress can cause men to break down, but it does not take something to violent as combat to break a person’s mind.