Charles’ last name was Coward, but if there’s one word that could describe this British soldier of World War II, that is definitely not that. This is a story of human courage, and Charles Coward is the epitome of that.

Siege of Calais

Charles Joseph Coward’s story began on January 20, 1905, when he was born in Britain. He joined the army in June 1924 and became part of the 8th Reserve Regimental Royal Artillery. When World War II started in 1939, he was a Quartermaster Battery Sergeant Major.

France, Calais, near Arras.- Destroyed and abandoned vehicles at the station; KBK Lw 4. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-383-0337-23 / Böcker / CC-BY-SA 3.0CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

On May 21, 1940, the Germans assaulted the port of Calais in what would later be called the Siege of Calais. The siege happened at the same time as the Battle of Boulogne before the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated through Dunkirk.

On May 22, the British forces managed to place roadblocks outside Calais while the French rearguard was tasked to deal with the advancing German armored units. The British infantry and their tanks were ordered to reinforce Boulogne in the south, but they were already late when they arrived. The next day, the British were pushed back, and by May 24, the siege started. By May 25, the Allies were forced to withdraw completely. The Germans attempted to convince them to surrender, but they held out, so, on May 26, more troops were sent to attack. Then by the afternoon, the French defenses began to collapse and the order became “every man for himself.”

His Captors’ Headache

Fortunately, many of the defenders managed to escape. But not Coward. He was captured and became a prisoner of war. Luckily, his German lessons paid off, and he used the skill to try to escape multiple times.

In one of his escape attempts, he posed as a German soldier. He got himself treated in a German field hospital when he got injured. The German doctors treated his wounds, and he was even awarded an Iron Cross for his bravery. But, of course, they eventually figured out it was all a charade and he was returned to the POW camp.

Coward on the set of The Password Is Courage with Dirk Bogarde, who played him in the film. ( via Wikipedia)

Coward continued to be a major headache to his captors, engaging in continuous acts of escape attempts and sabotage. In exasperation, the Germans sent him to Auschwitz, Poland, the site of the infamous death camp. Coward was sent to Auschwitz III in December 1943, which was a work camp 5 miles from the death camp. This work camp belonged to the IG Farben Corporation. He was kept at sub-E715, where he shared the areas with some 1,400 other British prisoners of war. There, Coward was assigned as a Red Cross liaison officer because of his German.

At the time, the German’s compliance with the Geneva Convention was spotty, at best.