Monday, 22 August 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part One

Colditz Castle - Wikipedia

The Escape Line is back with weekly posts which will focus on Colditz until the end of 1942, before including other areas of escape and evasion in World War Two.  

On 24 July 1941, sixty eight Dutch officers arrived at Colditz. They joined the existing complement of 140 Poles, 50 British and about 250 French. Around 500 officers and other ranks were now incarcerated in the castle and the Dutch walked straight in to the escaping season. Most of them were Netherlands East Indies officers who had sailed home with their army to Holland at the outbreak of war. Although Holland was still neutral at that time, the fragile situation with neighbouring Germany dictated that maximum military forces were required at home.

After the German invasion of the Low Countries and capitulation of Holland on the 15th May, the Dutch Armed Forces were regarded as prisoners of war by the German High Command. At the end of the month, on direct orders from Hitler, a list of terms for release of the Dutch military was given. Conscripts were released immediately, but specific conditions applied to the regular forces. Officers were required to sign a declaration stating that whilst the Netherlands remained in a state of war with the German Reich, they would not take part directly or indirectly in the fight against Germany and neither would they take any form of direct or indirect action which would endanger the Reich.
Most Dutch officers and other ranks signed the declaration and were subsequently sent home (many later joined the resistance). The sixty eight officers who arrived at Colditz plus five others of various ranks who remained POWs elsewhere, refused to put pen to paper. For officer ranks and above, this would have been against their oath of allegiance to the Queen of the Netherlands who was now in England continuing the fight against the Germans.
The officers who walked in to Colditz on 24th July were special men. Principled, well organised, resilient, impeccably turned out and with a high standard of discipline; they would create major problems for their captors. Multilingual and German speakers, the Dutch were quiet and rigorously routine. The enemy was simply unable to glean anything from them via observation or conversation. Under Senior Officer Major Engles and escape officer Captain van den Heuvel, they became a formidable unit. German records recovered by the Allies after Colditz was liberated stated:
‘The Dutch prisoners of war are Anglophiles and hostile towards the Germans. They have a strong desire to be free which makes it mandatory to establish special security measures.’

Senior Dutch officer in Colditz.  Major Engels is standing far right - IWM

All escape plans were submitted to van den Heuvel for authorisation, which was also standard practice for the other nationalities and their respective escape officers in Colditz. The Dutch decided on priority and order for escape attempts according to their countries’ situation in the war at that time. Personnel deemed to be of best and immediate use to the Dutch military were considered first. The nation still had a navy which had stayed operational after Holland fell and a small air force was stationed in Britain.
Naval officers and pilots received first priority to schemes with the best chance of success. The bigger picture was of overriding importance, although opportunities did exist for anyone who came up with a good plan. They had a chance of being added to a team if it did not jeopardise the escape attempt. This line of thinking ensured continuing proactivity. There were also occasions when low priority young officers were assigned to team up with someone of high priority. This was on condition they did everything possible to assure the escape of the other, including risking their own safety.
Close cooperation in Colditz between the Dutch and English was soon established. During the very early days, neither side revealed their specific escape plans to one another, but ‘notice’ of an impending breakout attempt was communicated between escape officers. It is interesting that van den Heuvel had decided not to make any attempts himself. Instead, he would be proactive in looking for escape opportunities and channel his efforts into the escape work of fellow Dutch officers.

Dutch Escape Officer
Captain 'Vandy' van den Heuvel - The Colditz Story
The new arrivals quickly saw potential in the park exercise ground. Van den Heuvel noticed a concrete manhole top at ground level, covered by a square cover with hinges on one side. About 3 feet square it looked to have a few small air holes and was worth investigating. The next move was to surround the cover, so that the sentries view was blocked and the bolt which secured the cover in position could be removed. A group of Dutchmen casually sat themselves in conversation around the manhole. Some of the men often wore long black cloaks which was part of their uniform and ideal for concealing activity from the enemy. Van den Heuvel managed to remove the bolt and raise the cover a fraction. It looked like a shaft below, which was enough to conceal a man, but the depth was unknown.

The manhole cover and bolt would have looked similar to this - You Tube

Further investigation was warranted. On the next exercise in the park van den Heuvel surrounded himself with a similar group of men and managed to lower a stone on the end of some string into the shaft. The depth was calculated at about eight to ten feet, with a water and a conduit at the bottom. An escape attempt was possible. It is interesting that there is no evidence anyone had seriously considered the possibilities of this manhole before. 

Location of the manhole in the Park (present day) - virtual colditz. com
Captain A L C Dufour and Lietenant J G Smit were the men chosen to attempt a breakout by hiding in the shaft and then escaping later over the wall around the park. Lieutenant Etienne ‘Hans’Larive meticulously briefed the pair on post escape protocol and drew a detailed map of the Swiss border region of Singen, where the crossing would be attempted. Larive had previously escaped from Oflag V1A in Soest and reached the frontier near that point.
The men were ready but to the layman two major problems were obvious:

How could the men remain hidden and undetected after the head count at the re-entry point to the castle did not tally? The park would then be thoroughly searched and a full appell called .

The bolt would have to be left off the manhole cover in order for the men to exit the shaft. This would be easily spotted by guards searching the park.

Next week – How They Did It
The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers
Escape From Colditz 16 First Hand Accounts - Reinhold Eggers
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed

Monday, 11 January 2016

Colditz - The Drive to Escape

Despite the failed lavatory escape attempt, Colditz POW’s continued undeterred. Polish Captain Janek Lados was still under cell stubenarrest for hiding in an air raid shelter with British Captain Harry Elliott on the way back from the park exercise area (see post The Park Part Five).  By 2 August 1941 Lados had managed to obtain a hacksaw blade and cut through the bars to his cell located on the castle’s western ramparts. Details of how Lados obtained the blade are not known, but see posts ‘Poles Locks and Bed Sheets’ 1-4 which give some potential leads). He managed to climb down a rope of bed sheets and drop the final 20 feet to the ground injuring his ankle in the process. Somehow in a state of complete exhaustion he managed to reach the Swiss border before being recaptured . Lados may well have reached freedom if it was not for his ankle, which was subsequently found to be broken.  
Colditz Diagram Note Lados cell on the west side - Original image from war44
On 4 August, the daily exercise party trailed up the zigzag path from the park to the castle. The summer heat had slowed everyone down, when jogging along the line back towards the park came two Hitler Youth dressed in sports shorts and vests with a swastika on the front. The pair reached the German NCO at the end of the column, giving the Hitler salute as they passed. The NCO ordered them to halt immediately, berating the men for an appalling salute at the wrong angle. Flying Officer Don Thom and Lieutenant ‘Bertie’ Boustead were convincingly dressed, but were unable to sufficiently answer his questions in German. The game was up.
Flt Lt Donald Thom pictured in Colditz is front row far right - IWM

Hitler Youth (Thom and Boustead were dressed in sports kit)

The relentless drive to escape continued despite disappointments, setbacks and failures. The slim chance of success did not seem to deter POWs in Colditz, despite dips in morale. Paymaster Lieutenant James Mike Moran RN did not arrive at the castle until the following year, but his thoughts and observations provide a valuable insight into the difference between Colditz and other camps both in conditions and the POW’s psyche.

Paymaster Lieutenant  (later Commander) James Mike Moran- You Tube

'Colditz meant nothing to us; we’d never heard of the damn place. When we got outside the station, there were two lines of guards and there were machine guns there and dogs, and we were lined up between these and marched off. The first thing you could see was this damn great castle stuck on top of the hill and it was completely floodlit, and we still had no idea where we were…

There were two problems, one was how closely confined we were, not only in our living quarters but in our exercise quarters, because all we had was that fiddling little bloody courtyard which was not much bigger than a tennis court, we had anything up to 350 chaps and this was their sole exercise space…. And the guards were there with you all the time…with their rifles slung over their shoulders

In previous camps, particularly at Marlag (POW camp for men of the British Merchant Navy and Royal Navy), the chap who wanted to escape was the odd man out. You soon learned in Colditz that if you didn’t want to escape, you were the odd man out. You felt a compulsion to find some way of getting out, to look around and you found a compulsion of being one of the chaps there, you had to adopt a different approach altogether. In Marlag you had to virtually excuse yourself for digging tunnels of for making a nuisance of yourself, and that was how it was thought of there.

In Colditz, you were engaged in some escape activity, even if you knew right from the beginning it was just a waste of bloody time, it would be abortive and it would get you nowhere. Even if one knew that - you had to present yourself to the rest of the chaps as being that sort of chap….I spent weeks and weeks and weeks on the entrance to a tunnel. I knew it would get us nowhere…I couldn’t see that it was going anywhere, but you felt that you had to do this. …the very fact that you were engaged in something, if you had at least an inkling of a hope that it would be successful, well, it kept you occupied and at the same time your approach to things was the general approach in Colditz.’
The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers
IWM Interview with James Michael Moran
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed



Thursday, 10 December 2015

Colditz - The Lavatory Break

Colditz at Night - Tim Giddings

Five days after French Lieutenants Perrin and Thibaud were recaptured (see previous post); the British led another escape attempt on 31 July 1941. Events were to prove significant in the long battle and psychological war between prisoner and captor. Morale amongst the British would have been typically resilient, and the successful home runs by the French would have raised spirits, but all other escape attempts had failed. POWs who were focused on breaking out of prison camps remained realistic about the odds of success and accepted risks of being caught inside or outside the camp. They had nothing but days, weeks and months on their hands to think about the length of time in captivity, hard conditions and the large amounts of work and ingenuity put into failed escape attempts. 
The latest plan to exit Colditz involved breaking through an interior wall at night between the POW and German side of the castle. Once the men had achieved this, a party of twelve would leave in pairs at five minute intervals and find their own way through the building and out of the castle into the grounds. Once through the wall, the second part of the scheme seemed a thin idea, even though POWs would have some knowledge of the castle layout and guard routines on the German side.

Note the position of the 'canteen' which was on the ground floor. The office's quarters and 'Long Room' were above this. The dividing wall was between the grey and orange sections of the map next to the 'canteen' notation and the left  end of the German headquarters block. - war44

In contrast, significant work had been put into preparing escape clothes and equipment; the latter becoming more organised. Although not every officer had false identity papers, each had a home made compass, a set of hand drawn maps traced from originals and a small amount of German money.

There was plenty of time for individuals to adapt and prepare their own escape clothing. Genuine civilian garments were almost impossible to obtain, so with clever alterations to uniforms, dyeing the material, cutting up blankets and applying some creative tailoring; caps, jackets, coats and trousers were made up. RAF uniforms were very adaptable for this. Some of the British officers in Colditz developed their own area of expertise, making multiple numbers of the same items. This co-operative worked well when individuals were working out the composition of their escape clothes.

Examples of 'civilian' clothes adapted by escapers. These are from Stalag Luft 111.
Some of the  Colditz POWs on the lavatory escape went for rucksack, jacket and cap with an adapted uniform -    

A certain amount of imagination was required to store the escape items and prevent discovery. Frequent searches were made and it was a battle to stay one step ahead of their captors. Common hiding places were too risky; it was liken to a game of chess with each side trying to anticipate thoughts and moves. Clothing was hidden behind false-backed cupboards, in trapdoor hides, under floorboards, sewn into the mattresses or coat linings. None of these were guaranteed to remain undiscovered. Small items were easier to conceal, but also vulnerable if the searcher was thinking along similar lines. POWs would constantly shift articles around to try and avoid detection. Smaller objects could be concealed in stores of food, cigarette tins and even weighted and dropped into lavatory cisterns.

British quarters were above the ‘canteen’ (see previous posts on ‘The Canteen’). Part of the accommodation was nicknamed ‘The Long Room’. On the other side of the dividing wall were the German lavatories in the Kommandantur building which was located in the north east corner of the yard. This part contained the guard quarters for the Kommandantur at the end of a corridor on the first floor. The POWs decided to begin work on breaking through the wall on a night when the guard was on sentry duty. They assumed that the quarters in the immediate area on the other side of the wall would be empty. This was a mistake as the castle switchboard was there and manned twenty four hours a day. During the night, the telephonist left his post to visit the lavatory. He heard a noise, like scratching on the other side of the wall. It stopped and started again. Once he had returned to the switchboard he called security.
The Security Officer arrived with the Duty Officer and listened. It was clear that someone was working behind the wall, level with the second lavatory. A decision was made to monitor the situation and do nothing. The Security Officer decided to let the POWs continue to chip away at the wall which was around eighteen inches thick. It would keep them occupied and so long as careful observation remained in place, the situation was under control. The Security Officer also calculated that breaking through was only a matter of days away. The POW’s were unlikely to work much longer without discovery, as the working end of their hole could not be concealed.
RAF FO Donald Middleton Back row 4th left and Lieutenant Herbert Allenby Cheetham ('Allan') Back row 6th left were caught in the corridor after they had exited via the  lavatory room in the Kommandantur building - IWM

Lieutenant John Hyde Thompson DLI was another apprehended 

The following day a check was kept on noises and workings. A breakout had to be imminent; the calculation was for a weekend attempt around mealtime when the officers would be in their mess, the guard was on duty and the Kommandantur building almost empty. The Germans had no idea where the POWs would go once they had broken in to the German side of the building. They viewed prospects of getting away as slim, so it was decided to bore a hole through the door of the guard’s sleeping quarters to keep a watch on the door coming out of the lavatories. This door was kept closed and surveillance took place for two days. On the Sunday a tiny spy hole appeared in the plaster of the lavatory back wall on the German side.  Seven men waited hidden with the Duty Officer as the first pair of POWs came out of the lavatories and crept down the corridor. Hauptmann Roland Eggers described what happened next:
‘We whipped our door open – “This way please gentlemen!” Astounded they followed us in, so astounded that they did not even shout and warn the others behind them.’

Hauptmann Roland Eggers - war44

Accounts of the numbers passing into the corridor and being apprehended vary between eight and ten. The POW plan remained for pairs to leave at five minute intervals. The Germans stripped the first two POWs, dressed their own men in the civvies and sent them down to the park outside the castle. POW lookouts reported that all was going well, but then no more exits followed. A long wait took place on both sides. The Germans had four or five pairs of would be escapers in the bag already and POW lookouts had no further evidence of anyone getting through.

Lavatory and Prisoner 'Excavations' - war44

A check was made on the inside of the lavatory and the tell tale hole in the wall. Guards rushed across the yard and up into the British Long Room. The men were dressed in their uniforms, but one of the stoves was crammed full of civilian clothes. The quick change had not been quick enough, and the collection of escape aids found on the POWs caught in the corridor was impressive. The blow to morale must have been significant; months of effort had been lost. With a sizeable haul of escape aids and adapted clothing now in enemy hands it was game and set to the Germans – until the next time.

The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Colditz - The French Again

French POWs at Colditz on Bastille Day - pegasusarchive (copyright Tim Giddings)

Two days had passed since the unsuccessful Elliott and Lados air raid shelter attempt on 26 July 1941 (see previous post). High summer brought the peak of the escape season and there were often daily incidents at Colditz. Lieutenant André Perrin was a hard resilient man who must have felt the rush of adrenaline when news broke of yet another Frenchman getting away from Colditz. Whilst POWs did not always receive clandestine information of successful home runs, an absence of news about an escaper indicated that no recapture had taken place. By 28 Jul when Perrin and fellow French Lieutenant Thibaud were ready to attempt their break out, a total of four POW’s (all of them Frenchmen) had escaped from Colditz without being caught.

French White Russian, Lieutenant Tatischeff became number four on 18 July 1941. A party of POWs who shared the Russian Orthodox faith had been allowed out of camp under guard to attend a special service in their religious calendar. The Orthodox Bishop of Dresden and choir were in town. Somehow in the church Tatischeff managed to engage with a woman from the choir and engineered her help in his escape. It seems ridiculous given the circumstances, that he was initially able to create a situation with what amounted to little more than suggestive degrees of eye contact and subtle facial expressions. Miss Hoffman responded and Tatischeff was able to slip away from the party of POWs and seek ‘shelter’ with the lady.  

French Lieutenants Perrin & Thibaud

Perrin and Thibaud concentrated on the Saalhaus building, part of which had access to the German yard in Colditz. The building was four storeys high with attic rooms on the top. The camp theatre was on the fourth floor, quarters for senior POW officers were located on the floor below, whilst the second floor contained the baths. Situated on the ground floor was the German kitchen and associated rooms. Apart from a staircase, the other common factor inside the building was an air shaft around six and a half metres square. This ran down from the top floor to a tiled area on the ground floor which had a door leading off into the kitchen, and there were two others to a large storeroom and refrigerator room.
Key factors dictated any escape strategy using the air shaft:
1) The kitchen had an exit which led into the courtyard on the German side of Colditz.
2) Windows looking into the air shaft had been bricked up from the first to third floors.

3) The top floor where the camp theatre was situated had ornamental ironwork over the windows so it was possible to look down the shaft and observe kitchen staff moving across the tiled area between rooms on the ground floor.

 4) Workmen were currently in the castle.

Surveillance from the top floor recorded certain times of the day when visits by the German kitchen staff to the various rooms stopped. This was usually after the serving of a meal. A calculated guess was made that the kitchen was subsequently cleaned and tidied in readiness for the next meal. It was after this point there might be a period when that room was empty.
Perrin and Thibaud  had to:

1) Get access into the air shaft.
2) Climb down forty feet by rope or knotted sheets via the inside of the brick walls
3) Hang out of sight until they were confident no one was in the ground floor area around the bottom of the shaft.
4) Take a calculated risk that the kitchen would be empty, walk in and then exit through the outer door into the courtyard on the German side.
5) Make a left turn and cross the courtyard in full view making for the gate which led out to the roadway and park.
6) Get past the sentry on the gate.
Map of Colditz Castle. Note German kitchen and courtyard in the centre - war44

The men were prepared; they had spent time with their fellow French POWs looking down the airshaft. They wore a reasonable set of workman’s clothes, each with the mandatory yellow armband to signify their status. The extent of any forged papers was likely to be scant, but they had a little money and concealed escape rations. The Frenchmen:

1) Sawed through the ornamental ironwork on a window in the camp theatre.
2) Slid the forty feet down a rope to the ground floor.
3) Checked the immediate ground floor area was deserted.
4) Slowly entered the kitchen before exiting into courtyard.
5) Crossed towards the gate which the POWs went through on their way to the park.

Air shaft is roughly centre of this photograph inside the building. German yard in the foreground - war44

Colditz Officer Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers recorded what happened next:
‘Several people were standing about the German yard as these two men left the kitchen and turned left towards the gate out towards the park. There was a sentry at this point, but his post did not carry a check list of passes in and out and no brass disc was required here.’

Author’s note – this was not the gate which workmen usually used to access and leave the castle. Numbered brass discs were given out to all workmen upon entering the castle through the main gate. These were signed in and out and controlled through a book.
The ‘workmen’ knocked and the sentry opened up. They were wearing suitable clothing and had yellow armbands. He let them through without asking questions. Perrin and Thibaud walked steadily away from the castle. They had pulled it off.

Eggers noted:
‘Quite a lot of coming and going went on through what we called the park gate, as the married quarters were just down the roadway outside…But among the odd people around in the German yard was the man who controlled the laundry for the whole castle. He was standing in the doorway of his store. ..The laundry man wondered idly who are these two? He knew all the comers and goers among the workmen; they were friends of his from the town. …In the end after a good hour he went to the Security Officer and asked him.’
The Officer had no explanation. Soldiers and dogs were called out and soon picked up the trail. The dogs had a good scent so the men followed on bicycles. Lieutenants Perrin and Thibaud were caught six miles away making for the railway station near Leisnig.

Leisneg in 1941 -

The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Colditz - The Park Part Five


After the Lebrun escape at Colditz (see previous posts) the Germans brought in additional security measures at the park. They:

1) Put a door in the boundary wall so that guards could get through to the other side quickly.

2) Raised the fence of the inner enclosure (known as the ‘sheep pen’) with two additional feet of barbed wire
3) Made POWs who were under stubenarrest, take their exercise in the morning and afternoon on a terrace at the rear of the guardroom. This was along the west face of the castle where a sentry was positioned at each end of the terrace.

In the summer of 1941 the escape season was now in full swing. It is noteworthy, that considering Colditz was a Sonderlager (high security camp); little had been obtained in the way of specialist equipment. There were no sunken microphones to detect tunnelling, or any electrical warning systems to detect POW incursion into restricted areas, especially where staff and administration buildings backed on to the prisoners. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) would have been unlikely to refuse any request for additional equipment, but as at July 1941 all that had been provided was four police dogs with handlers and an aged Kriminalkommissionar who the British nicknamed ‘Tiger’. On reflection, he was best described as amiable and of no worry to the prisoners.
It was a fact that POWs had been able to gain access to some locked rooms in the castle via lock picking and forged keys. Large scale searches were carried out on random floors of their quarters, but often the prisoners spotted signs of preparation or were tipped off by informants. The prison staff received a publication weekly called Das Abwehrblatt (Security News) from the OKW detailing escape methods in the different camps. Unfortunately, the Colditz escape attempts appeared in it regularly. There was a feeling amongst some ranks that whatever strategies were implemented, they were often playing catch up. The Germans were also no nearer to working out how Frenchmen Alain Le Ray, Renee Collin or Pierre Lebrun (on his failed first attempt) had escaped from the park (see earlier posts).

The British contingent had left escapes via the park to the French. With heightened security following the Lebrun escape, another attempt so soon time would have a poor chance of success. Despite this, on 26 July 1941 Captain Harry A V Elliott and Polish Captain Janek Lados decided to try their luck on the march back from the park. It is not clear whether they knew how Le Ray had managed his escape, but it is highly likely that they made for the same place.
Captain Harry Elliott extreme left -
Once through the gate on the left hand side of the road, the path to the park fell sharply. A turn in the path occurred by a house which was built up to the side of the cliff. It had its ground floor at the road level above and the cellar with an external door was level with the path. It was possible by distracting the guards or weaving/delaying, to create a blind spot and hide (see earlier post to read Le Ray’s own account of how he did this). The move could be made on the downward walk or return journey from the park. On the return was the most practical because of a head count when the POWs first arrived at the park. Elliott and Lados got in to the cellar through an open door on their way back by the same method as Le Ray.   
Present Day View of the Pathway (cellar door on the right) -
(recommended visit)
When the column of POWs arrived back at the castle, the headcount revealed a discrepancy of two and the alarm was raised. Searches began immediately and the well rehearsed appell drill to identify who had gone missing swung into action. Guards began to search the castle grounds with dogs, and a general alert went out to the local police, Hitler Youth and Home Guard were called into action in addition to railway stations being alerted and crossroads  watched. The pathway down to the park was checked again. Hauptmann Roland Eggers recorded that it was only on their way back that they remembered an air raid shelter in the cellar of the house overlooking the path. They entered through the unlocked door and Elliott and Lados were found.

Polish POWs at Colditz - Thememoryproject

The Germans took appropriate action as they were now sure they had discovered how all the Frenchman had got away. It was only Le Ray’s hiding place which they had found. Lebrun’s first attempt and Collin’s home run were made by concealing themselves hiding in the rafters of the open pavilion.

Two days later, the French would try again with something completely different.  

The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz the German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Colditz - The Park Part Four

POW Escort to the Park - pegasusarchive

The POWs shambling walk from Colditz Castle to the park for the exercise period was well described by Hauptmann Roland Eggers in a recent post. Trying to maintain security around getting the POWs down to the park, monitoring their exercise and returning them to the castle without incident was a constant drain on German resources.  Eggers recorded that the Germans:
‘so found themselves with a problem…that needed as much attention for two hours daily, involving at the most 40 per cent of the prisoners, as the whole camp required for the twenty four hours day and night together, for anything up to 600 of them.’

By 2 July 1941 three French Officers had made successful home runs by escaping from the park, or in Alain Le Ray’s case, by slipping out of the column and hiding during  the march back to the castle. There had also been a number of successful attempts to get out of the park, which had resulted in recapture.
One effort targeted the POWs daily march out of the castle to a gate which led on to the steep pathway down to the park area. The idea was ingenious in its simplicity, but meticulous thought and timing were evident in the execution. On 25 June 1941, once again the French were at the forefront. The column of prisoners trailed and straggled along in the castle, concertinaing at entrances. It must have been a guard’s nightmare as the line knew just how far to push their luck.

Walk to the Gate before taking the path to the park

The line turned left off the roadway, stepping through the gate, before veering sharp right on to the path down to the park. There was a delay at the gate as the POWs filed through the narrow gap and the line of men behind shuffled along. An attractive looking neatly dressed German woman  passed by them, walking back up the road in the direction of the castle courtyard.  Some of the prisoners inevitably whistled. The sight of a woman, except via homemade telescopes and glasses from the castle windows was a rarity.

As she walked past the POWs, her watch fell near to Squadron Leader Brian Paddon. He picked it up, calling to her in German that she had dropped her watch. The woman kept walking and passed out of sight. Paddon signalled the nearest guard to explain what had happened. The sentry took the watch and running up the roadway towards the ramp back into the castle he shouted to a sentry in the courtyard to stop the girl.  
As the castle sentry approached the woman, he realised something was wrong. The woman’s hat and wig were removed to reveal the bald head of French Lieutenant Boulé, a man in his mid-forties. He neither spoke nor understood any German, but his face and skin complexion at first glance fitted the disguise and almost pulled off the deception. He had worn the disguise under his overcoat and concealed the hat inside. Skilful shielding by other POWs had given just enough visibility for him to pass the first head count inside the castle.

French Lieutenant Boulé in disguise

It is ironic that the plan failed because of inadvertent intervention by a British POW who had no knowledge of the escape plan. On previous occasions in Colditz, escape attempts had also been made by different nationalities with little or no liaison between them. Following the Boulé failure a more co-ordinated approach was adopted to prevent complications.

Sources and recommended reads
The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz the German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

The Pegasus Archive is also recommended at 
Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed

Monday, 19 October 2015

Colditz - The Park Part Three

Colditz yard and solitary cells on the left - Pegasus archive

On Wednesday afternoon 2 July 1941 Pierre Lebrun made a second attempt to escape from Colditz. Twenty one days solitary confinement (stubenarrest) for his previous effort on 9 June (see previous post) would only have increased his resolve to get away as the time passed with just basic German rations and no food from Red Cross parcels. The manner of his last capture and the two previous breakouts before he was transferred to Colditz must have played on his mind in the lonely hours. Some men would have become demoralised or taken time to gather themselves and think things through before trying to get away again. Lebrun decided the only way forward was to escape whilst he was still in solitary. He calculated there was one chance to do this and it had to be in full view of the guards during the daily exercise.

It is surprising that POW’s in solitary confinement at Colditz were still allowed to take their exercise in the park area outside of the main castle. Such was the influence of the Swiss Government; the protecting power for British POWs under the Geneva Convention. Following complaints by the camp British Senior Officer, the Colditz Kommandant Oberst Schmidt maintained that the prisoner’s exercise in the park was deemed a privilege and not a right and could be withdrawn as punishment for transgressions of discipline and camp rules by the POW’s. The OKW (Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces) ordered that the current practice for exercise should continue (this included the park and POWs under stubenarrest).

Colditz Staff  Oberstleutnant Schmidt (centre, front)
- Pegasus archive

The exercise period for POW’s in solitary confinement, ran daily from 12.30 to 14.30. The prisoners were marched from their cells under guard and down to the park where they were confined inside an inner barbed wire enclosure (known as the sheep pen by the French.) This was a smaller area within the main exercise ground. The main ground was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence with a single warning wire about a foot in height, positioned a yard inside the fence. Anyone stepping inside this wire ran the risk of being fired on.

At one end of the inner enclosure and main exercise ground a ten foot high wall ran down the side of the valley, across the stream, along forty yards of flat ground and up the other slope. An officer, a Feldwebel and 3 armed guards kept watch on the small numbers of POWs from solitary, whilst they took their exercise inside the inner barbed wire enclosure. The sentries were positioned at intervals up the side of the valley where they had a perfect view. Escape looked impossible.  

The Park and Boundary Wall - virtualcolditz

Lebrun had other ideas. He had managed to share his plan with French Lieutenant Pierre Odry who had also been confined to the cells following an earlier escape from the park, where Odry managed to get out and reach the bridge at Gross Sermuth before being caught by one of the camp trucks. Odry agreed to help Lebrun on the day despite the virtually impossible odds. But the break would have to come whilst both men were still exercising together with the other POWs under punishment.

Lieutenant Pierre Odry

Lieutenant Pierre Lebrun

During the period of solitary, thirty Reich marks was smuggled into Lebrun’s cell along with small quantities of energy giving food. He had been working on his fitness during the daily exercise period, but this had to be done sparingly on account of the limited rations. Wearing running shorts, a short sleeved shirt which could pass off as a Nazi shirt, a leather sleeveless jacket, socks and plimsolls with rubber soles, he would exercise for the first hour, trying to jog at least half a mile around the inner enclosure during that time. The second hour was used to rest, discreetly observing the sentries and surroundings.

By 25 June he was ready to make the attempt. No one knew that he had wrapped a razor, soap, a small amount of sugar and chocolate in a silk cravat, which was concealed inside his jacket via a tight belt. Once inside the inner enclosure the exercise and sentries'  routine was usually the same, but the moment had to be exactly right. An opportunity did not present itself.

Colditz POW Major Pat Reid recorded

 ‘For five exercise periods he was ready to go, but each time the circumstances were not quite right. These false starts put an enormous strain on his nerves – he was too tense before each of them to even eat.’

Lebrun’s stretch in the cells was almost complete. On 2 July he told Odry as soon as they arrived in the park that he was going to make a break for it that day. The weather was warm and sunny and this time the two men walked around the enclosure for around an hour checking the position of the guards and looking for the exact spot where they could spring the escape. They marked it with a pebble at a point along the barbed wire which ran out from the park cross wall.

The ground rose up sharply amongst a number of trees on the other side of the barbed wire fence.  Two sentries had been positioned about twenty yards up the slope on a path which ran parallel to the enclosure. They had a good view looking down onto the POWs. Lebrun and Odry worked their way back to the marked location via jogging and leapfrogging exercises. The men stopped near the fence for a breather, everything seemed routine as on previous days. Odry turned his back on the fence, cupping his hands together at waist level, Lebrun had taken a few steps back and ran towards him, putting his foot into the ‘stirrup’. With a heave Lebrun was propelled over the fence, landing awkwardly on the other side.
Leapfrog - The Colditz Story 1954
Leapfrog 2 - The Colditz Story 1954

Leapfrog 3 - The Colditz Story 1954 

It took a moment for the Germans to realise what had happened. Someone shouted a warning ‘halt’, sentries unslung their rifles. Lebrun scrambled up, beginning a zig-zag run for the wall in the castle grounds about fifty yards away. The shooting started. He ran to the right, bullets whistling past. Sentries on the path had him well in their sights and fired. He reached the bottom of the slope, bullets hitting the wall behind him. Lebrun leapt up, scrambling the ten feet over the wall and running away through the trees, shots raining after him.

He made for the nearby wood, working his way through and crossing the river twice to throw the dogs off his scent. The NCO in charge at the park made the decision to return the prisoners to the castle guardroom. Hauptmann Roland Eggers observed that ‘he might have done better to climb the wall and go off in pursuit himself.’

The alarm sounded as Lebrun neared the edge of the wood. Now he had to remain out of sight from the nearby civilian population. The Germans would bring out the police, Home Guard, Hitler Youth and dogs to search for him. He opted to hide in a cornfield, walking slowly backwards, lifting up the flattened corn as he went along. Hiding and opting to move by night was worth the risk against being discovered in the hours before darkness.


The weather quickly deteriorated with a spell of heavy rain. Dressed in his sleeveless leather tunic, shorts and plimsolls, there was little choice but to remain where he was until nightfall. Anyone walking through the downpour dressed as he was would arouse immediate suspicion. There is no doubt that the weather hampered the searches and the dogs were unable to stay on his trail.

The rain continued throughout the evening. Once it was completely dark Lebrun set off following the River Mulde to the south-west, hiding by day and travelling by night. The bad weather continued until the morning of 5 July when the sunshine returned. Even though it was summer, the days and nights wearing the same soaking wet clothing must have been testing.

Zwickau -
As soon as his clothes had dried sufficiently he walked into the town of Zwickau (50 miles from Colditz) and managed to steal a bicycle. Switzerland was still 400 miles away, but he might pass off as a German cyclist, possibly touring the area. There is a suggestion that he was able to bluff his way through some situations with the cover story that he was an Italian officer on leave from the front who had decided to tour some of the land of his country’s ally.

After 8 days travel, incredibly LeBrun reached Switzerland and freedom. He was the third man to make a home run from Colditz. All of them were French officers who had made their escape via the park.  
In his cell he had left his kit tied up and addressed to himself in unoccupied Vichy France with a note  'Should I succeed, I should be obliged by the dispatch of my effects to me at the following address - Lieut. Pierre Mairesse-LeBrun, Orange (Vaucluse). May God help me.' The Germans at Colditz sent the items on to the address.

The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz the German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Colditz-Oflag IVC - Michael McInally
Author's Notes
©Keith Morley

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