Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Colditz - The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part Two

Nurnberg Streets - thirdreichinruins.com

Continued from previous post:

Neither Larive nor Steinmetz mention the blackout in their accounts, but Nurnberg must have been in darkness. The men faced the ordeal of leaving a railway station for over five hours with no idea where they were going. The odds on getting lost or being picked up were short. Staying put was too dangerous, so they decided to keep close to the station and repeat the same circular route. Fortunately, luck was with them.

‘There were a surprising number of people on the streets.’  E H Larive.
This strategy would only hold for a while. Short ‘reconnaissance trips were made, searching for somewhere to rest and hide unseen from the road or neighbouring buildings. Just off the main street, they found a church set back in total darkness. In the garden a number of benches, were occupied by courting couples. It was easy to slope past in the chill night air and find a free seat without being noticed. The blanket used to cover their heads when hiding at the bottom of the manhole shaft in Colditz was draped over their knees.  Larive noted the scene:

‘Love-making was in steady progress all around us and the intermittent sound of smacking kisses, with other noises, made us shake with suppressed laughter. Once in a while our weary eyes closed and our heads sagged down in sleep, only to wake up again with a start. We had to keep a watch for police and possible check-ups. Then a new couple came in from the street and carefully groping their way around in the darkness, trying to find an empty seat, finally had to pick on our bench.’

The men had no choice, but to "merge in" . Larive wore a jacket and Steinmetz a sweater, so wrapping the blanket around his hips to look like a skirt Steinmetz carefully hid his head against Larive’s shoulder and the pair imitated kissing noises. They kept up the act until after 3am when the other couple finally moved off. It must have been a relief when the time ticked round to return to the station.

They caught the train without incident, changed at Ulm and arrived in Singen station on the same day, an hour before dusk, having taken the line south west through Ehingen and Sigmaringen. Larive remembered the territory well from his previous escape attempt.

Singen station - delcampe.net

'After handing in our tickets we left the station and turned left, right and left again, crossed the single line, turned left and came to the road running parallel to double track. I couldn’t miss. I was as sure and confident as if it were my home town.’

Gottmadingen was the next destination. Larive recalled making the mistake of catching the train there on his last visit. This time the men stayed on the road; as it was easier to look for landmarks the Gestapo officer had pointed out on his map. (see last week’s post).The road moved into the woods. No more than half a mile to the border. From now on, the plan was to make a run for it separately if things went wrong.

German border post. Note the pathway on the right - E H Larive
As they rounded a bend, a German border guard fifty yards ahead spotted them. This had changed since the information on Larive's previous escape. The guard started to walk forward. They crossed the road, the guard did the same. The distance between them was no more than twenty five yards. To the right a few yards ahead, a path led into the trees but away from the frontier. Any choice disappeared. The guard shouted ‘halt’. They made a run for it. A shot rang out, the bullet whistling past Larive’s head.

‘We immediately turned off the path and ran on between the trees.’ E H Larive

There was no second shot. The escapers finally stopped running and decided the guard must have returned to his post to raise the alarm. Unsure of their bearings and proximity to the frontier, they circled to the left, reaching the edge of the wood to try for a better sighting and size up before it became too dark what the Germans were doing to try and catch them.

The road looked about 400 metres  away from a patch of farmland. They would have to cross it without being detected. Away to the right, the railway and town of Gottmadingen were clearly visible. The south road out of the town led to Switzerland.  

On the right is the edge of the wood where the escapers hid
to get a better view  - E H Larive

Soldiers on bicycles left the guard post to take up position on the road at 400 metre intervals. Dusk came quickly as it started to rain. The escapers heard rifle shots somewhere behind them and barking dogs. Run or stay? It was best to remain where they were and cover themselves with the blanket. A risk, but it was unlikely the dogs had their scent and the rain and darkness would make searching difficult. The rifle fire was an effort to flush the men out and for the dogs to latch on to the sound of them running away.

The search party came close, but finally moved on. Around ten o’clock  Larive folded up their blanket and they crept away. Guided by his compass, they crawled painstakingly across the ground on their elbows and stomach towards the road, stopping every few yards to look and listen. Before slithering across, both men removed their shoes to prevent any noise. It had taken 4 hours to cover about 600 metres.

'We had been on our way for two and a half days now; without sleep and with only a couple of bars of chocolate to eat, while constantly on the alert or on the move.'

It is difficult to fully appreciate the utter exhaustion at this point, or what really lay in the men's most innermost thoughts . Larive had been so near before. The prospect of another return to Colditz was unthinkable. 

A short detour to the west before veering south again brought them to the outline of some houses. Surely they had done enough now. Steinmetz shinned up a signpost and struck a match to get a closer look. ‘Deutsche Zollant’  - German Customs. They ran away expecting the shots which never came.

Larive described what happened next:

'After a quarter of an hour we again ran into a small group of houses. What were they Swiss or German? According to my calculations we should have crossed the border by now, but had we?...We were soaked through and the chill had numbed us…suddenly the stinging white beam of a strong torch flashed on us. Then I heard what I feared to hear most of all - German:
“Wer sind Sie? Was Machen Sie hier?”  (Who are you? What are you doing here?)
A cold violent anger overpowered me, bringing tears to my eyes: caught again, a hundred yards, maybe fifty yards from the border.'
They were ready to attack the guard. Then he spoke again.

"Sie sind in der Schweiz. Sie mussen mit mir kommen!"  (You are in Switzerland. You’ll have to come with me.)'

Larive & Steinmetz photographed after their escape
 and still wearing the same clothes- E H Larive


Colditz The Full Story - Major Pat Reid MBE MC  (Highly recommended read)

The Man Who Came in From Colditz - E H Larive (A must read if you can find a copy)

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 


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Colditz - The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part One

Map of The Park - E H Larive

Continued from previous post:

‘I felt slight apprehension of leaving the sheltered known world of the POW camp, but that quickly passed and was replaced by joy – we have done it.’ Francis Steinmetz
Hans Larive and Francis Steinmetz had a clear plan to reach the Swiss border, but the odds were still stacked against them.

‘We had nothing, no identity papers, no travel permits.’ Francis Steinmetz.

Despite this, the escapers had a few cards they could play. By bribing guards with coffee, chocolate and luxuries from prisoner parcels, the POW’s in Colditz had collected essential information on the German search system triggered after grounds and castle had been covered and personnel were still missing.

1) Search parties sent out on foot to cover the immediate neighbourhood and watch local roads

2) A group on bicycles spreading out in a larger area to operate in a similar way

3) Railway and police stations in the area alerted. Once the escaper’s identity was known, police in Leipzig were also notified. They had photographs and descriptions of the prisoners on file. Leipzig was a railway junction which escapers may attempt to travel through.  

4) If there were no immediate results, the search would be quickly widened with all known information.

Dutch Naval Group - Larive is back row extreme left.  Steinmetz is 2nd right middle row - E H Larive

At least the Dutchmen had some detailed awareness of German strategies and what to expect 'post escape'. Larive also had specific knowledge of the border area around Singen. Following his arrest during an earlier escape attempt, information was openly divulged to him by a Gestapo officer at area headquarters on the edge of the village. Although disclosure took place before Larive’s identity was fully known, it is debatable whether that would have made any difference. The Gestapo officer had struck up a strange rapport and his complacency seemed comfortable in the knowledge that he was in a position of total superiority, the war would soon be over and this kind of information was academic.

Larive was shown a map and how he had walked past part of the Swiss border which jutted into Germany at a distance of only about 300 yards. He asked numerous questions ‘which could be of any interest to an escaper and learned a lot.’ The biggest coup was ascertaining there was no real defence line on the border with Switzerland and he could have walked across. This intelligence would be used later by five more Colditz POWs when escaping into Switzerland. 

When Steinmetz recounted their escape, he said that the two men ‘had nothing’. This was true with regard to documentation, but they did hold enough money to cover train travel. Larive had managed to smuggle paper money and a small compass out of his last POW camp in to Colditz.

He noted how this was done before leaving Oflag V111C:

‘I now had to take care of my money and compass and knowing I would be subject to the most intensive search of all, it created quite a problem. I emptied a tin of apple syrup, placed the compass in the bottom of it protected by a piece of greaseproof paper and refilled the tin. The censor usually probed tins and jars with a knife to detect hidden objects and I had to think of some way to counter that. Knowing they, like anyone else, would not like to get their fingers sticky, I covered the outside of the tin with apple syrup, wrapped the tin in a very dirty piece of paper and put it right on top of everything in my suitcase.’

The plan worked as the censor removed the tin from the suitcase, pulled away the paper and took the tin in his hands before noticing the syrup. He dropped it in disgust and after checking Larive’s suitcase told him to pick up the tin and move along.

‘I had concealed the money somewhere on my person and managed to pass that through undetected.’
The ruse with the apple syrup tin worked again at Colditz. As for the money:

‘They searched me intensively and I even had to strip naked – yet they found nothing – not even my money, which was not on my body – but in it. A short visit to the toilet before being searched accomplished this.’

The escape plan was to reach Leisnig in time for the first train, just after dawn. Larive’s compass proved vital and the pair arrived ten minutes before departure time. Checks were almost inevitable, but there was no choice except to take the train and press on. Risks had to be minimised whatever the odds, so Steinmetz bought the tickets to Dresden as he spoke better German. Larive stood at the far end of the platform, ready to slip away if there were problems.

Leisnig Rail Station today - opencaching.de

There were no checks, which was unexpected, as they did not have the advantage of earlier Dutch escapers Lieutenant Dufour and Captain Smit whose absence was not discovered until two days after they broke out of Colditz. Larive and Steinmetz sat quietly in the carriage, each man occupied with his own thoughts. Travel on the faster routes had been their preferred choice, despite the increased risk of checks on identity and travel papers.

At Dresden, they changed trains with a plan to make for Ulm via Regensburg. Steinmetz asked the conductor for the best route and he advised they should alight at Marktredwitz where there were better connections. The town was further away from their destination and close to the border with Czecholslovakia, but with this route, they could move on to get a better train to Nurnberg and then travel direct to Ulm before going on to Singen close to the German-Swiss border.

Dresden Rail Station - wikipedia

Dresden Rail Station - antikfalkensee.de

After leaving Dresden, Larive reported:

‘The only scare we had from time to time was the appearance of the military police patrol. Fortunately, they seemed to confine their activities to checking military personnel.’

Nurnberg Rail Station in 1941 - thirdreichruins.com

The train arrived at Nurnberg around midnight. There was an immediate problem. The first train to Ulm did not depart until 06.00 hours. Larive and Steinmetz already knew that stations and waiting rooms were regularly checked after midnight for obvious reasons. They would have to leave immediately and keep well away until at least 05.30. But two men wandering the streets of a strange town in the early hours of the morning were in danger of being stopped and questioned.        

Next Week - Part Two

Colditz The Full Story - Major Pat Reid MBE MC  (Highly recommended read)

Colditz The German Viewpoint Reinhold Eggers  (Highly recommended read)

You Tube

The Man Who Came in From Colditz - E H Larive

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 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part Three

View of the Park Perimeter Wall - virtualcolditz.com

'When the Dutch arrived at Colditz, we realised it would be a difficult job to get out of this one.'
 - Francis Steinmetz

On 16 August 1941, with Captain ‘Dolf’ Dufour and Lieutenant John Smit still at large (see previous post); the Dutch tried another escape from the park. They were confident that the manhole remained a viable option. The different ruses which had fogged camp headcounts since the breakout on the 13th had continued to mask the absence of the two men (see previous post). The author’s view is that the Germans finally became aware of Dufour and Smit’s absence by the evening of the 15th, but did not connect it with any confidence to the park.* The headcounts there for the 14th and 15th had tallied and all numbers at camp appells from the 13th onwards had been ‘correct’.  

*Pat Reid noted that the deception carried out by the Polish POWs in assisting the Dutch had lasted until 15th. Colditz’s Hauptman Roland Eggers in his memoirs refers to Dufour and Smit, escaping ‘in some mysterious way’ after the break of the 16th. This suggests that either his recollection of events was mistaken, or that there was simply no specific knowledge of the time or place of the Dufour and Smit escape.  
By the time the parade assembled for the park exercise on the afternoon of the 16th, there were still long odds against a copycat escape attempt succeeding. Entering the manhole and concealing men in the shaft without the Germans discovering them remained high risk. The Dutch would have to use an identical or a similar tactic as before to gain access to the manhole and then conceal the missing men from the headcount at the end of the exercise period. This would need something diverse and unusual.

Park Escort - pegasusarchive

Observations and information from the exercise periods in the park since the 13th indicated that the Dutch secret may still have been intact. Lieutenants Flanti ‘Francis’ Steinmetz and Etienne Henri ‘Hans’ Larive were the chosen men and had made their preparations. The exercise party arrived at the park as usual and waited in line, whilst the headcount was taken and tallied with the given total before the prisoners left the castle. The men were let in to the ‘sheep pen’ a wire fenced enclosure. It is easy to imagine a scene unfold under the constant scrutiny of the guards. Men sitting or standing talking in groups, others walking around the enclosure as a few decided to run/exercise whilst games of handball or football began.

Francis Steinmetz
Hans Larive

Dutchman Lieutenant Gerrit Dames settled down under a tree in the shade next to the wire fencing. He stretched back relaxing and reading a book. At a predetermined signal he started to work ‘blind’ on the wire behind him with a homemade pair of ‘pliers’ in his free hand. Seated between two guards he would soon be seen. But how soon? It was vital that his preparation reached the right level and timing before he was spotted.
As with the Dufour and Smit escape; the Dutch circle of ‘handball’ players continued to throw the ball around and slowly closed in around the manhole, just as another officer began to rattle the wire in another area of the fence. A sentry shouted across to him and became more agitated, which attracted the attention of other guards. As the sentry aimed his rifle and a commotion began, Francis Steinmetz and Hans Larive managed to free the bolt on the manhole cover and slip down into the shaft. The ‘handball’ circle began to widen again and this was the signal for Dames, who turned around and made ready to creep through a small hole he had made in the fence. Obviously he was seen immediately. He put up his hands in surrender and along with the other prisoners shouted out beyond the fence ‘Run, run.’
Lt Gerrit Dames begins the wire diversion - Oflag IVC  YT
'The Germans would think he was the third man and two had got out.'  - Francis Steinmetz 

The sentries outside the compound immediately began scanning the park, whilst the POWS were herded together for a headcount. Two missing. A full escape alert would be triggered if they were not found quickly. A ground search began, but the area inside the sheep pen was subjected to only a brief examination. The hole in the wire and shouts from the POWs had achieved the aim and deflected attention away from the enclosure. 

As the POWs were marched back to the castle, the two escapers had already taken steps to avoid detection if the manhole cover was lifted. It is likely they followed similar action to Dufour and Smit. Once Steinmetz and Larive descended into the shaft, they hung onto the ladder, took off their shoes, socks, trousers and underwear, which they tied or draped around their neck. They climbed down the rungs inside the well until the water was almost up to their shoulders. A dark grey blanket had been sneaked in to the enclosure and they spread this out above their heads, holding it flush to the corners with their hands. The men had a fighting chance of remaining undetected at the bottom of the shaft, if they could stay in the water for a few hours. By then, searches would inevitably have moved on.
Steinmetz and Larive were having difficulty holding the blanket above their heads for long periods in the pitch black. The pain in their arms was becoming excruciating and despite summer temperatures, the water was numbingly cold. Clothes draped around the men’s shoulders were gradually getting wet as the tired men adjusted position.
The plan was to wait until full darkness at 10pm before exiting the shaft. They had to get out of the water and ditch the blanket. As a few hours had passed, the two Dutchmen made the decision to haul themselves out of the water and settle on the rungs further up the shaft. By pressing their backs against the wall, they were able to dry off a little and slowly put on some of their clothes. As the hours passed, they developed bad headaches and began struggling for breath. Air in the shaft was running out. Larive struggled to the top, pushed the cover up before jamming in his penknife in the gap. The men moved as close as they could to the gap for breaths of fresh air.

Colditz at Night 1940 - Tim Giddings
In the castle, a sonderappell (special appell) had identified Larive and Steinmetz as missing. A snap search of the Dutch quarters also found items of civilian clothing and a map with instructions of how to travel from Tuttlingen in south west Germany and get across the Swiss frontier. This was a significant find. The Germans would need every scrap of information. The sonderappell had revealed three more Dutch officers, Lieutenants Kruimink, van der Krap and van Lynden were also missing.

Around 10pm Larive and Steinmetz exited the shaft, climbed over the wire fence surrounding the enclosure and scaled the twelve foot park perimeter wall by climbing a nearby tree. Negotiating barbed wire on top of the wall with the aid of the blanket, they landed safely on the other side and were on their way to Leisnig.  

Next Week - The Race to the Border


Colditz The Full Story - Major Pat Reid MBE MC  (Highly recommended read)

Colditz The German Viewpoint Reinhold Eggers  (Highly recommended read)

You Tube

The Man Who Came in From Colditz - E H Larive

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 

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part Two

‘The Dutch never made themselves conspicuous in any way. Hence their success in springing surprises. Then only, would they approach the bounds of familiarity with the broadest of grins among themselves and occasionally shared with us. They rejoiced in the exercise ground in the park as a field for escape manoeuvres, and profited by it more than anyone else.’
Hauptman Reinhold Eggers, officer in Colditz  - Colditz the German Viewpoint 

It was time for officers of the Netherlands East Indies Army, Captain 'Dolf' Dufour and Lieutenant John Smit to make their move (see previous post). On Wednesday afternoon 13 August 1941 the Dutch assembled for the park exercise parade (see previous posts about the park exercise). Their plan was simple. The two men would hide on a ladder in the shaft below the manhole cover (one would be up to his chest in water at the bottom of the ladder). They would make their escape at a suitable point after the park exercise group had returned to the castle. By now, the British and Polish POWs knew of an impending escape attempt, but had no details. It is interesting how both sets of these prisoners featured in the course of events which followed.
Captain A L C 'Dolf'' Dufour dressed as a German officer
 in a later escape attempt
The manhole was located inside an area in the park known as the ‘sheep pen’. The ‘pen’ formed a piece of ground surrounded by high wire fencing. It was in this confined area that the POW’s exercised and were permitted to walk, run, play ball games and generally move or stand around. The enclosure was well patrolled both inside and out, with the prisoners being closely monitored. To shield a couple of men from the view of the guards for any length of time was difficult. It was an even bigger challenge to do it for long enough to enable the escapers to remove a bolt from the manhole cover, lift the lid and descend into the shaft before lowering the lid down.

The plan had to be sound, as the manhole was potentially a viable starting point for further escapes; providing it remained undiscovered. The Dutch were fairly sure that an escape had not been considered or attempted from the location before,  and they had seen no evidence of guard’s checks on the manhole cover. It was flush to the ground and there was a chance (despite the small cover bolt having to be retained by the escapers whilst hiding in the shaft) that any search might pass by.
Dufour and Smit were confident that they could quickly get into the shaft of the manhole. They also knew that contingencies were in place amongst the POW’s to try and cover their absence when the exercise party reached the castle. The two immediate problems would be:
  • The head count before departure from the park would instigate an immediate and full search of the whole park area. This increased the risk of the manhole cover being lifted.  

  • The count at the castle gates (if by some miracle the POWs had been marched back without the shortfall of two men being discovered.)
Either would result in a full camp prisoner appell to determine who was missing. It was vital that the two men remained undetected for as long as possible to allow an escape. It is likely that they planned to wait until it was dark before climbing over the ‘sheep pen’ perimeter wire and escaping out of the castle grounds via the park wall.

The Park Wall - virtualcolditz.com

Neither Dufour nor Smit had any travel documents or identity papers, so would be arrested at any check. They had civilian clothes made in the camp, a small amount of money to cover train travel and had been briefed by fellow Dutchman Hans Larive on the best route to the Swiss border. He passed on vital information on the geography of the frontier area and any border posts and guards he had encountered in an earlier escape attempt from another camp. 
At least the men spoke German, which would help them buy tickets and keep abreast of conversation and questions. Once on the run, if they could blend in anonymously and avoid checks; they saw themselves as having a real chance of making a home run. The optimism of the ‘would be’ escaper knew no bounds.
Dufour and Smit would undoubtedly have compartmentalised each phase of their plan; moving on to the next action after successful completion of the current phase:  

  • Get in to the manhole shaft without being seen and hang on to the ladder.

  • Avoid detection and don’t suffocate.

  • Exit the manhole, replace the bolt across the cover, climb over the ‘sheep pen’ fence and negotiate the park wall without being seen.

  • If possible, get out of the town of Colditz before the alarm is raised.

  • Travel on slower low risk local trains where there is less chance of checks.

About an hour after their arrival in the park, the Dutch formed a large circle in the ‘sheep pen’ and were throwing a football across to each other. Nothing unusual in that, and the circle briefly moved and fluctuated around the area near to the manhole cover. No problem, as men had been seen sitting around the location before and exercise had passed through that area before.

Dutch Handball Game - Oflag IVC Colditz  YT

The sentries along the fence were being watched, and at an opportune moment, the circle surrounded the manhole cover and moved in closer until the men touched each other’s elbows. For a few seconds the manhole was screened from the sentries both inside and outside of the sheep pen. During that time, Dufour and Smit had the cover up and were down the shaft. The circle widened again and the game continued.

Open Manhole Cover - Oflag IVC Colditz  YT

The whistle blew to indicate that time was up and the POWs assembled near the 'sheep pen' gate for a head count before being marched back up to the castle for another check of numbers and then being readmitted. It was at the sheep pen gate that a shortfall would inevitably be discovered.
Two men short! This was impossible; the men had been counted upon arrival at the park and had been contained within the ‘sheep pen’ throughout the exercise period. The guards searched the park grounds thoroughly, but did not include or notice the manhole. It is likely at this stage, that it had not been considered or highlighted by the German officers, as it had never featured before. It is debatable whether some of the personnel even knew of its existence, because it was flush to the ground and could be easily missed.
At this point a real stroke of luck occurred. British officers had been temporarily suspended from the exercise privilege (this would have been because of some escape attempt, misdemeanour or conduct issue). Earlier, when the party had assembled in the castle for the exercise parade, two British officers had attempted to slip in unnoticed in borrowed uniforms. They were recognised by the guards and sent back. Someone suggested at the park, that because of this, the counted numbers may be correct after all. Despite the mathematics and system in operation, the comment created enough doubt to march the POWs back to the castle. At the outer gate the party was counted and recounted repeatedly by three different guards. No one could agree whether there were two men missing or not.
Colditz Staff - strijidbewijs.nl

An appell was called for all those POWS who had not been to the park and this still did not produce a satisfactory conclusion. The park POWs were then marched in to the castle and a full camp appell taken. An officer counted from the front and a sergeant from the back. The numbers tallied. All POWs were present and the parade was dismissed. How was this possible?
The British had inadvertently helped in all of this, but it was the close cooperation between the Poles and Dutch which produced a classic ruse. At camp appells, the Dutch always stood in rows of five, in neat straight lines which made counting easy. This was a relief for the captors, as the ramshackle, untidy and unpredictable line ups of the British and French, could be time consuming, difficult to manage and count. The Germans got in to the habit of only counting the numbers of Dutch rows, because they were so meticulously predictable. They also stopped looking from the side. Had they have counted from that point on this particular appell, it would have been easy to see that there were two lines not quite straight, where soldiers had shifted position marginally to conceal the absentees. The same ruse was applied at the evening appell and Dufour and Smit slipped away from the park with no German knowledge of their absence.

Colditz French Prisoner Appell on Bastille Day - pegasusarchive (copyright Tim Giddings)

At appell the following morning, the numbers tallied again. Surely it was pushing their luck to adopt the same tactics again?  Numbers tallied, but two Poles had taken the places of Dufour and Smit. That would leave the Poles two short on their own count. Their numbers were correct. During the appell, four Poles were reported sick in bed. An orderly was dispatched to the two corner rooms in the Polish wing where the men were supposed to be located. The rooms were interconnected via a small sliding panel in the wall, making it possible to move from a bed in one room to a bed in the other, faster than someone could walk from one room to the other. The result was ‘four men tucked up in bed ill and an orderly reporting four men sick in bed. This scam was kept up for twenty four hours giving the escapers valuable time.

Singen 1940

Dufour and Smit took the slow route and were finally caught at Singen near the Swiss border before being  returned to Colditz. By the time they were captured,  the Dutch had pulled off another masterstroke in the art of escaping.

Next Week - The Larive & Steinmetz Escape


Colditz The Full Story - Major Pat Reid MBE MC  (Highly recommended read)

Colditz The German Viewpoint Reinhold Eggers  (Highly recommended read)

You Tube

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, 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 'Dolf' Dufour and Lietenant John 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 - pbs.org    

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