Attempts to escape Oflag IV-C

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For a complete list, see List of attempts to escape Oflag IV-C.

Prisoners made numerous attempts to escape Oflag IV-C, one of the most famous German Army prisoner-of-war camps for officers in World War II. Between 30–36 (German/Allied figures) men succeeded in their attempts. The camp was in Colditz Castle, perched on a cliff overlooking the town of Colditz in Saxony.

The German Army made Colditz a Sonderlager (high-security prison camp), the only one of its type within Germany. Field Marshal Hermann Göring even declared Colditz "escape-proof". Yet despite this audacious claim, there were multiple escapes by British, Canadian, French, Polish, Dutch, and Belgian inmates. Despite some misapprehensions to the contrary, Colditz Castle was not used as a prisoner of war camp in World War I.

Methods and equipment[edit]

Prisoners contrived a number of methods to escape. They duplicated keys to doors, made copies of maps, forged Ausweise (identity papers), and manufactured their own tools. MI9, a department of the British War Office which specialized in escape equipment, communicated with the prisoners in code and smuggled to them new escape aids disguised in care packages from family or from non-existent charities, although they never tampered with Red Cross care packages for fear it would force the Germans to stop their delivery to all camps. The Germans became skilled at intercepting packages containing contraband material.

There was also a form of black market subterfuge whereby the prisoners used items from their Red Cross parcels to buy information and tools from cooperative guards and townsfolk. Since the Germans allowed Douglas Bader to visit the town, he took chocolate and other luxuries with him for trading. Flight Lieutenant Cenek Chaloupka traded goods for information and even had a girlfriend in the town. David Stirling later took control of the black market operations.

The Singen route[edit]

Once escaping from captivity, POWs still faced the considerable challenge of negotiating their way to non-hostile territory. The Singen route into Switzerland was discovered by Dutch naval lieutenant Hans Larive in 1940 on his first escape attempt from Oflag VI-A in Soest. Larive was caught near Singen close to the Swiss border. The interrogating Gestapo officer was so confident that the war would soon be won by Germany that he told Larive of a safe way across the border. Larive memorized it and many prisoners later escaped using this route. This includes Larive himself, Francis Steinmetz, Anthony Luteyn, Airey Neave, Pat Reid, and Howard Wardle in their escapes from Colditz.[1]

Unsuccessful attempts[edit]

Most escape attempts failed. Pat Reid, who later wrote about his experiences in Colditz, failed to escape at first and then became an "escape officer", charged with coordinating the various national groups so they would not ruin each other's escape attempts. Escape officers were generally not themselves permitted to escape. Many tried unsuccessfully to escape in disguise: Airey Neave twice dressed as a guard, French Lieutenant Boulé disguised in drag, British Lieutenant Michael Sinclair even dressed as German Sergeant Major Rothenberger [an NCO in the camp garrison], when he tried to organize a mass escape, and French Lieutenant Perodeau disguised himself as camp electrician Willi Pöhnert ("Little Willi"):

On the night of 28 December 1942, one of the French officers deliberately blew out the fuse on the lights in the courtyard. As they had anticipated Pöhnert was summoned, and while he was fixing the lights, Lieutenant Perodeau, dressed almost identically to Pöhnert and carrying a tool box, walked casually out of the courtyard gate. He passed the first guard without incident, but the guard at the main gate asked for his token — tokens were issued to each guard and staff member upon entry of the camp guardhouse specifically to avoid this type of escape — with no hope of bluffing his way out of this, Perodeau surrendered.

Dutch sculptors made two clay heads to stand in for escaping officers at roll call. Later, "ghosts", officers who had faked a successful escape and hid in the castle, took the place of escaping prisoners at roll call in order to delay discovery for as long as possible.

Camp guards collected so much escape equipment that they established a "Kommandant's Escape Museum". Local photographer Johannes Lange took photographs of the would-be escapers in their disguises or re-enacting their attempts for the camera. Along with the Lange photographs, one of the two sculpted clay heads was displayed proudly in the museum. Security officer Reinhold Eggers made them a regular part of Das Abwehrblatt, a weekly magazine for German POW camps.

The fatality of Michael Sinclair[edit]

There was only one confirmed fatality during the escape attempts: British Lieutenant Michael Sinclair in September 1944. Sinclair attempted a repeat of the 1941 French over the wire escape. Security officer Eggers warned him after which Sinclair was fired upon by guards. A bullet hit Sinclair on the elbow and ricocheted through his heart.[2]

The Germans buried Sinclair in Colditz cemetery with full military honours — his casket was draped with a Union Jack flag made by the German guards, and he received a seven-gun salute. Post-war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the only man to receive it for escaping during World War II. He is currently buried in grave number 10.1.14 at Berlin War Cemetery in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district of Berlin.

The Red Cross tea chest[edit]

Because of his very small stature, Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce was known ironically as the "medium-sized man". He arrived at Colditz in 1942 (after attempting to escape from Spangenberg Castle disguised as a Red Cross doctor). When a new commandant arrived at Colditz in the summer of the same year, he enforced rules restricting prisoners' personal belongings. On 8 September, POWs were told to pack up all excess belongings and an assortment of boxes were delivered to carry them into storage. Dominic Bruce immediately seized his chance and was packed inside a Red Cross packing case, three feet square, with just a file and a 40-foot (12 m) rope made of bed sheets. Bruce was taken to a storeroom on the third floor of the German Kommandantur and that night made his escape. When the German guards discovered the bed rope dangling from the window the following morning and entered the storeroom they found the empty box on which Bruce had inscribed Die Luft in Colditz gefällt mir nicht mehr. Auf Wiedersehen! — "The air in Colditz no longer agrees with me. See you later!" Bruce was recaptured a week later trying to stow aboard a Swedish ship in Danzig.

The mattress[edit]

In late 1940, British officer "Peter" Allan (real name, Anthony Murray Allan) found out that the Germans were moving several mattresses from the castle to another camp and decided that it would be his way out. He let the French officers moving the mattresses know that one would be a little bit heavier. Allan, a fluent German speaker due to his schooling in Germany before the war prior to attending Tonbridge School, dressed himself up in a Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) uniform, stuffed Reichsmarks in his pockets, and had himself sewn into one of the mattresses. He managed to get himself loaded onto the truck, and unloaded into an empty house within the town. Cutting himself out of the mattress several hours later, when all he could hear was silence, he climbed out of the window into the garden and walked down the road towards his freedom.

Along the 161 km (100 mi) route to Vienna via Stuttgart he got a lift with a senior SS officer. Allan recalled that ride as the scariest moment of his life, "To be vulgar, I nearly needed a new pair of trousers." Allan had been aiming to reach Poland, but soon after reaching Vienna he found he was out of money. At this time the Americans had not yet entered the war, so Allan decided to ask the American consulate for assistance. He was refused. Allan's stepmother, Lois Allan (founder of Fuzzy Felt toys in the UK), was a US citizen and he felt that they would provide sanctuary because of this. Allan had been on the run at this point for nine days. Broke, exhausted, and hungry, he fell asleep in a park. Upon waking he discovered he could no longer walk due to his starvation. Soon after he was picked up and returned to Colditz, where he spent the next 3 months in solitary confinement.

The bed sheet rope[edit]

On 12 May 1941, Polish Lieutenants Miki Surmanowicz and Mietek Chmiel, attempted to rappel down a 36 m (120 ft) wall to freedom on a rope constructed out of bed sheets. In order to get into position, both men put themselves into solitary confinement. After forcing open the door and picking the locks, they made their way to the courtyard where they climbed up to a narrow ledge. From the ledge they were able to cross to the guard house roof, and climb through an open window on the outer wall. Reusing their bed sheet rope, they lowered themselves towards the ground. They were caught when the German guards heard the hobnailed boots of one of the escapees scraping the outside of the guardhouse wall. The guard who spotted the escapees shouted 'Hände hoch!!' [Hands up!!] to the men as they were descending the rope.

The French lady[edit]

On 5 June 1941, while returning from the park to the castle, some British prisoners noticed that a passing lady had dropped her watch. One of the British called out to her, but the lady kept walking instead of retrieving her watch. This aroused the suspicion of the German guards and, upon inspection, "she" was revealed to be a French officer, Lieutenant Chasseurs Alpins Bouley, dressed as a very respectable woman.[3]

The canteen tunnel[edit]

Early in 1941, the British prisoners had gained access to the sewers and drains which ran beneath the floors of the castle. Entrance to these was from a manhole cover in the floor of the canteen. After initial reconnaissance trips, it was decided that the drain should be extended, and an exit made in a small grassy area which was overlooked from the canteen window. From here, they planned to climb down the hill, and drop down below the steep outside east wall of the castle. Knowing which sentry would be on duty on the night of the escape, they pooled their resources and collected 500 Reichsmark for a bribe (100 of which were paid up front). This plan took three months of preparation. On the evening of 29 May 1941, Pat Reid hid in the canteen when it was locked up for the night. He removed the bolt from the lock on the door, and returned to the courtyard. After the evening meeting, the chosen escapers slipped into the canteen unnoticed. They entered the tunnel and waited for the signal to proceed. Unknown to the prisoners, they had been betrayed by the bribed guard. Waiting on the grassy area was Hauptmann Priem and his guard force.

Pat Reid recalls:

"I climbed out on to the grass and Rupert Barry, immediately behind me, started to follow. My shadow was cast on the wall of the Kommandantur, and at that moment I noticed a second shadow beside my own. It held a gun. I yelled to Rupert to get back as a voice behind me shouted, Hände hoch! Hände hoch!. I turned to face a German officer levelling his pistol at me."

Behind him in the tunnel were seven British and four Polish officers. On his order the remaining men backed up the tunnel to evade detection, but the Germans were waiting for them outside the canteen. Not wanting to give their captors any satisfaction, the British burst into laughter as they came out.

Hauptmann Priem ends the story:

"And the guard? He kept his 100 Marks; he got extra leave, promotion and the War Service Cross."

The French tunnel[edit]

Nine French officers organized a long-term tunnel-digging project, the longest ever attempted out of Colditz Castle. Deciding that the exit should be on the steep drop leading down towards the recreation area, outside the eastern walls of the castle, they began to scout for a possible location for the entrance. The problem was solved by Lieutenants Cazaumayo and Paille, who had gained access to the clock tower in 1940.

Their tunnel began at the top of a chapel's clock tower and descended 8.6 metres (28.2 ft) into the ground using the shaft which contained the ropes and weights for the clock. They found that the weights which used to hang down the shaft, and the chains, had been removed. This left an empty shaft which extended from the clock to the cellars below. After the previous escape attempts by Cazaumayo and Paille, the doors (one on each floor) which had provided access to the tower, had been bricked up in order to prevent further escape attempts. However, by sealing up the tower the Germans had in essence provided a secure location where escape tunnel work could be done without notice. The French this time gained access to the tower from the attics, descended 35 m to the cellars, and began work on a horizontal shaft in June 1941. This shaft work would continue for a further eight months.

The horizontal shaft towards the chapel progressed 4 m (13 ft) before they hit rock too hard to dig. They then decided to dig upwards towards the chapel floor. From here the tunnel continued underneath the wooden floor of the chapel for a distance of 13.5 m (44.3 ft). To do this, seven heavy oak timbers in the floor, measuring 0.5 m (1.3 ft) square, had to be cut through. Homemade saws, assembled from German table knives, were employed for this task. With this completed, the tunnel dropped vertically from the far corner of the chapel a further 5.2 m (17 ft). The tunnel then proceeded out towards the proposed exit with two further descents, separated by shafts in the tough stone foundations of the castle. The tunnel now ran a horizontal distance of 44 m (144 ft), reaching a final depth of 8.6 m (28.2 ft) below the ground.

Tunneling continued well into 1942. By then Germans knew that the French were digging somewhere, based on the noise of tunnelling reverberating through the castle at night. The French thought that its entrance was undetectable. However, on 15 January the Germans eventually searched the sealed-off clock tower. Noises were heard below, and after lowering a small boy down the shaft, three French officers were found. After searching the cellar thoroughly, the entrance to the tunnel was eventually discovered a mere 2 m (6.5 ft) short of completion. The French were convinced that they had been betrayed by one of their own countrymen, but this was denied by the guards who demanded the French pay to repair the damage (estimated at 12,000 Reichsmark).

The tunnel had electric lighting along its whole length, powered by electricity from the chapel. This allowed the tunnellers to see what they were doing and signal the arrival of sentries. The entrance to the tunnel in the wine cellar was concealed by five large stones covering a small door, which left little trace of any hole. Debris was transported in sacks hoisted up the clock tower to the castle's attics. The wine cellar was regularly cleaned and redusted using dust harvested from the attic, so as to hide the reddish clay dust which was not present in the cellar ordinarily.

The "Colditz Cock" glider[edit]

Main article: Colditz Cock
The only known photo of the original "Cock" glider taken by an unknown American GI in April 1945.
A replica of the Colditz Glider as seen at the Imperial War Museum in London, England.

In one of the most ambitious escape attempts from Colditz, the idea of building a glider was dreamt up by two British pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch, who had been sent to Colditz after escaping from another POW camp. They were encouraged by two army officers, Tony Rolt and David Walker, who had recently arrived in the camp. It would be Tony Rolt who would recommend the chapel roof, since he noticed it was obscured from the view of the Germans.

The two-man glider was to be assembled by Bill Goldfinch and Jack Best in the lower attic above the chapel, and was to be launched from the roof in order to fly across the river Mulde, which was about 60 m (200 feet) below. The runway was to be constructed from tables and the glider was to be launched using a pulley system based on a falling metal bathtub full of concrete, which would accelerate the glider to 50 km/h (30 mph).

Prisoners built a false wall to hide the space in the attic where they slowly built the glider out of stolen pieces of wood. Since the Germans were accustomed to looking down for tunnels, not up for secret workshops, the prisoners felt safe from detection. However, they still placed lookouts, and created an electric alarm system, to warn the builders of approaching guards.

Hundreds of ribs had to be constructed, predominantly from bed slats, but also from every other piece of wood the POWs could obtain. The wing spars were constructed from floor boards. Control wires were made from electrical wiring taken from unused portions of the castle. A glider expert, Lorne Welch, reviewed the stress diagrams and calculations made by Goldfinch.

The resulting glider was to be a 109 kg (240 lb) two-seater, high wing, monoplane design. It had a Mooney-style rudder and square elevators. The wingspan, was 9.75 m (32 ft), and the fuselage length was 6 m (19 ft). Prison sleeping bags of blue and white checked cotton were used to skin the glider, and German ration millet was boiled and used to seal the cloth pores. The war ended before the glider was finished.

Although the Colditz Cock never flew, the concept was fictionalized, depicting a successful flight and escape, in the 1971 TV movie The Birdmen starring Doug McClure, Chuck Connors, Rene Auberjonois, and Richard Basehart.

A replica of the Colditz glider was built for the 2000 Channel 4 (UK) 3-part (150 minute total) Escape from Colditz documentary, and was flown successfully by John Lee on its first attempt at RAF Odiham with Best and Goldfinch in tearful attendance. It is currently housed at the Imperial War Museum in London. The Channel 4 material was edited to 60 minutes and shown in the US in 2001 as Nazi Prison Escape on the NOVA television series.

A list of tools used in constructing the Glider Source: [1]
Side-framed saw
  • handle of beech bed board
  • frame of iron window bars
  • blade of gramophone spring with 8 teeth / in (3 mm teeth)
Minute saw for fine work
  • gramophone spring blade, 25 teeth / in (1 mm teeth)
5/8 in (16 mm) metal drill obtained by bribery
A gauge
Large plane, 14½ in (368 mm) long
  • 2 inch blade obtained by bribing a German guard
  • Wooden box (four pieces of beech screwed together)
Small plane, 8½ in (216 mm) long
  • blade made from a table knife
Plane, 5 in (127 mm) long
Square
  • made of beech with gramophone spring blade
Set of keys including:
  • universal door pick, forged from a bucket handle

Successful attempts[edit]

Pat Reid claimed in Colditz: The Full Story that there were 31 "home runs", whereas German authorities cite 30, and some other sources count 36. Reid included prisoners from the hospital and prisoners being transported, who were not directly under Colditz staff control. Henry Chancellor in Colditz: The Definitive History claims 32 escaped, but only 15 were "home runs": 1 Belgian, 11 British, 7 Dutch, 12 French, and 1 Polish. The difference is that Reid claims any successful escape by an "official" Colditz POW a "home run" whereas most other historians only consider escapes from the castle or castle grounds itself as a "home run". Also a subject of debate is whether or not Lieutenant William A. Millar's escape should be considered a "home run", but since he is listed as "Missing in action" (unofficially, he is assumed dead), Chancellor does not count him as such.

At the end of May 1943, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht ("Armed Forces High Command") decided that Colditz should hold only British and Commonwealth officers. Because of this decision, all of the Dutch and Polish prisoners and most of the French and Belgians were moved to other camps in July. Three British officers tried their luck by impersonating an equal number of French when they were moved out, but they were later returned to Colditz. German security gradually increased and by the end of 1943 most of the potential ways of escape had been plugged. Several officers tried to escape during transit, having first caused themselves to be transferred for that purpose.

Some officers faked illnesses and mental illness in order to be repatriated on medical grounds. A member of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), Captain Ion Ferguson, wrote a letter to an Irish friend in which he suggested that Ireland join the war; the letter was stopped by the censors, but his wish to be moved elsewhere was granted. In Stalag IV-D he certified a number of prisoners as insane; they were consequently repatriated. He then convinced the Germans of his own insanity and returned to Britain the same way. Four other British officers claimed symptoms of stomach ulcers, insanity, high blood pressure, and back injury in order to be repatriated. There were, in addition, officers who went genuinely insane.

From Colditz Castle and grounds[edit]

  1. French Lieutenant Alain Le Ray escaped April 11, 1941. He hid in a terrace house in a park during a game of football. First successful Colditz escapee and first to reach neutral Switzerland.
  2. French Lieutenant René Collin escaped May 31, 1941. He climbed into the rafters of a pavilion during exercise, hid there until dark and slipped away. He made it back to France.
  3. French Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun escaped July 2, 1941. He was captured trying Collin's method. Later vaulted over a wire in the park with the help of an associate. He reached Switzerland in eight days on a stolen bicycle.
  4. Dutch Lieutenant Hans Larive escaped August 15, 1941. He hid under a manhole cover in the exercise enclosure, emerged after nightfall, took a train to Gottmadingen, and reached Switzerland in three days.
  5. Dutch Lieutenant Francis Steinmetz also escaped August 15, 1941 with Larive
  6. Dutch Major C. Giebel escaped September 20, 1941 using the same method as Larive and Steinmetz.
  7. Dutch Lieutenant O. L. Drijber escaped September 20, 1941 with Giebel.
  8. British Lieutenant Airey M. S. Neave escaped January 5, 1942. Crawled through a hole in a camp theatre (after a prisoner performance) to a guardhouse and marched out dressed as a German soldier. He reached Switzerland two days later. This first successful British escape was a joint British Dutch effort. Neave later joined MI9.
  9. Dutch Lieutenant Anthony Luteyn escaped January 5, 1942 with Neave.
  10. British Lieutenant Hedley Fowler escaped September 9, 1942. Slipped with four others through a guard office and a storeroom dressed as German officers and Polish orderlies. Only he and Van Doorninck reached Switzerland. Like Luteyn and Neave, this was another successful British Dutch effort.
  11. Dutch Lieutenant Damiaen Joan van Doorninck escaped September 9, 1942 with Fowler.
  12. British Capt. Patrick R. Reid escaped October 14, 1942. Slipped through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandantur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. It took him four days to reach Switzerland.
  13. Canadian Flight Lieutenant Howard D. Wardle (RAF) escaped October 14, 1942 with Reid.
  14. British Major Ronald B. Littledale escaped October 14, 1942. He slipped through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandantur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. He reached Switzerland in five days.
  15. British Lieutenant-Commander William E. Stephens escaped October 14, 1942 with Littledale.
  16. British Lieutenant William A. Millar escaped January, 1944. He broke into the German courtyard and hid in a German truck intending to go to Czechoslovakia. He never reached home and is listed missing on the Bayeux memorial. There is speculation that he was caught and executed in Mauthausen concentration camp as a victim of the secret Kugel-erlass ("Bullet decree") July 15, 1944.

From outside Colditz Castle[edit]

  1. French Lieutenants J. Durand-Hornus, G. de Frondeville and J. Prot escaped while on a visit to the town dentist December 17, 1941.
  2. Polish Lieutenant Kroner was transferred to Königswartha Hospital where he jumped out of the window.
  3. French Lieutenant Boucheron fled from Zeitz Hospital, was recaptured, and later escaped from Düsseldorf prison.
  4. French Lieutenants Odry and Navelet escaped from Elsterhorst Hospital.
  5. British Captain Louis Rémy escaped from Gnaschwitz military hospital. His three companions were captured, but he reached Algeciras by boat, and later Britain.
  6. British Squadron Leader Brian Paddon escaped to Sweden via Danzig when sent to his previous camp for a court-martial.
  7. French Lieutenant Raymond Bouillez escaped from a hospital after an unsuccessful attempt to jump from a train.
  8. Dutch Lieutenant J. van Lynden slipped away when the Dutch were moved to Stanislau camp.
  9. French Lieutenant A. Darthenay escaped from a hospital at Hohenstein-Ernstthal, later joined the French Resistance, and was killed by the Gestapo on April 7, 1944.
  10. Indian RAMC Captain Birendra Nath Mazumdar M.D. was the only Indian in Colditz. He went on a hunger strike to have himself transferred into an Indian-only camp. His wish was granted three weeks later and he escaped from that camp to France and reached Switzerland in 1944 with the aid of the French Resistance.
  11. Royal Navy ERAs W. E. "Wally" Hammond (from the sunken submarine HMS Shark) and Don "Tubby" Lister (from the captured submarine HMS Seal) campaigned for a transfer from Colditz, arguing that he was not an officer. He was transferred to Lamsdorf prison, escaped from a Breslau work party, and reached England via Switzerland in 1943.[4][5]

"Ghost" prisoners who hid inside Colditz Castle[edit]

  1. British pilot Jack Best, "ghost" from 4 May 1943 to 28 March 1944.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Larive; the man who came in from Colditz, Leo de hartog; officieren achter prikkeldraad 1940-1945
  2. ^ "Colditz–The Legend". Yesterday TV, 12:00, 6 Dec 2010
  3. ^ "Escaping Colditz 5: June 1941". Nazi Prison Escape. PBS. January 2001. Retrieved 3 June 2011. 
  4. ^ Reid, Patrick Robert (1953). The Latter Days at Colditz. London: Hodder and Stoughton
  5. ^ Royal Naval Museum - Sea Your History: Photo of Hammond and Lister in Switzerland

Sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]