Saturday, 29 October 2016

Colditz - The Escape Rush Before Christmas

British POWs in Colditz at Christmas - IWM

Autumn approached in Colditz, and with it came the twilight of the escaping season in 1941. For most POW camps in occupied Europe, the freezing and severe winter weather would curtail or postpone much of the escape work. But the men in Colditz would try anything at any time. They continued their plans with a steady flow of attempts which kept the Germans busy.

On 1 September 1941 Major William Anderson, Squadron Leader Brian Paddon and Lieutenant-Colonel Guy German were discovered by pure chance reconnoitring escape possibilities in the camp kitchen basement area. Whilst they were in situ, a snap fire-fighting practice had been called by Colditz Lieutenant Paul Priem and the courtyard was cleared. A horse drawn fire appliance ‘rushed’ into action through the main doors, followed by a manually pulled contrivance which rattled in to a chorus of ridicule from the POWS looking out from their upstairs windows. As part of the drill, a main hose was passed through the kitchen window to connect with a fire hydrant. The three POWs were discovered. Chance detection at any level of an escape could occur by sheer bad luck and timing.

Major William Anderson

Lieutenant- Colonel Guy German

On 7 October Lieutenant H Desjobert climbed over a fence on the POWs return walk from the park. Sentries opened fire and closed in. With no chance of getting away he put his hands up and surrendered. The Frenchman was lucky not to have been wounded or killed. During his spell of solitary punishment, Desjobert would gather his thoughts and think about trying again. 

Other escape attempts from the park enclosure would have encouraged Belgian Lieutenants Marcel Leroy and Andre Lejeune. On 8 November, they climbed the wire of the ‘sheep pen’ exercise area and made a run up the steep hill towards the park perimeter wall. Rifle shots fizzed past the POWs. As they raced towards the wall, the rounded shape of the cordon meant that sentries risked firing and hitting each other. Bullets were flying at the two Belgians from all directions and guards around the castle walls joined in. The POWs tried to distract the castle guards by shouting abuse from their windows and ‘goon baiting’. This only inflamed the situation. When the Belgians were forced to surrender because they were unable to climb the wall, the guards in the castle had started firing up at the POW windows.

Park grounds and wall -

A subsequent enquiry into the incident by Camp Kommandant Oberstleutenant Max Schmidt concluded:

 ‘There were what appeared to be shots from the French quarters which later turned out to be artificially created, complete with smoke. At the same time, paper darts were thrown at the guards and a steel helmet* appeared at the window. It was very clear that the purpose of the demonstration was to distract the attention of the guards.’
*Tin hat was made of cardboard

A union Jack was also hung out of one of the British windows. Anyone poking their head up during the height of the incident risked getting it blown off.

Kommandant Oberstleutenant Max Schmidt - war

With only 33 POW days to Christmas; a spate of opportunist escape attempts took place:

22 Nov 41 – Lieutenant Geoffrey Wardle and Dutch 2nd Lieutenant H G Donkers were caught attempting to exit through Oberstabsfeldwebel Gephard’s office.

23 Nov 41 - Captain Cyril Lewthwaite was spotted and apprehended in the Polish orderlies’ quarters.

23 Nov 41 – RAF Flight Lieutenant Don Donaldson and Flying Officer Don Thom decided to try their luck over the roof just before it was dark. The sentry on duty at the teatime appell had a predictable routine and the British had noted this before. He would be patrolling the prisoner yard during the evening. Hauptmann Roland Eggers described the routine:

‘He walked back and forth across the yard regularly, as was his known custom. He stopped every three or four turns for just so long. ….He never stopped half way across, and went back again to the wall he started from.’
The sentry moved out from the kitchen towards the other side of the yard and would walk about forty yards before stopping and turning. Donaldson and Thom had to climb on to the roof of the single floor kitchen building before the sentry turned around and before the yard security light came on. They managed to haul themselves up by using the lightening conductor for additional leverage. Their plan was working and they had reached the foot of a smoke stack when the camp security lights came on and they were spotted. 

British, French & Polish POW's in Colditz Front Row 1st right Flt Lt Donald Thom, 5th right Flt Lt Don Donaldson - IWM 

25 November 41 – French Lieutenant Michel Girot dressed as an orderly tried to pass through the main gate with a fake message but was soon recaptured.

The Dutch tried another variation on a theme with another park escape (see past posts on manhole escapes). On 11 December 41 the park exercise party was a large one and more obstructive than usual when being counted ready for the walk back. The NCOs became wary and checked the line ups carefully. Officer in Charge Paul Priem spotted something odd and split up the Dutch sections of the parade. One of the dummies used at appells inside the castle to cover for earlier Dutch escapes was discovered. (‘Max or Moritz’- see past posts). The Germans finally knew how the Dutch had managed to manipulate the head counts in the past and give escapers a head start away from the castle before discovery. 

The recount totalled two men missing, and dogs were brought in. Dutch Lieutenants Fritz ‘Bear’ Kriumink and Douw van der Krap were found hiding under a sheet with leaves meticulously sewn into it.

Dutch Lieutenants Fritz ‘Bear’ Kriumink and Douw van der Krap are centre & right - IWM

But this was not the end of the Dutch efforts. On 15 December 41 two German officers stopped at the courtyard gate. The guard let them out and saluted. They marched off and turned left downhill towards the next archway as he closed and locked the door. The guard realised he had not asked for their passes. This was against orders; they were military personnel - all passes had to be checked. The guard was reluctant to leave his post but unlocked the door and ran after the officers. He asked for their ausweis.

‘That’s alright, we’re coming straight back’ one them answered in good German. It was not convincing enough. The castle guard were called out. Lieutenant Baron Diederick van Lynden and Captain Steenhouwer were detained.

van Lynden & Steenhouwer in fake uniforms - IWM 

It was the French who had the last laugh a week before Christmas. On the 17th December, Lieutenants Guy de Frondeville, Jacques Durand Hornus and Jacques Prot escaped from a party of five POWs and two guards in Colditz town. Hauptman Reinhold Eggers described what happened:

‘…the French officer dentist hadn’t the material for more than simple fillings.* The patients all came out of our dentist’s house together after treatment. Their guard came last. It was very foggy and it was raining too that evening. Three of the party just bolted down the street…There was nothing the guard could do about it. He couldn’t run three ways at once. He daren’t fire blindly into the fog. We could do nothing once we had warned everyone….The three in due course got right back to France.’
* Both the French and German dentists in the castle could only carry out limited work. More serious cases and surgical work had to be performed in Colditz town.  

Colditz town & market place c 1940 -

Lt Guy de Frondeville
Lt Jacques Prot

Eggers recorded that their own Christmas celebrations were dampened, but it is worth noting that up until the end of 1941 out of nearly one hundred escape attempts, no home runs had been successful from within Colditz castle itself. That would all change during the first week of 1942.


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

Colditz – The German Viewpoint – Roland Eggers (Recommended read)

Imperial War Museum

Internet – Various

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

Friday, 21 October 2016

Colditz - The Hospital Escapes - Did Odry Make a Home Run?

Colditz Courtyard - IWM

A number of POWs in Colditz considered the possibility of an escape from outside the castle and its grounds. By early August 1941 (before the Dutch began their manhole escapes - see past posts), numerous attempts to break out of Colditz had failed to pierce German security. Successful home runs for the Allied POWs read:

British – Nil

Dutch – Nil

Poles – Nil

French – Four (includes one escape by Lieutenant Tatischeff from the Schutzenhaus prison building about half a mile from the castle, where some POWs were housed. Technically this is not a Colditz Castle escape). 

Lt Tatischeff
In April of that year Polish Lieutenants Just and Ryszard Bednarski had escaped from the hospital in Konigswartha after finally convincing camp doctors of their ‘illnesses’ and swindling a spell at the hospital. (See post Colditz Part Two The First Escape). Although both men were later recaptured, the possibilities of a getaway from outside the castle looked attractive, even though the prisoners would be under tight guard.

Appendix, gall bladder, stomach ulcer and other abdominal problems could be genuine or faked long enough to result in a recommendation for treatment and further investigation in hospital. This strategy was not without risks, as once away from the castle the POW had a limited amount of time to make his move. Invasive surgery or a more major operation was a realistic possibility once in the hospital. A very thin line had to be walked. If an escape opportunity was not possible once in the hospital, a prisoner’s medical condition would have to ‘improve’ enough (and his symptoms be sufficiently convincing) to engineer a discharge and return to the castle. On the return journey opportunities to break away might materialise, but an individual would have very few chances to play this kind of deception card more than once.

Polish Lieutemant Kroner had noted the success of the hospital escape from Konigswartha in April. In August his chronic abdominal illness had resulted in a transfer to the same hospital. Whilst there, his condition slowly improved. On the 20 August, he changed the blue and white hospital garments for a set of civilian clothes and escaped under the wire surrounding the hospital. Kroner disappeared and made a successful home run.

French Lieutenant Andre Boucheron had been caught trying to escape before. In September 1941, he escaped from hospital, was recaptured and before he could be returned to Colditz escaped again from Dusseldorf prison.

Lt Andre Boucheron
An opportunity for four French Lieutenants in Colditz arrived in October 1941. Accounts of this are brief and follow a distinct line, including a successful escape by Pierre Odry. An alternative version of some of the events is told by an eyewitness. I have factored them in to this post and any comments on the alternative script are most welcome. 

Pierre Odry had persistent abdominal pain with a possible grumbling appendix/appendicitis. Lieutenant Navelet was suffering from continued painful swelling and fluid on his knee, whilst Jacques Charvet and Remy Levy were unlikely to have been ill. They had worked with Colditz POW French doctor Captain M Le Guet who had convinced the camp vet (no resident German doctor present) that hospital investigation was required.

Lieutenant Pierre Odry
It is likely that Odry was genuinely ill; as considering his 3 pre Colditz escapes and the ‘cupped hands assist’ to Pierre Mairess Lebrun in his ‘leap frog escape, (see Colditz The Park Part Three) the Germans would never have agreed to a hospital trip without very convincing evidence. What happened later endorses this.

Lieutenant Navelet
The hospital was attached to POW camp Oflag IVD at Elsterhorst which housed French officers. It was a significant distance to travel for the genuinely sick. The trip from Colditz involved two train journeys and a three to four kilometre walk from the station on roads running through countryside. The administration formalities at Colditz before release from the castle, added further time to the journey which would take almost a complete day to reach Elsterhorst.
Oflag IVD - Sketch from Captivite by Etienne Morin

The four Frenchmen soon discovered the inevitable when they arrived at the hospital. It was well guarded. Whilst they were receiving treatment there, the possibilities of escape were examined. The Elsterhorst road back towards the railway station crossed open ground and scrubby heathland with scattered pines. More dense vegetation came with a rise in the ground and the road pushed on through a wood with oak and beech trees. The heart of the wood was the best point to make a getaway.

Events in the hospital changed everything. Odry had an appendectomy and Navelet’s knee had not significantly improved. What the men needed now was time to recover before making their move. They did not get it. Despite Odry being very weak from his operation, the German authorities decided all four were to return to Colditz Castle on 14 October.

Jean Remy an officer in the Belgian Army reserve spoke of how he got to know the four Frenchmen whilst they shared the same hospital room at Elsterhorst. He was also aware of their intention to escape, but knew nothing of the finer points.

The routine for prisoners being returned to Colditz from the hospital at Elsterhorst had remained unchanged. POWs were woken at 04.00 hours and were to be fully dressed and ready with their luggage for a full search at 04.30. At 05.00 they would leave the hospital on foot with their armed escort to cover the three to four kilometres to the railway station. The train would depart around 06.00.

Elsterhorst -
It was not light at that time of the year until at least 07.00, so the journey to the station would be in darkness. It was a cold morning and next to the hospital bedroom, a stove was burning in the head nurse’s office. Remy managed to give some hot coffee to the POWs whilst they were searched along with their luggage.   

The escort guards, consisting of one sergeant and a soldier warmed themselves by the stove, while two French POW soldiers from the camp party waited outside with a handcart they would use to carry luggage up to the station. The guards welcomed the hot drinks Remy gave them and the freezing sentry at the gate was invited under the porch of the open door for a cup. Whilst he was there, Navelet, Charvet and Levy went outside to put their luggage on the handcart. Odry could carry nothing and was too weak from his operation to attempt an escape, but he would do everything possible to give the others a chance of getting away. 

Remy kept the guards talking on the merits of the coffee, and with their attention momentarily elsewhere, the French soldiers passed the three escapers some identity papers and a few civilian clothes which Navelet, Charvet and Levy managed to conceal under their military greatcoats before returning inside to the group. 

Once the official paperwork and formalities were completed, the party of eight set off towards the station. Navelet had decided that with his lack of mobility, his chances of getting away were far less than those of Charvet and Levy. He would give the prearranged signal and the three men would run away into the darkness in separate directions, shedding their military coats at the first opportunity.

The party trailed slowly into the woods, the two Frenchmen from the camp pulling the cart and Navelet, Charvet, Levy and Odry being flanked by the two guards. In the darkest part of the woods, Navelet gave the signal and the three men ran off in to the trees leaving Odry behind. The escort sergeant was taken by surprise and took time to get his pistol out and fire several shots. The escapers had already disappeared.

The sergeant had two choices:

Continue to the station, raise the alarm, then travel on to Colditz with one prisoner.

Return to the camp hospital.
He opted to return to Elsterhorst with Odry, the two French POWs and the other guard, which proved crucial to the first part of Navalet’s escape.

Lieutenant Charvet reached Kassel where he took a train to Aachen, but caught the wrong connection and ended up in travelling in the wrong direction towards Dusseldorf. By a total coincidence he met up with Levy there and they journeyed back to Aachen, spending the night in a nearby wood. On the morning of the 18th, they took a tram into town, where they were stopped and arrested. Eventually both men finished up back at Colditz.

Kassel Rail Station 1941 - pic click
Navelet who was the least mobile of the three, worked his way back to the road and hobbled to the station where he caught the train without being stopped. The sergeant’s decision to return to the hospital must have been instrumental in this. Navalet made a successful home run back to France where he went into hiding.    

Pat Reid’s account notes that Odry escaped at the same time as the others and made a successful home run, although there is no mention of what happened after he ran away. Remy’s version seems much more likely, with Odry and the party returning to the hospital at Elsterhorst. Any additional information on Lieutenant Pierre Odry would be much appreciated.


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

Jamais, ne désespère anecdotes de captivité militaire en Allemagne 1940-1945 - Henri Decard (Never Despair Anecdotes of Military Captivity in Germany 1940-1945)

Internet – Various

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


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Colditz - Airey Neave The First Escape

Airey Neave - National Archives

Lieutenant Airey Neave arrived at Colditz on 14 May 1941. He was another habitual escaper and considered 'enemy of the Reich' who:

‘Could not bear the thought of capture.’ A Neave

A measure of the man was demonstrated as early as May 1940 when the British expeditionary force was pinned down in what became a last stand at Calais. Wounded in his side and lying in the cellar of a French hospital, despite hospital staff attempting to hold him back he dragged himself out of the building whilst the area was under heavy shellfire. Staggering through a minefield laid by the British, he managed to reach the Gare Maritime before collapsing. That evening of 26th May, Calais fell to the German Army and Airey Neave became a prisoner of war. 

Gare Maritime -

He remained in hospital at Calais until the end of July 1940. Even in June whilst still weak from his injuries, he turned his mind to escaping. A plan was sketched out with a French soldier who had managed to avoid detection by masquerading as a medical orderly and regularly visited the hospital ward. Prisoners who had died in hospital, were driven out in an ambulance. The orderly suggested that it would be possible to substitute Neave for one of the deceased prisoners. There were practical difficulties with this and the plan never came to fruition as the British wounded were moved from Calais. The example is an early illustration of the kind of man the Germans were dealing with.

Inevitably Neave finished up in Colditz the next year and quickly turned his mind to escaping. He had first visited Germany at the age of seventeen and his command of the language was reasonably good. Once out of the castle and on the run, his conversation skills and accent would blend in well with the numbers of foreign workers in Germany from occupied countries who spoke varying levels of German.  

He obtained permission from the escape committee to prepare and try his first escape. The plan was to line up at evening appell in the prisoner’s inner courtyard with a ‘home made’ German corporal’s uniform under his British army officer’s greatcoat. Once the order to dismiss was given, the POW behind him would pull off Neave’s greatcoat, leaving him to put on his German cap and march towards the sentry at the gate.

It was a plan which relied totally on:

1) Poor light, so as the uniform would not be identified as a fake (twilight was the only realistic time slot). If the castle security lights were on, it was almost impossible at some point not to be caught directly or otherwise in their glare.

2) German speaking

3) Possession of a brass identity disc. These were used as a pass by guards, staff and workmen entering and leaving the castle.

4) Vital seconds after the appell had been completed. He had to hand in the pass, get through the gate, reach the bicycle racks and ride from the castle without being stopped.

Colditz appell - Carl Hoffkes C4

The plan was bold with an element of effrontery; but successful escapes from camps had been made before by using direct tactics. On the 28 August 1941, he made his move. The use of limited materials in preparation for the break is once again fascinating:

The Uniform
A German corporal (Gefreiter). A Polish tunic, altered by a Polish tailor and a pair of RAF trousers. The field grey colour was produced by ‘dyeing’ paint from the camp theatre into the material. Jackboots came from a Polish orderly via bartering and the cap was an adapted ski cap which had also been dyed. 

The Accoutrements
Bayonet and scabbard were carved out of wood by Lieutenant RTR O’Hara and hung from a cardboard leather belt with a tinfoil buckle.

Escape Aids
Small compass which had been previously returned to him at Plock prison along with his few other personal possessions, when he was ready for transfer to Thorn camp. At that point, the compass was still inside a matchbox and had amazingly been missed by the prison staff. Neave managed to conceal the compass at entry to both Thorn and Colditz. Such was the optimism now; the compass had been sewn directly in to the lining of his converted uniform.

Traced an area of the Swiss frontier from an existing map held by the POWs and hid the sheet in a crevice in a wooden partition of the lavatory.

Identity Card
A Dutch Officer made up one to pass as a foreign worker in Germany.

Given to him by Captain Kenneth Lockwood on the day of the escape in a small cylindrical container around 6 centimetres long. This was to be hidden ‘inside his lower body’ for obvious reasons until he was clear of the castle.

The Brass Disc
Disc number twenty six had been obtained earlier by bribing one of the painters working inside the castle. 

Colditz Castle - pegasusarchive Note entrance gate at 2, guard room at 3 & 4.Main gate at 1

The Escape Attempt
The POWs were dismissed from the inner courtyard, and sentries (not all carrying rifles) made for the gate, with half a mind on a quick exit to the guardroom. The NCO on duty at the gate paid minimal attention to the numbered brass security disks as they were handed in. One man, one disc; the process had been repeated so many times, and in the half light, he knew the look and feel of them.

A junior NCO handed in his disc and said he had a message for the Kommandant from Duty Officer Hauptmann Priem. Instead of following the others to the right towards the guardroom, he turned left.

The NCO looked after him for a moment; something felt wrong. He didn’t recognise the face and the different direction taken had triggered suspicion. He looked at the disc. Number twenty six – the one reported stolen. He shouted to Number Twenty Six who continued walking. Neave noticed as he carried on walking, that the arc lights were making his uniform appear green rather than field grey. Other guards joined in the shouting. He quickened his pace towards the bicycle racks. The sentry under the archway shouted ‘halt or I fire.’ The ‘would be’ escaper stopped and was quickly surrounded by soldiers pointing their rifles.

Airey Neave in false uniform - pegasusarchive
The Aftermath
Impersonation of a German serviceman in uniform was viewed as a serious offence. The Kommandant himself appeared and Airey Neave was marched off to the camp cells. Searched ‘thoroughly’, his escape aids and money were discovered. The next morning, the soldier who brought him ersatz coffee informed him he would be court-martialled and shot. At, still in the false uniform, he was marched over to the Kommandant’s quarters and made to stand in a long, panelled room as an object of curiosity, while all the officers in the camp visited to examine and ridicule ‘the sight’. It was noted that the uniform looked a poor imitation in full daylight, but the photograph shows this to be harsh. Whilst never passing off in ordinary light as a genuine uniform, it was a decent effort for a twilight operation with good tailoring and an example of what could be created with so few materials.

Kommandant Oberst Schmidt - pegasusarchive

The prisoner was humiliated for hours, first being ordered by the commandant to make Nazi salutes and also suffering the ignominy of soldiers and Police officers from Colditz goose stepping around him in a chorus of ‘Heil Hitler.’ The offending uniform was removed to the Kommandant’s escape museum. Neave was eventually returned to the British quarters with no court martial or execution. He would serve his solitary confinement in the town jail very soon, as the camp cells were always full.

Kommandant's 'Escape Museum' - pegasusarchive

That evening at appell, Hauptmann Paul Priem announced to the prisoners (translations following in the various languages) that ‘Gefreiter Neave is posted to the Russian front’. The laughter which followed must have hurt Airey Neave. Despite any embarrassment, he was already thinking about the next escape.   


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

Colditz The German Viewpoint – Roland Eggers (Highly recommended read)

The Escape Room – Airey Neave (Mostly covers his time at MI9 and the famous escape routes. Recommended read)

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, 4 October 2016

Colditz - The Manhole Hat-trick - 'Max' & 'Moritz'

2nd Lieutenant Oscar Drijber & Major Cornelis Giebel  - & IWM

Continued from last week’s post:
Saturday 20th September 1941 was the revised date for Dutchmen Major Cornelis Giebel and 2nd Lieutenant Oscar Drijber to attempt their escape. They planned to leave on the Friday, but there had been a problem at the castle around the daily park exercise. Giebel recorded:
‘Drijber and I joined the others of the walk party in front of the closed doors at the gateway. We were however quite amazed to see this time the walk party numbered more than twice its usual number. Instead of about eighty, there were now some two hundred. When the doors were opened, we pushed our way through to the outer courtyard where our thirty German guards were waiting for us….

Captain Paul Priem -

But things went wrong. Was it only accidental that Captain Priem was on the spot? Confronted with two hundred park walkers instead of the usual eighty, he at once understood that something was brooding. But he knew how to handle the situation. With an ironic smile he addressed the POW crowd, apologising that apparently it had not become known in time that on this Friday the walk in the park had been cancelled. He regretted that we had not been warned earlier and suggested that we should forthwith retire behind the walls of our inner courtyard.
We could do nothing but obey.’

Once back in his quarters Giebel learned that other POWs had discreetly been asked to take exercise in the park on the Friday as they might be needed for ‘camouflage purposes’. The response had been a little over enthusiastic.
On the following day a key football match in the prison ‘Olympic Games’ was to be played in the park between the Polish and Dutch teams. The opening ‘ceremony’ had taken place in the castle courtyard on 31 August. Volleyball, handball and football competitions had commenced after this.

Colditz volleyball

Giebel and Dijber consulted Dutch escape officer Captain Machiel van den Heuvel who sanctioned all attempts. They were ready to try again if their park exercise was allowed. (Following events on the previous day and recent Dutch escapes, German Lieutenant Paul Priem had stopped the Dutch going to the park.)

Cpt van den Heuvel - The Colditz Story

Due to the football match; the ‘camouflage’ around the manhole cover would now need careful adjustment whilst the men gained access and dropped in to the shaft. The previous tactic of a circle of men throwing a ball around the group (see past posts) was not viable as the football pitch was very close.
Concealing the men’s absence on the park exit headcount also had to be looked at again. Contact with the Polish POWs had been made on this.
On the afternoon of the 20th, the Dutch and Polish football teams and their supporters assembled with other POWs in the courtyard for the count and march down to the park. The Feldwebel in charge referred to the German’s recent instruction and refused to allow Dutch supporters to accompany their team to the park.

Castle Entrance

The Dutch players protested, complaining that they could not play the match without supporters. During the impasse, one of the Polish POWs accused the Feldwebel of interfering with the Kommandant’s personal wishes, which stated that the POWs should be allowed to play the ‘Olympic Games’ amongst themselves. The Feldwebel eventually conceded and the POWs lined up to be counted.  

Two of the smallest Poles in the camp had positioned themselves amongst the lines. Each man clamped his legs around a fellow POW’s thighs whilst someone either side supported him by the elbows. The man in the middle wrapped his overcoat and some blankets around the hidden POW and was able to open a newspaper to complete the deception. Once the count was taken, the two extra men stood up and merged into the column unnoticed. In the event of a numerical check being made before entry into the park, the process would be repeated.

Initially it is difficult to understand why this ruse was not spotted. POWs were in rows and a diligent observation and count would surely detect the concealed men. The reality was not that straightforward. The two Poles were very small, and men often lined up in a haphazard testing way, pushing their luck as far as they could stretch it. Hauptmann Roland Eggers gives an accurate picture of what the Germans had to contend with around the congregation and line up for the park exercise:
‘First the assembly, stage one, getting the party out of the yard. Then stage two, falling them in, in five ranks, for the count outside the guardroom. No one was ever in a hurry. People stood around chatting. ‘Zu funf, meine Herren,’ bawled our NCO in charge. No one moved. ‘Guard turn out’.

Those for the walk eventually started to line up, in fives. Gradually the prisoners drifted into ranks, ‘close up here, cover off there’ and then the count. Someone moved, someone shuffled, someone dropped his football, someone had to be shouted out of his book. Perhaps a recount was necessary, and then another one, and finally the total was written down…’
What Eggers omits are the attempts to infiltrate the exercise party by POWs in borrowed uniforms if punishments were in operation. Recognition and removal of the offenders further disrupted the process.
He further adds about the POWs:

‘…pointing, calling back, calling forward, dropping things, causing the whole time some kind of diversion.’

Diagram of park and enclosure - E H Larive
Giebel and Drijber entered the park enclosure with the other POWs. The headcount had agreed with numbers leaving the castle earlier.  There must have been a tentative rush of optimism. If they were able to hide in the manhole shaft, the two Polish POWs could easily take their place in the counts taken before exit from the park and back at the castle entrance.
Once again the Dutch had played another clever card. The next hand would be more testing, as the nut and bolt had to be removed from the manhole cover and replaced with a false one without the guards seeing. This time Giebel and Drijber had to make best use of the football match and spectators. Giebel described what happened once the match was in progress:
‘The Dutch supporters seemed to be not content with the place where they were standing, which was muddy, so we moved forward a few feet across the touchline in the direction of the manhole. When a few minutes later we moved forward again, the players objected and said we were spoiling their game and should keep off the field. But that did not stop us from moving step by step, nearer to the manhole.’
A screen formed around the manhole again and work began with the home-made spanners to remove the nut and bolt. Whoever screwed on the nut last had done a thorough job. It was hard to remove; work had to be done intermittently and discreetly. Only ten minutes of the game remained when the manhole cover was finally opened. Giebel and Drijber climbed down the rungs to the bottom of the shaft and the false bolt and nut were cosmetically secured in position without the guards noticing. It was a masterstroke, as the grey paint on the carved wooden bolt and glass tube which had once contained aspirin looked authentic.   

Aspirin bottle being painted - You Tube Oflag IV.C

The missing men’s absence would only be covered by the two Polish POWS on the counts before exit from the park and at the castle entrance. As with previous manhole escapes, Giebel and Drijber had to be patient until they could exit the shaft once it was dark. The key to the whole operation once the exercise party had been checked back in at the castle was to mask the absence at evening appell.
Dutch escape officer van den Heuvel had seen the advantages to escaping POWs if their absence could be concealed for as long as possible. Escapers Dufour and Smit had benefited from this before their recapture at the Swiss border when on the brink of freedom (see past posts).  His plan was simple. POW headcount numbers at each appell must include the two missing escapers. It was time to play the Dutch joker card ‘Max’ and ‘Moritz.’
Van den Heuvel had managed to acquire a sack of ceiling plaster by bribing a workman in the castle. In most POW camps there was usually a raft of trades and talents amongst the prisoners. A sculptor fashioned two life sized busts which were then painted by Lieutenant Diederick van Lyden. Two iron hoops were added around the pedestal part of the bust which was then shaped to rest on a man’s arm. A shirt collar and tie were fitted around the neck and a long Dutch overcoat draped over the bust’s shoulders. Another neat twist was when not being shown, the bust hung suspended under the forearm of the handler, hidden in the folds of the overcoat. To an observer it looked like the POW was carrying the coat on his arm.

Lieutenant Leo de Hartog seen with 'Moritz'
Note the size of Hartog's  boots, similar of which would fit
under 'Moritz's' overcoat and blend in to a tight line of POWs.
- IWM 
When the bust needed to stand in at a head count, the handler unfolded the overcoat, raised the dummy up and put an army cap on its head. The impostor was then held at shoulder height by a shortened broomstick pushed through the hole in the bust’s neck. The handler kept his arm at elbow height, concealing it amongst the overcoat. A pair of high military boots were placed at attention under the bottom of the coat by another POW.
Somewhere amongst the rows of men at evening appell ‘Max’, ‘Moritz’ and their handlers did the job to perfection. Giebel and Drijber waited until it was dark, pushed up the manhole cover, breaking the glass ‘bolt’ and making their escape after gathering up the shards of glass. ‘Max’ and ‘Moritz’ covered five more appells before van den Heuvel dropped the ruse and allowed the missing numbers to be discovered. By then Giebel and Drijber had a thirty six hour start and were well on their way to the Swiss frontier.

'Moritz' (middle) on parade - IWM

Dutch POWs with 'Moritz' - IWM
Glass bolt in position would have looked something like this, but with a nut attached
- You Tube Oflag IV.C

Armed with intelligence on the current dangers on the Swiss frontier (gathered by Larive, Dufour and Smit from their previous unsuccessful escape attempts) the border was crossed on 23 September 1941.

Swiss German Mountains -

The final ace was played whilst Giebel and Drijber were being held by the neutral Swiss authorities in Berne. They were able to write an innocent looking letter which was coded and contained detailed intelligence around their escape. (past posts cover coded letters from POWs). The letter reached the POWs in Colditz, was decoded and assisted future escapes.

The manhole was not used again until 24 November when a sentry noticed two men entering it during the park exercise period. Lieutenants Geoffrey Wardle RN and Jerzy Wojciechowski (Poland) were discovered inside. The game was over, but the Dutch had long since viewed that escape route as having run its course. The Germans sealed the manhole cover with bars set in concrete.


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)
Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers (Highly recommended read)
Memories of  Cornelis Giebel

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

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Colditz - The Manhole Hat-trick

Dutch POWs in Colditz - E H Larive

‘Deceiving the German mind was a psychological finesse.’ - Francis Steinmetz

The arrival of the Dutch officers at Colditz castle on 24 July 1941 came at a time when, as Hauptmann Roland Eggers wrote:
‘We had really felt we were getting the place properly bottled up.’
Colditz opened its gates to POWs from October 1939 to October 1940 as a transit camp and from 1 November 1940 as a sonderlager [special camp] or Lager mit besonderer Bewachtung [camp with special surveillance]. Since then, there had been four successful escapes, all of them by French POWs.

Eggers view is interesting as there had been four separate home runs between 11 April 1941 and 18 July 1941. With the benefit of historical overview, his pitch was quite reasonable. Attempts to escape were being stopped on a regular basis, and even though there were periods inside Colditz, when all appeared to be quiet, preparations, tunnelling and scheming was always in progress.

Although Colditz was deemed by the Germans to be escape proof and ideal for incarceration of the most difficult prisoners; it had been built towards the end of the eleventh century to keep people out, rather than keep them in. The interior design of the castle presented opportunities for the hardened escaper and creative thinker. Despite the odds being stacked against the POWs; the Germans still had a massive task in keeping the place secure. A short time after the Dutch arrived Eggers commented that a number of minor and one major escape attemps had been foiled and:
‘the prisoners popped out like corks from unexpected places.’
Staff and guards constantly had to react and make changes to existing security procedures.

Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers -

The Dutch manhole escapes must have shifted the dynamic and morale towards the POWs, increasing pressure on camp Kommandant Oberst Schmidt. He immediately suspended the daily park exercise. Following the sonderappell (special appell) seven  Dutchmen were technically deemed as missing:

Dufour and Smit  (Nearing the Swiss border but close to recapture)

Larive and Steinmetz  (On their way to the Swiss border and a home run)

Lieutenants Frits 'Bear' Kruimink, Douw van der Krap and JJL Baron van Lynden (hiding inside the castle in a space they had access to through a camouflaged hole in their rooms)

van Lyden, Kruimink & van der Krapp - IWM

The three Dutchmen hiding in the castle were another piece in the puzzle to confuse the Germans, in addition to the deception carried out by Lieutenant Gerrit Dames and other Dutch POWs during the Larive and Steinmetz escape. That had been a deliberate ploy to draw attention away from the manhole cover and shaft. (See The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part One) The ‘missing' men remained in hiding and were eventually found by the guards ten days later during a detailed search of the Dutch quarters. 

Security around the park exercise was reviewed and changed before the walk recommenced. Given a choice, it is certain the Germans would have removed the activity completely. The whole end to end process weakened their security. They viewed the courtyard inside the castle walls as satisfying the Geneva Convention stipulation of fresh air every day for the prisoners. The park exercise was a concession, and therefore could be removed as punishment, which they had done in the past. The British had objected to this, took up the matter with their protecting power (Swiss Government) who approached the German High Command. The Swiss had then decided that the park walk was a right and should be reintroduced. How ironic that two of the real drivers behind the original actions of both captor and captive in this (i.e. security and escape), would never be mentioned in discussions with the Swiss. The Germans were left to try and make inroads by indirect manoeuvring, which they failed to do.

Captain 'Vandy' van den Heuvel - The Colditz Story

During the period when the park exercise was suspended, escapers Dufour and Smit were returned to Colditz and placed in solitary confinement as punishment. Caught at the Swiss border on the brink of freedom, they at least had assimilated vital information around leaving Colditz from the park and the current dangers on the Swiss frontier around Gottmadingen. On their return to the castle, this intelligence was somehow passed to the Dutch and reached escape Officer Captain Machiel ‘Vandy’ Van den Heuvel.  Details were given to Major Cornelis Giebel and 2nd Lieutenant Oscar Drijber. Once the park exercise began again, these two men would attempt yet another escape via the manhole.
Lt Oscar Drijber

The German staff and guards had still not worked out where the POWs were escaping from. The diversion from Lieutenant Dames at the wire fence of the exercise enclosure on the last escape (Larive and Steinmetz) had helped to keep the manhole location under wraps. Eggers said:

'Once more we were faced with an unknown breach in our defences. We cancelled the walk for a while and tightened up every part of our patrol system. We also arranged for a halt on the way back from the park now and again, to make an extra count when the “walk” was not expecting one.’
Major Cornelis Griebel

The new drill had only been in operation for a few days when Giebel and Drijber made their escape attempt. The skill was in the creativity, preparation and execution of the plan. Contrary to a version of the Larive and Steinmetz escape, there is no evidence to suggest that the bolt across the manholecover was replaced during their escape whilst the men were hiding in the brick shaft. The same applied to Dufour and Smit. It is likely that the escapers removed the bolt, climbed in to the shaft and only replaced it across the cover after they exited later.  
Even the most optimistic escaper must have doubted there was any more mileage left in the park manhole, as a way out of Colditz. Further POWs escaping from the park via that method, would surely result in the manhole cover being spotted minus its bolt. But the Dutch had one more trick up their sleeve. Escape officer van den Heuvel had conducted Bible-reading classes in the exercise pen in the park. These were led by naval lieutenant Damiaen J van Doorninck and took place over the manhole cover. During the classes the nut and bolt over the cover were carefully measured. A pair of large spanners were made from iron bed parts and would be used to quickly undo the nut and bolt which was in place over the manhole cover. The masterstroke lay in the next part of the plan. An identical strategy involving the POWs playing a game of handball and forming a circle which gradually closed in around the manhole cover would be repeated (see previous posts).
Major Damiaen J van Doorninck

Once Giebel and Drijber had climbed into the manhole shaft without being seen by the guards, the bolt would be replaced on the cover – except that the bolt and nut to be used was a fake. The nut had been made from wood and a glass bolt adapted from an aspirin bottle. Both were painted grey to look like the originals.

There were still four major problems:

1)      The men had to push up the manhole cover and exit the shaft without being seen or leaving any trace of having been there.

2)      The enclosure headcount in the park, (taken before the POWs were marched back to the castle) would have to be manipulated to mask the shortage of two men.

3)      The shortage would have to be concealed on the march up the path if spot checks were made, and also at the final count before entering the castle. (The Dutch had been a little fortunate in that area on the Dufour and Smit escape) See past posts

4)      It was vital to give Giebel and Drijber the maximum amount of time to get clear of the area, before their absence was discovered. This meant somehow concealing the shortage on the headcounts during the next and as many future camp appels as possible.

What the Dutch did next was astounding.

Final part of the manhole saga is next week.


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

Colditz The German Viewpoint  - Reinhold Eggers (Highly recommended read)
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, 20 September 2016

Colditz - The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part Two

Nurnberg Streets -

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 -

'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