Monday, 12 January 2015

Colditz Part One - The Camp Organisation

The Escape Organisation in Colditz Sonderlager IVC contained the same broad based threads as many Allied POW camps, especially those of the classic template put together in Stalag Luft 111 as illustrated here. There were inevitable differences according to the type of camp, personnel and geography, but it is interesting to look at how an Allied escape organisation generally followed the same lines.

Earlier posts have covered the structure and workings of a typical escape organisation within Allied POW camps in occupied Europe during World War 2, especially Stalag Luft 111. But each camp presented its own set of challenges and variance.  Colditz castle was unique. It towered above the village, was built on the edge of a cliff and jutted out over the River Mulde at a merger with a tributary stream. The outside walls were an average of seven feet thick, and the inner courtyard of the castle was about two hundred and fifty feet above the river level. The castle rooms where the POWs were housed were a further sixty feet above the courtyard.

Colditz - Wikipedia

Colditz was nothing like one of Goering’s purpose built 'model'  POW camps which appeared later in the war with their wooden huts flanked by searchlight towers on stilts, electric fences,  barbed wire and guards. It was an ancient medieval castle situated in the middle of a triangle formed by the three cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz. Right in the heart of the German Reich it was four hundred miles from any frontier not directly under Nazi control. Deemed escape-proof by the Germans, Colditz was the only camp where the number of guards exceeded the prisoners.  Allied Officers who had made repeated escape attempts from other POW camps were sent there for the duration of the war.

Even for the habitual escaper, seeing Colditz from a distance for the first time must have seemed daunting. This type of POW would already be sizing up the geography and sketching in first impressions of a new camp with a view to breaking out.  Once off the train, the castle was immediately visible. POW and escaper Major Pat Reid summed it up perfectly:

 "Almost upon leaving the station we saw looming above us our future prison: beautiful, serene, majestic, and yet forbidding enough to make our hearts sink into our boots. It towered above us, dominating the whole village; a magnificent Castle built on the edge of a cliff.... We marched slowly up the steep and narrow cobbled streets from the station towards the Castle...Entering the main arched gateway, we crossed a causeway astride what had once been a deep, wide moat and passed under a second cavernous archway whose oaken doors swung open and closed ominously behind us with the clanging of heavy iron bars in true mediaeval fashion. We were then in a courtyard about forty-five yards square, with some grass lawns and flower-beds surrounded on all four sides with buildings six stories high. This was the Kommandantur or garrison area. We were then escorted farther; through a third cavernous archway with formidable doors, up an inclined cobbled coachway for about fifty yards, then turning sharp right, through a fourth and last archway with its normal complement of heavy oak and iron work into the 'Sanctum Sanctorum', the inner courtyard. This was a cobbled space about thirty yards by forty yards, surrounded on its four sides by buildings whose roof ridges must have been ninety feet above the cobbles. Little sun could ever penetrate here! It was an unspeakably grisly place...."
Incarcerated in a castle with its warren of corridors, rooms, floors and staircases, the ‘would be’ escaper’s mind was stretched to new limits. Most escape attempts quickly failed, yet despite the high security, obstacles, barbed wire and guards, at least 130 men got out during the course of the war. 16 of these made successful 'home runs' from within Colditz castle and grounds, 11 escaped whilst outside the castle and a number of officers were also repatriated due to illness (faked or genuine) including insanity. The total number of successful escapers is still marginally open to debate depending on what is classed as an escape.  

Colditz POWs at Appell -

Much had been written about Colditz, but in a series of short posts, many of the breakouts and unsuccessful attempts will be examined again. Personal accounts and analysis of some successful ‘home runs’ will also be looked at in future posts. In escape and evasion, it is the human stories which paint real colour on to the canvas. That canvas must never be allowed to deteriorate or be put into storage and forgotten.  

Sources and Additional Reading
Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC
MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 - M.R.D. Foot & J. M. Langley (Recommended read on MI9)
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 for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Six

Continued from previous post
Duncan set out the next night and soon encountered difficulties. His home-made compass was not accurate enough to take meaningful bearings and this coincided with the map being sketchy around the current section of the journey. There were numerous forest tracks leading off in the same direction, but no physical point of reference as to which one to take. Some paths soon veered away on the map from the direction he needed to go. He recorded in the diary:
‘Eventually I hit a track which led to a road going to Neuhausen.’

This was an important marker. Duncan knew that although Neuhausen did not show up on his small map, it was close to the town of Tuttlingen which was noted on the larger map he carried. Although the place was some way off course for him, it would form a clear reference point for recovering his bearings.  He recorded
‘…I shall presumably be able to find my way. The trouble so far has been that we have marched at least two miles for every one advanced; which in my present state I can’t afford to do.’
He reckoned that at least this strategy had been better than spending days walking around lost in the forests, but his physical condition and injured leg were deteriorating. Time was running out and there are hints in the notes which show how his resolve was being tested to the limit. The Swiss border remained relatively close, but with the terrain, his rate of travel, poor physical condition and sketchy navigation it must have seemed miles away. Duncan’s notes are clear enough. 
‘My food won’t last out …and I shall get pneumonia or something lying about in these damp cold forests in the early hours of the morning – that’s the time at which one is most tempted to pack the whole thing up.’   

Tuttlingen -

He lay up all day in the undergrowth of the forest, narrowly avoiding discovery by children who were with adults gathering sticks. The sounds of church bells in Tuttlingen drifted over. After dark he moved on aided by two shorter sticks instead of a long pole. Navigation around the outside of the town involved some difficult and dangerous terrain in the dark. At one point Duncan stopped inches from an area of thick blackness which he suddenly realised was a precipice. Working his way to lower ground he finally reached a road and hid in a deep ditch from people passing.

Tuttlingen 1940 -

‘It seemed as though there had been some sort of party as everyone sounded in very cheerful mood and one party of girls went by singing a song very beautifully.'

The footsteps died away and Duncan climbed out of the ditch, crashing straight into a man who had approached unheard. He must have worn rubber soled shoes as no sound had been heard. The man was caught unawares and fell straight into the ditch. Fortunately mist from the nearby river had thickened across the road. Duncan hurried into it, trying to clear as much distance as possible. He lay down after a while listening for sounds of being followed. Any satisfaction in getting away quickly soon disappeared. Despite his own ragged state, the notes provide a glimpse into the instinctive thinking of an escaper,
‘I was patting myself on the back when an awful thought struck me. I hadn’t been so clever after all in tipping him into a ditch…he would certainly report to the Police as soon as he reached Tuttlingen and any moment now they would be after me with dogs. With some idea of putting them off the scent I dashed into the river, waded in and walked in the water for some considerable distance.’
He heard no sound or indication of pursuit, so Duncan decided that maybe the man was drunk. Tuttlingen was left behind without further incident and following a more accurate route he managed to travel the next three nights without discovery. This was despite having to walk through a village and finding himself trapped down a cul-de-sac and having to dodge German guards in charge of a group of French POWs. In his unshaven, dishevelled and filthy state he could not afford to be seen, so exited through the unlocked front door of a house and hurried out of the back.
Daytime weather had improved with hot days, but the nights were cold and damp as a thick mist came down. Duncan had to rely on his hearing to detect any danger. The countryside became more open and places to hide during daylight hours were more difficult to find. Flies became a problem as their constant buzzing prevented him from listening out properly for signs of danger. The nearest miss came on the night of 23rd September when he had been forced to risk a section of travel by road. It was a watershed moment which shaped his psyche for the rest of the journey.

German Soldiers - Wikipedia

‘About midnight I decided to have a rest and look at the map. I had just got under a bush, got the map out and was looking for a match when, without lights and without a sound, a cycle patrol passed without seeing me. Had they been fifteen seconds earlier or later, I must have been caught. Evidently my ‘guardian angel’ is still with me.’
After such a narrow escape, travel returned to cross country again. This proved more difficult as the terrain had become more broken. Fields were lined by deep irrigation ditches and there were few bridges to cross them. Following a struggle through thick 'jungle' near Achdorf an exhausted Duncan recorded:
‘I can’t have done more than 2 miles last night and rations are running short. Cheese and biscuits were finished days ago. My daily ration is now 1oz of chocolate and one matchboxful of mixed oatmeal and glucose, eked out with apples and turnips. I’ve only four ounces of chocolate left, but luckily there’s still an occasional apple to be found, though mostly cookers. Thank goodness it keeps fine. This morning two magpies nearly settled on me – a good omen?’

Perhaps it was. Reading the words over seventy three years later, the spirit and fortitude of the time still shines through. Finding himself surrounded by red lights the following evening Duncan realised he had stumbled into a night fighter landing ground, but managed to slip away into the night without being spotted.  
Achdorf - Commons
On the 26th September he knew the frontier had to be close. Consuming the last of his rations (including triple his normal intake of oatmeal) he would attempt to cross that night after dark. Problems started when he became doubled up with acute stomach ache and was forced to spend the night ‘in a shed of musty hay, where I was violently sick.’ A day passed as he tried to recover and the daylight was used discreetly to check his surroundings. The countryside looked wrong and was not what he expected of the frontier area. A check of the map showed an error of around four miles and he realised that the house below his hiding place was in fact a police station where motor cyclists left at half hour intervals. This would be to patrol the frontier roads.
Once it was dark, Duncan removed his heavy outer clothes down to his shirt, trousers and boots:
‘concealing them with my water bottle and other kit, so as to be lighter, in case at the frontier I should have to run for my life. My watch, as always, I carried in a little waterproof bag tied around my neck.’
Making his way around the edges of a succession of woods he reached a hedge bordering the road. The moon was up and a thin mist hung over the landscape. A railway line was just visible beyond the road and Duncan knew that the river behind the tracks formed the frontier. He waited. The sound of a motor cycle drifted over the still night. A police patrol passed and after a final check up and down the road he hurried across, running over the railway before lying down to scan the area again and listen.

German Motorcyclist -
‘In front of me I saw an open field…I decided that at this stage speed was the answer, so getting up I ran as fast as I could until I reached a quickset hedge beyond which was the river. There I hesitated. If I forced a way through I was bound to make a noise, whereas if I moved about looking for a gap, I might bump into a sentry. The unmistakable click of a rifle bolt away to my left soon decided me, and forcing my way through the hedge I waded across the river. On the far bank I lay and rested.’

Something felt wrong. Duncan listened. He could hear someone moving about close by and the gurgle of running water was coming from in front as well as behind him. There was second river. He might not be across the frontier.
‘Getting to my feet, I dashed across the strip of land and swam across the second river, which I was later to discover was the frontier.’
Duncan had actually crossed the border near to Scheitheim. He climbed the thickly covered pine hill in front and came to a track. Somewhere to the right a clock struck one and following the sound he reached a small village. As he wandered around looking for a sign, a light went on above him and the window opened. Duncan described what happened next in such a matter of fact way:

‘Ja’ said a man’s voice…Eventually in pidgin German I asked ‘’Ist hierdie Schweiz?’

‘Oui’ came back the answer in French. ‘C’est la Suisse.

…’Je suis English Offizier’ I said.’

Scheitheim - Wikipedia
He was invited in, given soap, a razor and towel and led to the bathroom. His description of how he looked paints a lasting picture in the mind of the reader and omits the huge amount of weight he had lost from an already undernourished body.

‘My face was black with lichen from the trees and from it stared a pair of sunken bloodshot eyes. I had a week’s growth of beard and my hair was matted and full of sticks.’
Duncan’s host was the mayor who after a meal arranged for him to be taken to the local police. They looked after him well for the night. The next morning Duncan was taken by train to Schaffhausen and then on to the hotel Schwanen where he was reunited with O’Sullivan (who initially failed to recognise his friend). They were taken to Berne and handed over to the British Military Attache.

Schaffhausen -

Two other POW’s from the Biberach breakout had reached Switzerland and placed under the same umbrella. (More on their stories in later posts) Angus Rowan-Hamilton had been in charge of the five officers who were co-opted for guard duties and Hugh Woollatt was one of the ten officers from the first tunnel attempt which had not reached completion. They had joined Duncan’s breakout attempt in line with an original agreement which came into effect with whichever tunnel was completed first (see previous post).
The men lived very comfortably in Switzerland (although they were effectively interned with restrictions) until the following year when the first to leave were Duncan and Rowan-Hamilton. With no prior warning they were called to Geneva and given Czech identity cards and instructions for leaving the country that were to be memorised.

Both men were taken to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city and directed to cross under the wire, before walking towards Annemasse in France where they would be met and passed to various contacts who would take them to Marseille.

Annemasse 1940 -
In Marseille they were joined by two commandos who had evaded from the St Nazaire raid and a Dutchman. Led by a guide the five men crossed the Pyrenees and were taken to the British consulate in Barcelona before being repatriated. (more on the journey from Geneva and the commandos in future posts)  

Sources and Additional Reading
Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan (Highly recommended read)
Conscript Heroes – Keith Janes

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 for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed