Monday, 30 March 2015

Colditz Part Three - The First Home Run (1)

Colditz Castle

At the afternoon parade of 12th April 1941 the French Senior Officer advised the Germans in Colditz that one of his own officers was missing. Following the usual searches, there was no alternative but to check the faces of every POW against the camp identity cards.  Lageroffizier Hauptmann Paul Priem brought in dogs to search the castle, as he was convinced that the missing man was still hiding out somewhere within Colditz. 

The protocol of a senior officer notifying his captors of the absence of one of his own subordinates might seem strange when compared to actions in other camps as the war progressed. Life for the German security officers was often made difficult at Appels when headcounts were made. Various dodges and schemes were implemented by the prisoners to confuse the process and any absence of personnel would be left for the Germans to discover for themselves. But in April 1941, there were some POWS in Colditz who did feel that despite their captivity and restrictions, they were at least recognised as officers by their captors and the guards treated them with respect. The war had been on for less than eighteen months and such military courtesies may have been easier to accept and follow at that juncture.  
Hauptmann Paul Priem

Checking the faces on camp identity cards against the actual prisoners was not an easy process. The photographs were over a year old. In many instances, moustaches had become beards or vice-versa, whilst other men were clean shaven again.  In view of the notification from the French, the Germans sensibly began their reconciliation work with those records. When they reached the letter ‘L’ it was discovered that Lieutenant Alain Le Ray was the missing POW.  He had only arrived at Colditz on 24 February of that year and his early feelings at being incarcerated inside the fortress were clear.
 ‘I observed my surroundings, an exercise which gave me not the slightest glimmer of hope of escaping. After a fortnight I felt ill with frustration. My sense of powerlessness so overwhelmed me, I was almost prepared to jump from one of the towers, and was determined to attempt the impossible, even if it led nowhere…. our lack of freedom became more evident than at any other prison I had been in.’

Alain Le Ray was no ordinary man. Serving as a company commander with the Chasseurs Alpins, the army's elite mountain infantry unit, he had been taken prisoner in June 1940. A tough resourceful escaper, he survived five days of freedom in the middle of a Baltic winter after getting clear of Oflag 11D at Jastrow near the coast east of Stettin. He was recaptured on 24 January 1941 at Bingerbruck some 600 miles away and at one point had dug a snow hole to survive.
Lieutenant Alain le Ray - IWM

Le Ray was part  of the French team digging a tunnel inside the clock tower at Colditz, although he was not present when Lieutenants Bernard Cazamayou and Paillie were discovered. (see previous post) His mood at the time concerning escape was clear:

"Night after night I did my shift with the tunnel team. And I was happy to do it, to keep solidarity with my mates; but it was very hard work, and frustrating because progress was so slow. Who knows if it could survive without being discovered? I knew that tunnelling did not suit me, I was getting too impatient. What I wanted was something quick that I could execute alone."

Lone escapers could be a problem to other more coordinated projects. The single escaper often operated in secret and alone; always looking out for an opportunity to make a split second break. When Alain Le Ray was considering his options, escape plans were not being shared amongst the different nationalities of POW in Colditz. Many did not reveal their plans to fellow POWs until the last moment. Secrecy was vital to success. Secrecy from:
The Germans

Those who might steal the idea or claim it was theirs
A possible informant (‘stool pigeon’)
The danger of informants was topical amongst the POWs . On 27 March, twenty seven Polish POWs had been ordered without notice to pack and parade for transfer to another camp. All of them were determined escapers, but it was felt amongst the Polish contingent that such a discriminatory selection could not have been made without a tip off from an informant. (Later discovered to be a Polish kitchen officer who had actually championed the thought to British POW Padre Ellison Platt)

It is not surprising that many escape plans remained secret. Some of those discussed formally amongst the different nationalities of POWs encountered further problems. The Polish contingent laid claim to many new schemes on the basis that they had already thought of them, as they were incarcerated in  Colditz before the others arrived and therefore claimed priority.   

French officers at Colditz - Wikipedia

Le Ray had only been in Colditz for a matter of weeks, so it is unlikely that he would have been involved in the politics surrounding escape protocol; especially as this had not yet materialised into a definitive shape. It did not take him long to find a weakness and seize the opportunity for a way out . The Germans never discovered how he did it.  Le Ray took up the story:
‘My examination of the walls and roofs remained disappointing as the castle was surrounded by steep precipices to the north and west. To the east, the slopes were gentler, but there were double rows of barbed wire along the guard’s cat-walks.

The Germans in Colditz, respecting the Geneva Convention, let us out in the castle grounds from time to time to walk around in a wooded park surrounded on three sides by a fence of barbed wire and on one side by a wall. But it was such a nuisance to get ready for the park walk – assembling in the courtyard, being counted and recounted  - that many of the prisoners could not be bothered to go.
Apart from the wired off section reserved for prisoners, the park was not particularly well guarded. On the other hand, the castle guards could survey the whole area including the path down to it. For the walk, our guards counted us twice in the inner courtyard before we left. Then again after arrival in the park and the same on the way back. This was done although the walk down took us only four minutes. In spite of these precautions, I felt that this was a weak spot in the castle’s defences, and made my plans accordingly.’

Engineering the escape was only a fraction of the operation. Le Ray would at the very least need clothes which would pass as a civilian, money and an escape route once he was clear of the castle.  

Next week - How Le Ray Escaped 

Sources and Additional Reading

Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MCColditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers
Première à Colditz  Alain le Ray
Escape From Colditz  Sixteen First Hand Accounts - Reinhold Eggers

Author's Notes

 ©Keith Morley

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

Monday, 23 March 2015

Colditz Part Two - The First Escape

The early spring of 1941 saw a first escape by prisoners of war from Colditz,  although it occurred outside of the perimeter walls of the castle. Two Polish Officers managed to get clear of Konigswartha hospital near Bautzen (30 miles north east of Dresden). Lieutenants Ryszard Bednarski and Juste had succeeded in convincing the camp doctor that there was a need for hospitalisation. The exact medical problem is not known, but abdominal or gall bladder issues may have been faked, as these could display the most severe symptoms and be amongst the most difficult to disprove by a general examination. A similar ruse was used in Colditz during August of the same year by fellow Pole Lieutenant Kroner.

Other escape plans were already well underway before the two Poles made their move. Wet clothing was found in the British senior quarters and the lock into the shower baths had been picked. The Germans replaced it and a few days later on 19 February the head of a broken off home-made key was found in the lock.
Some schemes when discovered, potentially jeopardised ongoing projects and in one case indirectly assisted it. Corporal Georg Schaedich known to the French as La Fouine (the Ferret) and to British POWs as ‘Dixon Hawke’  discovered Lieutenants officers Cazaumayou and Paille at the bottom of a ten foot hole they had dug below the clock tower to the north west corner of the yard. A piece of bed frame had been used for the excavations and the men had fixed up a hoist to haul the rubble up inside the tower ready for disposal in the attic.

Corporal Georg Schaedich -

The noise had given them away, resulting in Hauptmann Lange, the German security officer bricking up doors at all levels which led to the tower. This would have significant consequences later, as the Frenchmen merely constructed a secret entrance to the tower under the roof of the castle and were then able to descend inside unobserved and recommence their tunnel work.
Hauptmann Lange -

Conversely, Two Polish Air Force Lieutenants, observer Waclaw Gassowski and pilot Waclaw Gorecki got into the canteen one evening and were caught trying to cut through the bars outside the window. They had taken few precautions against discovery as there were no stooges in operation (lookouts to warn of approach or distract the sentry) and no signalling system to warn in advance of the approach of a guard.
A more far reaching problem was that the escape attempt crossed over an existing project by the British who were digging a tunnel under a manhole cover in the canteen. The result was that a large floodlight was installed outside, lighting up the whole lawn and castle windows on that side of the building. The British and Polish senior officers attempted to coordinate their efforts better and similar arrangements were made with the French, although that system of liaison did encounter some communication problems.  

On 5 April 1941 Bednarski and Just were escorted to the hospital in Konigswartha ready for surgery the following day. They escaped that evening and split up. Lieutenant Just boarded a goods train but discovered it was travelling the wrong way. He jumped off safely before managing to get on another train returning back in the direction of Bautzen. He felt certain someone had seen him trying to climb on. If he gambled and remained on the train, the risks of capture were high if the authorities had been alerted.  He decided to risk jumping off a second time. It was a disaster as he struck his head on the ground and lay unconscious all night in the rain. The next day there was little choice but to give himself up because of the extent of his injuries.  

Lieutenant Bednarski managed to reach the Resistance in Cracow in Poland where it was alleged the Gestapo picked him up. He was returned to Colditz a year later and was subsequently accused by the Poles there of being a spy and a traitor. A court martial was conducted by them and a Pole who was at the trial, later reported that the guilty Bednarski was to be thrown out of a high window to simulate an accident. Information from the trial suggested that Bednarski had been working for the Germans for some time before he escaped and reached Cracow. In an earlier spell of captivity in Oflag V11 at Murnau he had been ordered by the Germans to simulate an escape so that a despatch to Colditz could be engineered. He was accused of not being a Polish officer, not being in the Polish Army and informing on earlier escape attempts as the Germans had clearly been tipped off.
The Senior Polish and British Officers are likely to have seen Camp Kommandant Oberstleutnant Schmidt, informed him of the trial and conviction and requested that Bednarski be removed immediately because the Senior Polish Officer would be unable to guarantee his safety.

It is surprising that if Bednarski was not in the Polish Army he did not arouse suspicion before, as the Poles had been the first prisoners at Colditz and even if he was a later arrival, any cover story would need to have been well researched and rehearsed. These men lived in very close proximity to each other and had huge amounts of time on their hands. (His name does not appear on the historical list of POWs for Murnau.)

Murnau Oflag V11 -

Alternatively, if Bednarski was going to escape, what purpose would that serve for the Germans unless they hoped he would lead them either alone or with Lieutenant Just to any underground network or escape lines. It seems strange that the Gestapo returned him to Colditz after such a considerable amount of time had elapsed. The Polish POWs were bound to view this with intense suspicion. The Gestapo may have decided that his value was over and dumped any potential problem back on to the camp Kommandant.

The Germans removed Bednarski immediately from Colditz, but what is significant is that after the war Colonel Mozdyniewicz (secretly chief of the Polish Resistance movement within the German prison camps and ‘in touch’ with the Home Front from Colditz) saw him by chance in a city street in Poland. He immediately informed the public prosecutor. Benarski later committed suicide.

Colonel Mieczyslaw Mozdyniewicz (2nd right) - Commons Wikimedia

Sources and Additional Reading

Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC

Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Author's Notes

 ©Keith Morley

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