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

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  1. I'm not surprised there were informants. Life must have been dire, and the temptation to 'snitch' hard to overcome if it meant a little kindness. The escapees were clearly driven, and it seems made it their number one priority. How cold it must have been, and how hard the tunnelling without the proper tools etc

    Interesting history Keith.

  2. Thanks Maria. Even though Colditz became a prison intended to house persistent escapers, there were a few POWs who could not be trusted. There was always the danger of 'plants' or 'stoolpigeons' as they were known. That first march from the railway station up to the castle must have been daunting. This is well illustrated in the words of some of the POWs. One almost feels the cold when looking at the thick high stone walls.