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

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  1. I never realised there were Poles in Colditz - not sure why, I just thought it was a camp full of Englishmen.
    Clearly there are a lot of untold stories here.

  2. Thanks for your comments. There are a lot of stories to tell Maria. Much has been written about Colditz and although I will try to cover most of the main escape attempts, there are aspects of the human stories which I feel are often glossed over. How were these men really feeling? They were brave, courageous, resilient and disciplined, but they were also human; and people can only take so much.
    The Polish officers were first into Colditz. During the war the castle also housed many British and Commonwealth POWs in addition to Dutch, French, Free French, Belgian, American and one Yugoslav officer. In October 1942 a group of captured Norwegian Commandos were also briefly held in Colditz before leaving on 13th October to be shot by the Germans.