Monday, 27 April 2015

Colditz - Poles, Locks and Bed Sheets Part One

A few days after the failed Allan escape (see previous post) two Polish officers made their attempt. Lieutenant Mikolaj ‘Miki’ Surmanowicz and Second Lieutenant Mieczyslaw Chmiel had devised a bizarre escape plan which was dependant on them first being placed in solitary confinement in the punishment cells.

When examining the courage and fortitude shown by the Polish nation during the war and the help they gave to Allied POWs in camps at great risk to themselves and their families, it is not surprising that Surmanowicz and Chmiel would attempt a plan so offbeat and dangerous and with only a small chance of success.

Lageroffrizier Reinhold Eggers makes an interesting observation from the German viewpoint about how the Colditz POWs presented themselves. This gives an indication of where the Poles sat in his estimation. When looking back at the history of events in the castle; it also gives a few clues as to how a POW’s own nationality, culture and behaviour could decant into his escape plans and strategies.

 ‘In March (1941) we were presented with sixty Dutch officers, many from the East Indies of mixed blood. They had no orderlies of their own, but kept their quarters clean themselves. Their discipline was faultless, their behaviour on parade exemplary, by which as we shall see they were able to profit. They dressed smartly at all times too. The Poles behaved similarly, though they had not the uniforms for a smart appearance.

But the French and the British! On parade in pyjamas, unshaven, slopping about in clogs and slippers, smoking, reading books, wearing the first assortment of garments that came to hand when they got out of bed, just asking to be ridiculed. They insisted on distinguishing between “parades” as on the King’s birthday, when they turned out unrecognisably smart and the daily “roll-calls” we held to count them. Very quickly we saw through what was only superficially slipshod, though sometimes they all behaved wholeheartedly like urchins.’

Polish POWs at Colditz - thememoryproject

Surmanowicz and Chmiel planned to commit an offence which would result in them being taken to the punishment cells and placed in solitary confinement. They decided that hiding in a locked up attic in the Saalhauss would be quickest. The Saalhauss was in a wing of the castle which housed the Senior POW Officers. There were regular checks and the Germans were sure to find them. The plan worked and the men were marched off to the cells.

Major Pat Reid described ‘Miki’ Surmanowicz as ‘The most daredevil Polish officer at Colditz among a bunch of daredevils.’ Miki was an expert lock picker and this formed the pivotal start of his plan. His heavily padlocked and barred cell had a single small window high up which looked out over the castle courtyard,( if the occupant could climb up the cell wall to see through it.) Mietek Chmiel was in the cell next door. A South African, Flight Lieutenant George Skelton who had arrived at Colditz the day before was also in the block and within earshot. He had been taken straight to the cells.

Flight Lieutenant George Skelton
- aircrew remembrance society

Miki and Pat Reid had developed a solid friendship in Colditz and his craft of lock-picking tips had been passed on to the Englishman. A few adventurous souls in the British contingent were aware of the plan to escape and none had taken up the offer to join in because of the risks.

The idea was simple. Miki would get out of his barred and locked cell, open Chmiel’s door and then unlock the main door to the cell corridor, which opened on to the courtyard. At this point both men would be standing in the main part of the prison; the same as the rest of the POWs in Colditz had access to. Part two of the escape plan could then be implemented.

Reid had received word that the escape was to take place that night (11th May 1941) and the invitation to join the Polish officers at the rendezvous point in the courtyard at 23.00 was still open. However good Miki’s skills were with locks, it is hardly surprising that no one took up his offer and a curious small audience of POWs were watching from their windows when the clock struck eleven. In the darkness, Pat Reid spotted the door leading to the cells open slowly. At exactly 23.00 two dark figures edged out into the courtyard.

Continued next week


Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC

The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC

Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

(All are recommended reads)

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. 


Monday, 20 April 2015

Colditz - The Peter Allan Escape

The Germans never discovered how Alain Le Ray escaped from Colditz (see previous 3 posts). When serious questioning came from higher authority, there were no definitive answers. After the staff had received a severe dressing down from camp commandant Oberst Max Schmidt, Lageroffrizier  Reinhold Eggers reported:
‘Generalkommando Dresden came into the affair. Their Abwehrstelle 4 (Security 4) asked “when did the prisoner escape, how did he get out, what clothes did he wear?”  We didn’t know…. The OKW in Berlin (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) wanted to know. How did the officer escape? Who was responsible, had he been punished – and how? What had we done to stop similar escapes in future? We couldn’t answer all of this….We assumed that Le Ray had climbed up on the roof and down a lightening conductor on the outer walls of the buildings, out of sight of the sentries somewhere. We wired up parts of the roof and chimneys. We rigged up more and stronger searchlights.’

Oberst Max Schmidt

The exit point for Le Ray’s escape and how he intended to lose the guards on the way to the park walk had been well planned. How and when he would reach the barbed wire fence and outer wall of the park from his hiding place was much more down to chance and grabbing any opportunity. During April and May 1941, the British contingent of POWs were applying serious efforts to their canteen tunnel project, but on 10 May a perfect example of simply seizing the moment (like Le Ray) occurred, when an opportunity presented itself without warning.  

At that time, Colditz still had a number of floors which were empty of occupants. Some of the POWs had become expert in picking locks. The Pole Michal ‘Miki’ Surmanowitz had passed on his craft to Major Pat Reid. Miki’s skill would soon help his own escape attempt. Lageroffrizier  Reinhold Eggers reported:

‘Had the prisoners made keys to unlock the doors at the foot of their staircases that we locked each night? It became more and more evident as time went on, that no lock at all in Colditz really served its purpose. We kept finding people in what should have been locked-off rooms, from which bit by bit we noticed all the light fittings disappear. Blankets vanished from the attics. Nothing was safe.’
The Germans decided to move all unused equipment and furniture out of the empty rooms to stop the theft of materials which might be utilised for escaping by the POW’s. Eggers noted:
‘Naturally they turned this operation to their own advantage.’   

Around on 10 May, a group of French army POW’s arrived at the castle in a lorry. They were set to work carrying down dozens of straw prison mattresses from an attic store and loading them on to the lorry. The British acted immediately. Lieutenant Peter Allan of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders was small, light and spoke German well. The intention was to push him inside one of the POW’s own mattresses, sew it up and then try to persuade one of the French soldiers to carry the mattress and load it on to the lorry. It would have been obvious to him what he was lugging into the courtyard, but there was no time for the British to deliberate. After some persuasion by Pat Reid, the Frenchman carried the mattress with Allen inside  and stacked it in the lorry. As the vehicle disappeared out of the castle the POWs must have scarcely been able to believe their luck.

Colditz POWS. Lieutenant Peter Allan is second right

For Peter Allan, it must have been stifling and claustrophobic trapped inside the mattress. There was no air, and pressure from the rest of the pile and the presence of French soldiers and their guards squashed into the back of the lorry tested any man’s resolve. Allan was now totally reliant on a short journey and his mattress being carried out to its new storage location without anyone raising the alarm. He had no idea where he would finish up, but a ‘best guess’ put the town and some storage building as being likely.

This escape is a typical example of opportunism, taking calculated risks and worrying about the consequences later. Such was the mindset of a POW desperate to get home or at least tie up enemy resources to cause maximum disruption.  

The mattresses were dumped in either a skittle alley in the town or deserted house. Eggers says a skittle alley, Pat Reid states a deserted house and Allan mentions ‘somewhere in Colditz’. What is important is that Allan was able to make a small cut through the mattress to let in air and then wait for a period of sustained quiet. After a few hours he cut himself out, opened the window of the room, climbed through into a small garden and made his way to the road.
It should be remembered that most POWs in Colditz who were focused on escaping held small amounts of Reich marks. They and other incoming POWs had often managed to smuggle them in when arriving, or the money was hidden inside the early welfare parcels. At this stage of the war, only small amounts were obtained from guards by surreptitious means such as bribery, blackmail or ‘selling’ items, although the practice was going on. The POWs also had some form of clothing which had been adapted to not look conspicuous once outside of the castle. It was reported that Peter Allan being small and slight had dressed himself up in a Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) uniform.  
He had limited escape rations, passable clothing and some money. Because of his excellent German, Allan was able to get some lifts along the way to Stuttgart, but there is no doubt that he walked a good part of that journey. Initially it looked as if he was making for the Swiss border, but his plan clearly changed when he reached Stuttgart. His tired physical state may have contributed to him turning east and travelling to Vienna. Reports stated that once there, an exhausted Allan approached the US consulate for help in reaching Budapest and neutral Hungary. The United States was still neutral and there were German staff working in the embassy. This put the consul in a difficult position. It was clearly too difficult and help was refused. Allan went into a park and fell asleep on a bench. When he awoke in the morning, he found his legs were paralysed with cramp. Exhausted and starving he managed to crawl to a nearby house and was taken to hospital where he gave himself up. The Vienna police telephoned Colditz and the escape attempt was over.

Stuttgart -

Allan was returned to Colditz on 31 May 1941 and managed to limp under escort straight to the cells for a spell of solitary confinement  For the other British POWs it must have been a blow to morale as they were convinced that after 23 days ‘no news was good news’ and he had made it to safety. But April and May were just the beginning of the escaping season and for the Germans in Colditz, it would be a long summer and autumn.  


Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC

Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

(Both are recommended reads)

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.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Colditz Part Three - The First Home Run (3)

French POWs at Colditz 

Continued from last week’s post...  Alain Le Ray had to act immediately. Hidden from the outside, he only had a few seconds to get out of the cellar. In less than two minutes the guards would discover he was missing.  The translation of Le Ray’s account from French to English loses nothing of ’the moment’ and puts the reader right in there with him as he makes his next move. The ingenuity in his plan to quickly change his appearance is  interesting:

‘Still trembling with shock, I turned up the lower parts of my false blue trousers, so that they looked like plus-fours, revealing at the same time my white stockings with their decorative garters. I took off my pullover and my linen waistcoat. This changed my appearance in such a way that it would be improbable that I should be recognised.  Indeed, I looked elegant enough, with the collar of my open blue shirt falling down on my cardigan; my cap with buckle and flap and a small suitcase completed the picture of a German traveller.’
(The small ‘suitcase’ was concealed under his clothes, which explains Le Ray’s earlier reference to him appearing to look larger than usual. See previous post)

The change took round a minute. Now he had to get out and hurry to the walls of the park without arousing suspicion. It was not long before something went wrong.
‘I had already planned what to do….I crossed the flagstones of the cellar, out through the door and up the grass slope in a single jump. I felt weightless as I reached the path.  There was no one to be seen. Quickly, quickly, but no, I must not show haste. Somebody may be looking down from the castle.’ 

Le Ray was facing the dilemma that confronted every escaper and evader. His nerves were stretched to breaking point, his heart pounding and mouth dry. Every physical movement felt strained and unnatural. He recorded that he felt weightless.  These were classic symptoms. From now on, it would come down to whether he was a good poker player, could think on his feet and act naturally? 
‘There in the park were three Germans playing football inside the barbed wire enclosure. There was nothing for me to do but return to my cellar hiding place.’

There is certain inevitability about what he says next, but that is quickly replaced by a resilience and capacity for organised logical thought.  Maybe there was still a chance. Le Ray thought it out, and he had few choices to consider.  
‘This time my excitement had gone. I knew that within moments an armed group of soldiers might break in and catch me. If I should try to escape, they would undoubtedly shoot. I was becoming desperate. But my reason calmed my fears. I realised I must have enough patience to wait until dawn, when the park would be empty.  My faith in doing this lay in my friend Tournon, who I believed would succeed in causing a diversion at the count. The German guards trusted their own counting efficiency and disliked having to report any irregularity for which they were responsible. If the count could be fixed, I should win some hours of respite, at least until the evening appel of 6pm.’

André Tournon started a fight with one of the POWs just as the count was about to begin. The absence was not noticed and he succeeded in buying some time.  For Le Ray hiding in the cellar, the seconds and minutes must have felt like an eternity as he waited for the inevitable sounds of the alarm being raised. After a few minutes, through the partly open cellar door he saw three German officers pass by with an Alsatian dog.
Hanging around any longer would not improve his chances. He waited for a few more minutes and decided to try again. It was important to get out of the cellar and escape in the daylight if possible, as the 6pm appel was likely to reveal his absence . If he could get as far away as possible from the camp, there was a slim chance of reaching Switzerland.     

‘For the second time I went quietly down to the park. There was no one there now, but eyes might be watching me from the windows of the Terrace House (see previous post) where a watcher could have followed my every step. I went to the small bridge over the brook and hid for a while in some bushes and ferns. Should anyone see me there, it would be quite clear what I was up to, so I hurried to a fallen tree lying across the brook; a few more steps and I had reached the other bank and was near the barbed wire fence which surrounded the ground of the park wall, near where the soldiers had played football about twenty minutes before.’   
He managed to reach a point where the barbed wire fence joined the wall. Le Ray said it felt like ‘the whole park was an immense eye watching me.’  He grabbed the upper strands of wire and put his foot on the end of one of the wooden wire supports fastened to the wall. This gave him the leverage and height to stretch out his hands. Although he had no actual sight of the top of the wall, he managed with difficulty to feel out and then cling to the rounded top.  His rubber shoes were able to find a brief foothold on the wall and he managed to swing himself on to the top of the wall without being seen and drop down the other side which was clear of the castle grounds.

Alain Le Ray in later life - enmemoiredelaresistance

The next move was to try and catch a train away from Colditz. He had very little money and had concealed it in a tiny tube in his ‘alimentary canal’. Little imagination is required to work out where the tube had been hidden.  Despite this he managed to travel as far as Nuremburg. What happened next was a surprise, but it is worth noting that his actions did not fall outside of the code of conduct relating to The Geneva Convention:
‘I was tired and stiff with the cold. I badly needed money and a coat, so I decided to commit a brutal act of robbery with violence against a German civilian. My victim, chosen carefully, resisted me at first, but I was successful in striking him with two well-aimed blows with my fist, which left him dazed on the ground.'

Le Ray justifies this action on the grounds that he was acting in self-defence under conditions of warfare, as he could have been shot at any time because he was escaping.  It might seem a callous and desperate act to pick on an innocent civilian, but the countries were in conflict. The pedestrian would have had no second thoughts about reporting Le Ray.  Additionally, the POW on the run with a tangible chance of freedom would push out all reasonable boundaries short of taking up arms.
The mind-set and mentality of an Allied POW at that time of the war also needs to be put alongside the terms of the Geneva Convention and how this was interpreted in law.  Theft whilst on the run was considered a perfectly legitimate act whilst escaping.  POWs could also carry false papers, give false information to the Police and commit a number of other crimes for which a German civilian would have been punished or even executed. The recaptured prisoner would only receive a period of solitary confinement on bread and water rations in the cells of his prison camp. It must be remembered though that he still ran the risk of being shot whilst escaping. *

Nuremburg 1940 -

Le Ray successfully took the coat and money and avoided arrest. He pressed on and despite his underplaying of the dangers reached the Swiss border without any further incidents of note:

‘From now on, my voyage became a pleasure trip. I went through Stuttgart – Tuttlingen – Singen. On the evening of the Easter Monday, I was only ten kilometres from the Swiss frontier, near Schaffausen. During the Monday night, I made my way through woodland paths to Gottmadingen, the last station before frontier and customs-control, where I waited hidden in the bushes.’

Schaffausen 1940 -

Gottmadingen -

A train passed at about 11.00pm and the locomotive stopped about  five metres in front of him for the train to be searched.
‘When the doors were shut again, I crept up to the engine, and when the engine driver gave the signal to start, I sprang on to the locomotive between its headlights where I hid. The driver opened the throttle and the train roared through the fresh air of the spring night. Five minutes later we passed the red lights of the enemy guard post, on and under a bridge and then into Switzerland.’

Alain Le Ray had made it to a neutral country and achieved the first ‘home run’ from Colditz. On the very last part of his journey, right when he was on the brink of freedom; he had staked everything on not being spotted behind the glare from the locomotives headlights.    
Inside Colditz, once the absence was discovered the Germans tightened security, but they never worked out how and where Le Ray had escaped. 

*Article 50 of the Geneva Convention stated that a prisoner could be punished for an attempt to escape, but only with a disciplinary punishment and not by a court martial. It was generally accepted that crimes against property also fell under the disciplinary umbrella, but for cases of murder and wounding, a court martial would be justified. As per Article 54, the limit for a normal disciplinary punishment after arrest was set at 30 days. In practice it often ran for up to 14 days. At Colditz they usually gave out sentences of up to a fortnight. If it was believed a more severe disciplinary punishment was appropriate, they had to appeal to the General at Dresden. The maximum he could give was 30 days. 


Colditz the Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC

Colditz the German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Première à Colditz - Alain le Ray

Escape From Colditz - Sixteen First Hand Accounts - Reinhold Eggers

(The above are all recommended reads)

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.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Colditz Part Three - The First Home Run (2)

Continued from last week:
'…no one had succeeded in escaping from the castle. The prisoners had tried tunnelling, hiding the spoil in the attics, and climbing the walls, but always in vain. They were caught and caught again to be punished and threatened, so I decided to do it alone.'
Le Ray planned to escape through the park (see previous post) and kept the project to himself until the day of the escape.  He had made up another civilian looking suit ‘much better than those I had made before.’

The plan was to make the breakout attempt over Easter. When the POWS went out of the castle gate to make their walk down to the park, it was necessary to first thread their way along a small path.  They passed a large house on the right known to the men as the Terrace House.  At the corner of this building there was a slight curve in the path.  Le Ray noticed on one occasion when he was walking to the park that a door to the basement of the house was half open. This single observation formed the basis around which he built his escape thinking.    
‘Now the curve in the path by the corner of the Terrace House was of tremendous importance as I realised that if the marching column were to close in to the house, there was a moment, as a result of the curve when the accompanying guards could not observe the park walkers at once.’

The 11th April was a day for the park walk and Le Ray decided that the signs were good for an escape attempt. The weather was excellent with clear skies and spring sunshine and it was Good Friday. The number of people about might be less than usual.   Le Ray described his feelings.
‘The hills showed the return of spring and the light blue sky was like a promise of joy. The river Mulde was brown and almost in flood as it raced its winding course. I looked at the forest and beyond to the horizon, but as I was still looking from behind the iron bars of my prison window, I hoped that this look would be the last one from my captivity.’
By 14.30 hours he was ready. The men would be assembling in ten minutes for the park walk. Le Ray was wearing his uniform as normal.  At first glance, nothing looked different or out of place. Underneath the trousers were concealed white stockings, and he had a thin cardigan on beneath a thick chestnut-brown pullover. On top, his wide khaki greatcoat masked a small parcel of baggage which made him look to the keen eye marginally fatter.  He added:

‘Three of my friends had been let into my secret*, together with our doctor (I had to ask him how to insert my creeper – a tube filled with money – into my alimentary canal.’
*It is unlikely that Le Ray had shared the finer points of his escape plan with his friends. He would have advised them of the attempt and given them enough information to be able to carry out a diversion if required.  

The POWs assembled and as per usual the guards counted them inside the inner courtyard and then outside before they marched down to the park where they were counted again.  Le Ray’s first obstacle was keeping his slightly more bulky appearance unnoticed by the guards. He had taken a calculated risk and his thinking on this is clear.
‘…the Germans had opened the wicket gate and we began to pass through, one at a time, while we were counted twice. As I went through the wicket, my ‘luggage’ was not noticed by the guard commander in charge of the walk, a sergeant with a scarred face who counted us automatically. As with all professional jailers, he could count prisoners and be quite certain his figures were correct, even though his mind could be on other things. These mechanical precautions did not alarm me in the least, as I knew it would not be too difficult to confuse such an arbitrary count should there be a prisoner short.’

The Path to the Park - War

The column began to move and a squad of guards took up position around the POWs. There was no one about except the guards and POWs.
‘At 3.0pm we passed the Terrace House and I noticed that the little door in the basement was still open. This looked good.’

The problem was the number of guards positioned along the sides of the column. An escape attempt looked too dangerous. As the POW’s were marched down towards the park, Le Ray began to question the practicality and risks of his scheme. He would have been aware of the articles of the Geneva Convention around escape attempts and that he could be shot whilst trying to escape.
It is interesting to examine his mind-set and how he arrived at the decision to continue with his attempt. Le Ray was an accomplished athlete and skier and tried to see his situation as if he was an athlete who had signed up for a contest in an arena. Looking at his current predicament, he had barely started the game and was already looking for a way out of the contest. There was still time in the day and he resolved to continue, even if this attempt was only the first of a series. He gives a further clue as to his temperament:

‘Perhaps I am like one of those musicians who refuse to play because the air is damp or because the position of the piano is not exactly right. Sometimes I felt like this on the sports field when competing in the long jump – imagining I had started on the wrong foot, I would stop and begin the run again.’

There was a barbed wire enclosure in the park and the POWs spent an hour walking around it. Three of the men knew that if the opportunity was right, Le Ray would attempt his escape. When exercise time was up, the POWs were ordered to form a column for counting. The march back to the castle began and he decided that he would make his attempt as they passed the Terrace House.
‘I threw my coat over my back and marched on the left hand side of the column with my friend Tournon* beside me. As we walked up the path Tournon whispered 


“Impossible! No chance yet.” I said.'
(*Le Ray had escaped with Lieutenant André Tournon from Oflag 11D at Jastrow on the Baltic coast in January of that year.)

Present Day View of the Pathway -
(recommended visit)

The two men were walking in the third rank behind colonels and other senior officers.  One of Le Ray’s friends was in the front rank and the other who was positioned near the German sergeant had agreed to start a diversion and if necessary attempt to turn away the sergeant’s gun if he tried to fire.
As the column crossed the bridge over a brook, Tournon had whispered to the senior French officer Colonel Le Brigant to discreetly slow the march of the column down. They were walking up a steep path, so this was not unnatural if done carefully. The colonel had no idea about the plan, but willingly complied.  About a hundred metres from the Terrace House, Tournon whispered again and received the same reply form Le Ray. Timing and position were vital for the attempt to stand any chance. He described what happened next.

‘The guard at the head of the column was still looking ahead. I watched the guard on our flank. We were now close to the house. Another guard was ten metres behind me. I should have five seconds to act.
 “This is it!" I whispered to Tournon, who without turning, warned those around him to take no notice of anything, but to keep marching normally.’

Le Ray dived out of the column, jumping down to a grass slope where he fell on to his hands and knees.  Recovering quickly, he managed to get up immediately and take two more jumps to reach a hiding place  behind the small cellar door.  
‘For some seconds my universe was upside down. Little by little my awareness returned. Where was I? In a vaulted cellar stored with beds and straw mattresses.’

There was no time to think. He had to get out of the cellar immediately and try to reach the barbed wire fence where it joined the wall at the edge of the park enclosure. The headcount at the wicket gate was imminent. If it revealed the party was a man short, Le Ray had already worked out he had no more than two minutes to make his escape. The odds were stacked against him. In addition to being totally reliant on the creation of a diversion to mask the missing man from the guards, he had to make his way through the park and get over the wall without being seen. That was just the beginning. He was still close to the castle, had very little money, no papers and was over 780 kilometres from Switzerland.
Next week - The  Journey


Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC

Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Première à Colditz -   Alain le Ray
Escape From Colditz -  Sixteen First Hand Accounts - Reinhold Eggers

(All of the above are recommended reads)
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.