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

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