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

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