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

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  1. Reading about Peter's escape sent shivers down my spine. I can't believe anyone would hide inside a mattress not knowing if they were going to be suffocated, or where they might end up.
    So sad to read the man had to give himself up too - how dreadful after the effort involved.

  2. Thanks for your comments Maria. Yes, it was such a pity that Peter Allan didn't quite make it after such a great piece of opportunism. I think that if he had been in better shape, he might have stuck with 'destination Switzerland' instead of turning towards Austria. The mattress escape attempt was typical of so many of the men in Colditz. (get out of the castle and worry about the next phase after that)