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

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