Sunday, 17 May 2015

Colditz - The Canteen Tunnel Part One

Captain Pat Reid pictured in Colditz - 

Once Pat Reid arrived in Colditz he began looking at options for escape. It was every officer’s duty to try and reach home. At the very least, he would strive to hamper the enemy by tying up their resources in preventing a POW breakout and searching for him when he got away from the castle.
The initial steer was to concentrate on areas of Colditz  which the British did not use (There were still unoccupied areas and empty rooms at that time). Pat’s skill around picking locks soon progressed beyond basic levels following instruction from Polish Lieutenant ‘Miki’ Surmanovicz (see previous two posts), but it was the escape possibilities around the drains which caught his attention.
A room dubbed as ‘the canteen’ by the POW’s had a manhole cover which required investigation. The canteen was in reality no more than a shop where the POWs were able to buy basic items such as razor blades etc. Working under the supervision of a German Feldwebel, Captain Kenneth Lockwood had already ensconced himself in the room as ‘assistant manager’ and accountant. This action had initially nothing to do with generating any escape opportunities. Lockwood had a background with figures as he worked on the London Stock exchange before the outbreak of war. The maintenance of simple accounts helped pass the time and occupy him in an area he had an affinity with. His regular presence in the shop became a useful tool for creating distractions.

Captain Kenneth Lockwood
The shop had a counter, with the manhole cover positioned in front on the buyer’s side. The problem facing Pat Reid was how to lift the cover and inspect what was underneath without being seen by the Feldwebel. A table had been positioned under the only window in the room and this was used for writing by Lockwood and the Feldwebel. It was a convenient distance and angle away from the counter. Reid spotted that if a few people stood behind the counter, Lockwood could draw the German to the table on the pretext of some accounting matter. It might then be possible to raise the manhole cover and check what was below.
The diversion worked and Reid recorded that ‘it was comparatively simple to tackle the manhole cover.’ An initial inspection revealed that there were tunnels leading in two directions, one connecting with a tunnel he had already noticed in the castle yard, and another leading out under the floor by the window. A second check revealed that this route was around 18 yards long and built with a curve. A pile of large stones and mortar blocked the way through.
A check of the outside location near the shop window suggested that the tunnel passed under a grass lawn which was on the same level as the floor inside the shop building. The grass butted up to the German section of the Castle. A stone balustrade was positioned at the outer edge of the lawn, and then a retaining wall which had about a 25 foot drop to the road below. This led down the valley containing the POW’s football area. After that, the last obstacle would be the 12 foot wall of the castle park and the barbed wire on top (see post on Alain Le Ray’s escape). If the canteen tunnel did run up towards  the 25 foot wall; Reid had already decided there were possibilities.  If he could tunnel upwards and emerge through the grass; an escape route was waiting.  
But even if the tunnel did follow the right direction, the problems facing Reid and his men were considerable. The planning and work required to even remotely stand a chance of escaping without discovery was considerable. It is a fine testament of the spirit, ingenuity and persistence of these men, that they attempted the plan. It should also be remembered that whilst Reid was looking at his project, there were other escape schemes being considered and in progress by the other POWs within Colditz. Escape attempts had already been made, and Alain le Ray had succeeded in making the first Home Run (see earlier post)

Line of the canteen tunnel. The red line runs alongside the actual tunnel route which is shown by a dotted track -

The tunnel line passed under the canteen and came out beneath the eastern ramparts of the Castle, so specific work could be targeted. 
Work Required Within the Tunnel
Break through the rocks and mortar blocking the tunnel and remove debris.
Once it is reached, cut through the foundations of the retaining wall near to the outer edge of the lawn, and dispose of the rubble.
Work at night for around 2-3 hours after lights out.
To minimise noise problems and the chance of discovery, coordinate work when the night sentries are furthest away on their beat from the tunnelling area. A detailed system of lookouts will be required to ensure this is implemented and the tunnellers are warned in good time as the sentries approach on their beat.
Estimated time to completion

3 months.
Getting Access to the Tunnel
This must be done at night as it is the only time that entry can be realistically gained and work carried out on a regular basis without discovery.
A key has been made from a piece of iron which was part of one the POW beds. It opens the canteen door.
Open the entrance door to the staircase where the POWs are held by picking the lock.
Cross the courtyard (about 30 feet) to the canteen door, keeping to the shadows and avoiding any sentries.
Open the canteen door with the false key and once inside close it behind.
Scale the high wooden partition which separates the canteen room from a camp office. There is a door but this has a German style Yale lock which is to date, tamper proof.
Once the tunnel has reached the appropriate point outside, make a vertical shaft which will bring the tunnel up to the grass.

Reinforce the top with a trap door just below the surface.

Pat Reid’s thinking around this whole project is fascinating and he was now ready to start work.
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 highly 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, 4 May 2015

Colditz - Poles, Locks and Bed Sheets Part Two

Colditz Castle - war 44

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 to the cells corridor open slowly. At exactly 23.00 two dark figures edged out into the courtyard. Continued from last post

From a window high up in the Polish quarters, a rope was lowered made of sheets knotted together. A bundle containing the men's escape kit, clothes and rucksack was tied to the bottom. The two figures began to climb the rope, one following the other until they reached a narrow ledge around forty feet up.
The floodlights in the courtyard were not turned on. Miki and Chmiel stood in deep shadow on the ledge, backs pressed flat against the wall. It was no more than four inches wide and a fall could be fatal. They held of the rope which was still hanging from one of the windows above them and began to edge along a few inches at a time. The distance to a section of guttering on the eaves of the German guardhouse roof was about ten yards. The men could see little in the dark, but had calculated the move to perfection.

The next phase of the plan was to climb up to the roof whilst still keeping hold of the long rope of sheets. They reached the top and clambered through a skylight out of sight. The lights in the courtyard stayed off and the men were in the attic of the German guardhouse. Chmiel quickly drew up the slack on the rope before giving it a sharp tug. This was the signal for the men in the Polish quarters to untie and let go of the other end. Seconds slipped by as Chmiel carefully pulled and reeled the rope in. The attic had a small window which they selected for the next part of the escape. The problem was the sheer drop outside of about a hundred and twenty feet which continued down the face of the cliff upon which the castle was built. 

Bed sheets lowered from attic window - War 44

Undaunted, they secured and lowered the rope out of the window and down the guardhouse wall. The men climbed out and slowly began their descent. It is difficult to comprehend them placing their lives on a string of bedsheets knotted together. Any fall or break in the ‘rope’ would have been fatal. They descended carefully past the guardhouse window - there was about a hundred feet to go. The Poles had made one fatal mistake. Miki wore plimsolls for the climb and descent, whilst Chmiel had a heavier style of boot. These made a noise as they scraped against the wall on the descent. It was loud enough to wake up the duty officer asleep in the guard house. He opened the window and instantly spotted the rope dangling alongside. A dark figure was hanging only a few yards below.

The duty officer drew his pistol and shouted ‘ Hände hoch’ (hands up). With a hundred feet to the ground and both Poles clinging on to a rope, that would be as a difficult manoeuvre. When there was no response, the officer called out the guard. The escape attempt was at an end. At 5.30 am the bell rang and the whole camp was turned out for a snap appel. Two questions remained unanswered and the Germans never found the evidence or the answers:

How did Miki get out of his cell?

How did he pick the lock on Chmiel’s door and the one at the entrance of the cell corridor to the courtyard?

Miki’s cell had a heavy wooden door which was fixed to the outside. There were two hinges. A thick metal bar was attached to the door and padlocked to the outside wall on the opposite side of the hinges. The door overlapped the wall at the top, in addition to both sides. At the bottom it fitted close to the passage floor. On the inside of the cell, the foot of the door was concealed by a wooden strip.

Blurred picture of the cell door

The first task was to carefully dismantle the bed and stool in his cell. There were parts to be used for leverage and support against the door. Miki had managed to hide his lock picking tools undetected and first needed to remove the wooden strip at the bottom of the door. He managed this and then levered the hinge side of the door upwards so that it came off the vertical hinge posts attached to the wall. He replaced the wooden strip, moved into the corridor and picked the lock of Chmiel’s cell. The men worked together to put back the door to Miki’s cell, reassemble the parts used from the stool and bed and lock up both cells. The whole process took about two hours, leaving no visible evidence of any disturbance to the fittings or furniture. It seemed as if both men had simply ‘ghosted’ their way out of the cells.

The Cell

The lock on the door to the courtyard was easily picked and there was time to spare before the men’s 23.00 hours exit. Struggling for ideas as to how Miki and Chmiel had managed to get out of the punishment cells, the Germans posted a sentry in the courtyard during hours of darkness. The castle floodlights were also switched full on unless there was an air raid warning in progress. This new strategy created further obstacles and challenges for the POW’s in future escape plans, but it was not long before another Frenchman made a successful breakout.

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.