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

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