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

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  1. As usual, Keith, a great story well told.

    The ingenuity of these men and their absolute calm under pressure is superhuman by today's standards.

    Lovely bit of humour when told 'Hands up' - a difficult manoeuvre in the circumstances!

    Good stuff.

  2. Thanks Wayne. I found this a fascinating story. Miki's skill with doors and locks was amazing, but it was the sheer audacity of the plan which drew me in. Nothing is impossible and the two men almost pulled it off.