Sunday, 14 June 2015

Colditz - The Canteen Tunnel Part Two

Map of Colditz Castle - War 44
Continued from previous post
Pat Reid’s plan after he exited the tunnel and climbed on to the grass patch was to:
  • Edge along in the dark next to the castle walls (specific areas around the castle were lit up at night by floodlights)
  • Climb down the retaining wall via knotted sheets which the POW’s had prepared in advance.
  • Pass the guards sleeping quarters undetected
  •  Scale the 12 foot wall which was covered with barbed wire and surrounded the castle park.
The two main problems were:
  • Getting past a sentry who was posted around 40 yards away and would spot any movement.
  • Dealing with barbed wire on top of the castle park wall quickly enough without being seen.

Reid decided that as Germans sometimes passed along the sentry’s eye line after dark; any movement seen by the guard might not arouse immediate suspicion. The barbed wire around the castle park could be dealt with, providing there was ample time to carry out the work and the location had minimal risk of being seen.

In the canteen  - John Watton

Work began on the tunnel under the canteen (positioned in the south east corner of the castle yard) and the men worked for a short spell during the night hours. Reid’s team had a lookout positioned in one of their rooms to signal if anyone came into the vicinity of the canteen whilst work was in progress. A stooge also watched the courtyard and lawn area from the canteen window. When the shift ended and diggers came out of the tunnel, the drain cover was always ‘sealed’ around the edges again to disguise any obvious traces of removal. 
During the excavations, an escape attempt by Polish Air Force Lieutenants Waclaw. Gassowski and Waclaw Gorecki interfered with Reid’s plans. It is likely that their Polish Senior Officer was not fully aware of what they were doing. At that time in Colditz, the various nationalities of POW were not working collectively. It is certain that some individuals or small groups planned their own breakout attempts with little or no consultation process. Efforts were made amongst the senior officers to adopt a more coordinated approach.

Reid’s team were not working on the night that the two Poles gained access to the canteen and started to saw through bars on the outside of the window. The work inevitably generated noise and the men had no lookout system in place. They were soon caught. As a result, the Germans put an extra padlock on the door and positioned a floodlight so it lit up the whole lawn and all of the prison windows opening on to it. The Polish action had drawn unwelcome attention to the canteen area.

A disturbance occurred on the night of 22 March 1941 which further heightened the German’s state of vigilance. They had been holding a party during the evening and the noise was keeping British orderlies (batmen to the British officers) who slept nearby awake. Private Solly Goldman, the batman to British Senior officer Lieutenant-Colonel Guy German, began barracking a sentry through a window. A volley of shots came back and the result was a squad of camp guards entering the British quarters. They discovered that some of the officers were missing. Captains Dick Howe, Rupert Barry and Pat Reid were in the tunnel whilst Lieutenants Peter Storie-Pugh and Geoffrey Wardle were in the canteen above it acting as their lookouts.

Captains Rupert Barry 2nd left, Pat Reid & Dick Howe -

An alert for the missing men went out, a general Appell for the whole camp was called. The POWs lined up in the yard while lengthy searches were carried out. Around 2.00am Wardle barely had time to warn the tunnellers that a search party was approaching before the Germans entered the canteen. He had dropped into the shaft with Storie-Pugh just in time to avoid being seen. The searchers checked the room and tried unsuccessfully to lift the manhole cover. Pat Reid was hanging on to it from underneath, fingers wedged in a lip around the cover. The guards moved on to other searches and the prisoners who were still lined up outside were not dismissed until around 3.45am.

Lt Peter

This was a close call and Reid (still with the others in the tunnel) decided a false wall should be built immediately. Food, civilian clothing, maps, rucksacks and other escape aids could be hidden behind it, in addition to concealing any clues of work in progress. Reid described how they did it:
‘In a few hours we had constructed a forbidding looking false wall with stones from the original wall which had been demolished, jointed with clay from under the lawn and coated with dust wherever the joints showed.’
At 5am when the castle had quietened, the men sneaked back to their beds unseen, securing padlocks and relocking doors on the way. During the night, the Germans had carried out identity checks against the whole camp. Howe, Reid, Barry, Storie-Pugh and Wardle were missing and recorded as escaped. An OKW message was sent to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (supreme command of the Armed Forces) which triggered procedures and searches for escaped POWs.
It was not difficult to predict the German reaction at morning Appell when the ‘escaped’ officers were accounted for in the usual way and refused to say where they had been. The OKW message had to be withdrawn much to the embarrassment and frustration of the Camp Kommandant who was reprimanded.
The manhole cover in the canteen was removed and the tunnel searched. Nothing unusual was found. The ‘escapers’ were eventually charged with ‘being absent from quarters and for attempting to tunnel out of the camp from the church.’  (Tools and the beginnings of a tunnel had been discovered in there) The sentence was seven days solitary confinement (Stubenarrest)

Canteen Tunnel Entrance - War44

With the tunnel still undiscovered the escape was still technically alive, despite a failed attempt by two Frenchmen Lieutenant Andre Boucheron and Jacques Charve to cut through the bars on the canteen window in the same way as the Polish effort. The next day, the Germans posted a sentry permanently on a route which included the grass lawn by the canteen window. He passed by at short intervals (around one minute) and often stood directly over the tunnel without any idea of what was underneath.
All weak spots had been covered by the enemy. Work to continue lengthening the tunnel would be discovered because the sentry’s beat and positioning had been revised. In its current state, the project was now high risk and little work was done during the time that a string of unrelated escapes were attempted by other POW’s including Frenchman Alain le Ray who made the first Home Run from Colditz (see previous posts).
The Germans had developed an obvious interest in the British canteen. Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers (Lager (Duty) Officer 3 in Colditz) recorded:

‘…the British canteen at Colditz, still the object of our suspicions and still the month of May.’
Just as the project appeared dead; an unexpected opportunity arose. A German guard had been approached by a civilian prisoner Howard Gee*. The guard agreed to look the other way for ten minutes on a specific night after a prearranged signal. Gee was an excellent German speaker and had bribed him before to smuggle provisions into the castle. The guard’s fee this time was 500 Reich marks, (100 in advance and 400 dropped out of a window at a notified location an hour after the ten minutes had passed.) This was a significant of money from the POW’s ‘bank’ previously built up by paper money hidden inside items in aid parcels sent to POWs (see previous posts) and currency smuggled in by incoming POWs.

*Gee was a civilian orderly in Colditz, but had experienced an unusual route to capture as he was a civilian volunteer who joined the British contingent who were to fight with the Finnish Army during the Russo-Finnish War in Finland 1940. The British wore ammo boots and carried Lee Enfield rifles, but were not an official military regiment. They never fired a shot as Finland and Russia signed an armistice before they could join the Finns. Gee arrived in Oslo two hours after the Germans had captured it and was later arrested along with the rest of the contingent and treated as a POW.

Howard Gee

May 29th was the date set for the escape after evening Appell at 9pm. The first party of twelve men wore adapted ‘civilian’ clothes under their uniforms and had the required maps and home made compasses etc. The tunnel shaft was ready, with little further distance added to the overall length. Pat Reid had the collapsible tray he made, in position under the grass surface of the lawn.
After Appell a lookout and the twelve men got into the canteen. About an hour later the bribed sentry was seen in position and Reid gave him the signal to turn the other way. He described what happened next:

‘I cut round the collapsible tray I had inserted above the vertical shaft and then heaved it upwards, muddy water streaming on to my face. The windows of the German Kommandantur  (command) building loomed above me. The whole area was brilliantly lit by a floodlight only ten yards away. I climbed out on to the grass and Rupert Barry immediately behind me started to follow. My shadow was cast on the wall…and at that moment I noticed a second shadow beside my own. It held a revolver. I yelled to Rupert to get back as a voice behind me shouted ‘hände hoch hände hoch.’ I turned to face a German Officer levelling his pistol at me.’

Reid's Exit Point - war44

It is interesting to see the same course of events through a German viewpoint. The tension and focus on both sides must have been electric. Reinhold Eggers recorded that:

‘a sentry reported he’d been offered 700 marks to keep his eyes shut some night to be specified while on duty at guard post no 9 outside the canteen….700 marks was a lot of money. How on earth had the POWs got hold of it? We held a security meeting. The money was obviously being smuggled in. How, we found later.’ (amount of the bribe differs from Reid’s version)
The sentry was told to continue with the charade and report developments. He did exactly this and the Germans made their preparations.
Although they had been tipped off, the precise details of the escape were unknown. Eggers’ mind-set and worries are well illustrated in his notes:
‘The canteen. Somewhere near there they were going to break out, but where? From below? Impossible. The inside drain cover in the canteen floor was sealed. From above? Not in the searchlights. Would they fuse the lights and come down a rope in the dark. Would they get out of the canteen by one of the windows? The guard had been assured that there would be no traces after the escape, so he couldn’t possibly be suspected. How were they going to get out? We thought and talked and felt very foolish. That we should have to wait on the prisoners for a line of action.’

The Germans decided that the 29th May was the most likely night for the breakout because:
  • The sentry had received 100 marks as the first part of his bribe
  • It was the Thursday evening before Whitsun. Staff would be going on leave; there was a chance that things might unconsciously relax.                                       
  • On the 27th, the guard maintained that he had been told ‘From now on keep your head down when on duty.’
After evening Appell, as darkness came, all Lager officers and a posse of guards waited in a room in the Kommandantur building where the north east corner backed on to the canteen corner in the prisoners’ yard. Eggers described their next move:

‘The door on to the grass terrace outside this damned canteen was on our side of the join in the two yards. We unlocked it quietly. An NCO and ten men were held ready in the guardroom outside the prisoners’ gate, at the end of the approach yard. A phone call to our internal exchange would rush them to any part of the castle we specified.’

Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers

As Eggers recorded, ‘the stage was set’. The camp floodlights came on and everyone watched and waited.
‘But what should we watch? Where to focus? We blinked at every sound. Our eyes watered under the strain….Suddenly came a movement on the grass…Now we could focus. A line appeared – a break. A patch of grass started to move upward. Lager officer 1 made a sign, ‘wait!’ A square of turf rose straight up out of the ground held by a wooden frame, with legs which now showed themselves. Then a man’s hands and arms followed, pushing at the turf and frame by the legs. Then the frame was stood aside and up came British Captain Reid.’
A phone call followed and the guard occupied the canteen immediately. Two Polish and ten British officers were caught in the tunnel, including the British Senior Officer Guy German. It was an absolute steal for the camp staff and their first big success. The foiled escapers had money, civilian clothes, passes and 150lbs of provisions (Red Cross food of tins chocolate and biscuits) which were all confiscated.  The guard kept his 100 marks, received extra leave and the War Service Cross.

British Senior Officer
Colonel Guy German

Security was tightened as a result, with sentries changed at irregular times and not returned to the same post in order to break the rhythm. This was ‘advantage Germany’, but the game was only just beginning.

Colditz the Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC

Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

(Both are recommended reads)

Author's Notes

IWM recorded interview with Howard Gee

©Keith Morley
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