Thursday, 1 October 2015

Colditz - The Park Part One

The Park with Colditz Castle in the Middle Background -
On 31 May 1941, two days after the failed canteen tunnel attempt (see previous posts) Frenchman Lieutenant Rene Collin escaped from Colditz by hiding himself in the rafters of the park shelter in the outside exercise area. 
What is significant is that Collin’s escape (second home run from Colditz) originated from the POWs being led out of the castle daily for afternoon exercise in the park area below. Fellow Frenchman Lieutenant Alain Le Ray had made perfect use of a blind spot from the sentries on his walk back from the park under guard on Good Friday 11 April, having dived out of a line of prisoners and hid in the cellar of a house (see past posts).

Other escape attempts around the park would follow, but before these are examined it is crucial to have an awareness of the ‘end to end’ process around the POW’s exercise in the park area, and the circumstances surrounding that ‘privilege’ which became a nightmare for the Germans. It must have been frustrating for the captors to have to operate this facility outside of the main castle under the terms of the Geneva Convention. Colditz had bars on every window, high walls on all sides of the prisoner’s courtyard and the POWs were surrounded by sentries, barbed wire, and searchlights at night. The prisoners were also kept on the move inside the castle by way of regular relocation. This made tunnelling and storage of materials and money more difficult.

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the Kommandant was required to let POW’s out of the main castle security area for around two hours daily for ‘fresh air and exercise’. How this was interpreted was open to manoeuvre, as technically the courtyard within the main castle area (45 x 35 yards in size and open air) was deemed as suitable. There was no mention in the articles of the Convention about minimum space required or a need for grass and trees. The Kommandant viewed use of the park as a privilege and concession for the POWs, so when there was trouble in the castle, exercise in the park was stopped.

The POWs then complained that they had lost their access to fresh air and were being collectively punished for something that that may not have involved them. These were both deemed breaches of the Convention by the British and following complaints to the Swiss Government (protecting power for Great Britain & Commonwealth POW’s) the Swiss took the issue up with the German High Command and the walk was deemed a right which must continue and not a concession. It is interesting that the daily average of POW’s taking up this ‘right’ was relatively small with numbers (excluding occasional peaks) ranging between 5 and 20% daily.

Some of the escape attempts reached the height of creativity and sheer daring, but the security procedures operated by the Germans were typically well organised and it is not easy to find fault with the drills followed:

Minimum number of POWs was thirty.

At the appointed time, they would be let out of their courtyard to form up in five ranks between the guardroom and castle archway.

Prisoners were counted and the number entered in a book.

Guards flanked the column on either side with a German NCO at one end, an officer at the other and a dog(s).

Prisoners were ordered to take a right turn, quick march under the archway, half left across the yard and turn right through the outer gate on to the roadway.

After 150 yards the column turned left off the road and then right down a steep path with a hairpin back to the stream at the bottom of a small valley. Between the top and the stream the path did run close to some buildings.

There were 2 gates on the path, one at the start by the roadway and another further down from the buildings. On the path there one or two spots where sentries could be momentarily unsighted (see posts on Le Ray escape).

Gate to the path -  war 44

The POWs turned right over the bridge into the wired enclosure and the column halted, where a second count was taken.
The enclosure had a six foot barbed wire fence around it, with a standard warning wire about a foot high and a yard inside. Anyone stepping inside that would be liable to be shot.

At one part of the enclosure there as an open sided summer house. The far end of the area was bounded by a ten foot high park wall which ran down one side of the valley across the stream and through forty yards of flat ground and then up the other slope.

Guards marched to positions outside the wire all around the area at 30 yard intervals.

POWs were then allowed to move around freely inside the enclosure.

After an hour the whistle blew, the party assembled in formation and another count was taken.

The guards were brought back in from outside the wire and the party marched back to the castle. Dogs and handlers were left behind to check the enclosure in case the count had been manipulated. 

The walk back across the bridge and up the pathway  -

Back outside the gate to the castle yard a fourth count took place and if everything tallied the POWs were let back in to the castle.

In reality, getting the POWs to the park and back without incident required a substantial input of manpower. Colditz Hauptmann Roland Eggers later recorded

‘…and so found ourselves with a problem on our hands that needed as much attention for two hours daily …as the whole camp required for the twenty four hours day and night together for anything up to 600 of them.’

The column of walkers dawdled and delayed, some quickened, some slowed.

Eggers wrote,

‘No one kept step with anyone else. Certainly no one ever marched. ..crocodiling around the corners, concertinaing on the straight bits, jostling in the gateway, pointing, calling back, calling forward, dropping things, causing the whole time some kind of diversion. And all the same again on the way back.’

The initial exit from the castle was equally difficult with POWs wandering through the gate one by one, delaying, going back to call a comrade to join them. The last minute rush before the gate closed became a regular occurrence and the combination of uniform and clothing to suit what they would be doing was often a rag tag affair making it difficult to recognise anyone. Once at the park the men could be playing football, running, swinging on the bar provided, walking, talking, reading in a corner, gardening in a small seed bed, hiding contraband or checking out possibilities for escape.

Next week – The Escapes


Colditz The German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers (Highly recommended read)

Author's Notes

virtualcolditz .com (recommended site)

©Keith Morley

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