Monday, 19 October 2015

Colditz - The Park Part Three

Colditz yard and solitary cells on the left - Pegasus archive

On Wednesday afternoon 2 July 1941 Pierre Lebrun made a second attempt to escape from Colditz. Twenty one days solitary confinement (stubenarrest) for his previous effort on 9 June (see previous post) would only have increased his resolve to get away as the time passed with just basic German rations and no food from Red Cross parcels. The manner of his last capture and the two previous breakouts before he was transferred to Colditz must have played on his mind in the lonely hours. Some men would have become demoralised or taken time to gather themselves and think things through before trying to get away again. Lebrun decided the only way forward was to escape whilst he was still in solitary. He calculated there was one chance to do this and it had to be in full view of the guards during the daily exercise.

It is surprising that POW’s in solitary confinement at Colditz were still allowed to take their exercise in the park area outside of the main castle. Such was the influence of the Swiss Government; the protecting power for British POWs under the Geneva Convention. Following complaints by the camp British Senior Officer, the Colditz Kommandant Oberst Schmidt maintained that the prisoner’s exercise in the park was deemed a privilege and not a right and could be withdrawn as punishment for transgressions of discipline and camp rules by the POW’s. The OKW (Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces) ordered that the current practice for exercise should continue (this included the park and POWs under stubenarrest).

Colditz Staff  Oberstleutnant Schmidt (centre, front)
- Pegasus archive

The exercise period for POW’s in solitary confinement, ran daily from 12.30 to 14.30. The prisoners were marched from their cells under guard and down to the park where they were confined inside an inner barbed wire enclosure (known as the sheep pen by the French.) This was a smaller area within the main exercise ground. The main ground was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence with a single warning wire about a foot in height, positioned a yard inside the fence. Anyone stepping inside this wire ran the risk of being fired on.

At one end of the inner enclosure and main exercise ground a ten foot high wall ran down the side of the valley, across the stream, along forty yards of flat ground and up the other slope. An officer, a Feldwebel and 3 armed guards kept watch on the small numbers of POWs from solitary, whilst they took their exercise inside the inner barbed wire enclosure. The sentries were positioned at intervals up the side of the valley where they had a perfect view. Escape looked impossible.  

The Park and Boundary Wall - virtualcolditz

Lebrun had other ideas. He had managed to share his plan with French Lieutenant Pierre Odry who had also been confined to the cells following an earlier escape from the park, where Odry managed to get out and reach the bridge at Gross Sermuth before being caught by one of the camp trucks. Odry agreed to help Lebrun on the day despite the virtually impossible odds. But the break would have to come whilst both men were still exercising together with the other POWs under punishment.

Lieutenant Pierre Odry

Lieutenant Pierre Lebrun

During the period of solitary, thirty Reich marks was smuggled into Lebrun’s cell along with small quantities of energy giving food. He had been working on his fitness during the daily exercise period, but this had to be done sparingly on account of the limited rations. Wearing running shorts, a short sleeved shirt which could pass off as a Nazi shirt, a leather sleeveless jacket, socks and plimsolls with rubber soles, he would exercise for the first hour, trying to jog at least half a mile around the inner enclosure during that time. The second hour was used to rest, discreetly observing the sentries and surroundings.

By 25 June he was ready to make the attempt. No one knew that he had wrapped a razor, soap, a small amount of sugar and chocolate in a silk cravat, which was concealed inside his jacket via a tight belt. Once inside the inner enclosure the exercise and sentries'  routine was usually the same, but the moment had to be exactly right. An opportunity did not present itself.

Colditz POW Major Pat Reid recorded

 ‘For five exercise periods he was ready to go, but each time the circumstances were not quite right. These false starts put an enormous strain on his nerves – he was too tense before each of them to even eat.’

Lebrun’s stretch in the cells was almost complete. On 2 July he told Odry as soon as they arrived in the park that he was going to make a break for it that day. The weather was warm and sunny and this time the two men walked around the enclosure for around an hour checking the position of the guards and looking for the exact spot where they could spring the escape. They marked it with a pebble at a point along the barbed wire which ran out from the park cross wall.

The ground rose up sharply amongst a number of trees on the other side of the barbed wire fence.  Two sentries had been positioned about twenty yards up the slope on a path which ran parallel to the enclosure. They had a good view looking down onto the POWs. Lebrun and Odry worked their way back to the marked location via jogging and leapfrogging exercises. The men stopped near the fence for a breather, everything seemed routine as on previous days. Odry turned his back on the fence, cupping his hands together at waist level, Lebrun had taken a few steps back and ran towards him, putting his foot into the ‘stirrup’. With a heave Lebrun was propelled over the fence, landing awkwardly on the other side.
Leapfrog - The Colditz Story 1954
Leapfrog 2 - The Colditz Story 1954

Leapfrog 3 - The Colditz Story 1954 

It took a moment for the Germans to realise what had happened. Someone shouted a warning ‘halt’, sentries unslung their rifles. Lebrun scrambled up, beginning a zig-zag run for the wall in the castle grounds about fifty yards away. The shooting started. He ran to the right, bullets whistling past. Sentries on the path had him well in their sights and fired. He reached the bottom of the slope, bullets hitting the wall behind him. Lebrun leapt up, scrambling the ten feet over the wall and running away through the trees, shots raining after him.

He made for the nearby wood, working his way through and crossing the river twice to throw the dogs off his scent. The NCO in charge at the park made the decision to return the prisoners to the castle guardroom. Hauptmann Roland Eggers observed that ‘he might have done better to climb the wall and go off in pursuit himself.’

The alarm sounded as Lebrun neared the edge of the wood. Now he had to remain out of sight from the nearby civilian population. The Germans would bring out the police, Home Guard, Hitler Youth and dogs to search for him. He opted to hide in a cornfield, walking slowly backwards, lifting up the flattened corn as he went along. Hiding and opting to move by night was worth the risk against being discovered in the hours before darkness.


The weather quickly deteriorated with a spell of heavy rain. Dressed in his sleeveless leather tunic, shorts and plimsolls, there was little choice but to remain where he was until nightfall. Anyone walking through the downpour dressed as he was would arouse immediate suspicion. There is no doubt that the weather hampered the searches and the dogs were unable to stay on his trail.

The rain continued throughout the evening. Once it was completely dark Lebrun set off following the River Mulde to the south-west, hiding by day and travelling by night. The bad weather continued until the morning of 5 July when the sunshine returned. Even though it was summer, the days and nights wearing the same soaking wet clothing must have been testing.

Zwickau -
As soon as his clothes had dried sufficiently he walked into the town of Zwickau (50 miles from Colditz) and managed to steal a bicycle. Switzerland was still 400 miles away, but he might pass off as a German cyclist, possibly touring the area. There is a suggestion that he was able to bluff his way through some situations with the cover story that he was an Italian officer on leave from the front who had decided to tour some of the land of his country’s ally.

After 8 days travel, incredibly LeBrun reached Switzerland and freedom. He was the third man to make a home run from Colditz. All of them were French officers who had made their escape via the park.  
In his cell he had left his kit tied up and addressed to himself in unoccupied Vichy France with a note  'Should I succeed, I should be obliged by the dispatch of my effects to me at the following address - Lieut. Pierre Mairesse-LeBrun, Orange (Vaucluse). May God help me.' The Germans at Colditz sent the items on to the address.

The Colditz Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz The Full Story - Major P R Reid MBE MC
Colditz the German Viewpoint - Reinhold Eggers

Colditz-Oflag IVC - Michael McInally
Author's Notes
©Keith Morley

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