Thursday, 8 October 2015

Colditz - The Park Part Two

Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun -

French Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun made his first escape from Colditz on 9 June 1941 by climbing into the rafters of an open sided pavilion in the middle of the park used for exercise. Fellow POW’s had created a series of innocent looking diversions to enable Lebrun to make the move without being seen by the guards. He was able to hide himself away until after the exercise party had left the park and was not detected by the dogs sent in for a final check of the area.

This was less than two weeks after Lieutenant Rene Collin had successfully escaped via the same method of concealment. He was not recaptured, so it is likely that Lebrun was sticking to the same plan. For his absence to remain unnoticed, it was necessary for the head count at the park (taken before the prisoners were marched back to the castle) to tally with:
The agreed total before they initially left the castle

The total when they first arrived at the park
The total when they reached the castle after being marched back from the park.

(See previous post for security measures taken by the Germans in relation to the daily park exercise).
The count was manipulated by concealing a very small Belgian officer Sous Lieutenant Verkest at the outgoing count parade from the castle. He had clamped his legs around a fellow POW’s thighs whilst two others supported him by the elbows. The man in the middle wrapped his coat and some blankets around the Belgian and then unfolded a German newspaper to conceal the deception. It was then easy for Verkest to cover Lebrun at the returning counts.

A bugle blown from one of the castle windows was the POWs signal that the absence had not been noticed. Lieutenant Verkest had covered successfully and Lebrun was clear to make his exit from Colditz. He climbed down from the rafters and successfully negotiated the park fence and wall. He was wearing a smart grey suit which had been made from pyjamas sent to him during the winter.
Lebrun did not go to Colditz station, but walked the six miles to Grossbothen to catch a train to Leipzig. All was going well until he tried to pay for his ticket. The 100 mark note was out of date as it was from 1924 during the reign of King Wilhelm 11.(hidden for months in a nutshell inside a jar of jam after arriving in a next of kin food parcel)

A early picture of Grossbothen Station - Wikipedia

He was taken to the stationmaster’s office and detained there.
Hauptmann Roland Eggers of Colditz described how they received a phone call one evening from Grossbothen station:

‘They asked if anyone was missing. No. Why should there be? We have a man under here under guard. Might be one of your PW’s. He asked for a ticket just now and offered us out of date money for it – an old blue 100 mark note. He can’t be German.
We fetched the man in; it was Lieut Mairesse-Lebrun. He was dressed in the smartest civilian clothes, complete with monocle.'
Eggers recorded that they had no idea how Lebrun got out and naturally he had refused to tell them. It was worrying because there was clearly an exit from the camp via the park and the prisoners were using it ‘sparingly and successfully.’ (The Germans did not know how either Alain LeRay or Rene Collin had made their escapes)

Lebrun received 21 days in the cells for his attempt. It must have been frustrating being thwarted by something as simple as an out of date banknote. Before arriving at Colditz he had already escaped twice from camps and had reached Switzerland on the first occasion without realising; drifting back to the German side and being arrested by a patrol.
Here was no ordinary soldier. Within weeks of the German attack on France in May 1940 Lebrun had already been awarded the Croix de Guerre and Legion d’Honneur. He defended his post at Chatel sur Mosel to stop the Germans crossing the Moselle until the day  France officially capitulated. With communication as it was, he had no knowledge of the latter stages of the Battle of France or the demand for an armistice on 17 June. He simply followed orders to the last, surrendering on 22 June with half of his men lost and the rest out of ammunition. The next day he found himself lined up with fellow officers in front of German machine guns ready for execution following the murder of a sentry overnight by one of his men. The execution was only stopped at the last moment when one of the French Lieutenants standing alongside Lebrun broke ranks and made himself known to a German officer who had arrived to supervise proceedings. The Lieutenant had worked opposite the German in Berlin before the war whilst in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Stubenarrest cell 

As soon as he began his spell on solitary Stubenarrest in the Colditz cells Lebrun planned his next escape. It was arguably one of the most simple, daring and almost suicidal attempts to get away from the castle.        


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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