Thursday, 12 November 2015

Colditz - The French Again

French POWs at Colditz on Bastille Day - pegasusarchive (copyright Tim Giddings)

Two days had passed since the unsuccessful Elliott and Lados air raid shelter attempt on 26 July 1941 (see previous post). High summer brought the peak of the escape season and there were often daily incidents at Colditz. Lieutenant André Perrin was a hard resilient man who must have felt the rush of adrenaline when news broke of yet another Frenchman getting away from Colditz. Whilst POWs did not always receive clandestine information of successful home runs, an absence of news about an escaper indicated that no recapture had taken place. By 28 Jul when Perrin and fellow French Lieutenant Thibaud were ready to attempt their break out, a total of four POW’s (all of them Frenchmen) had escaped from Colditz without being caught.

French White Russian, Lieutenant Tatischeff became number four on 18 July 1941. A party of POWs who shared the Russian Orthodox faith had been allowed out of camp under guard to attend a special service in their religious calendar. The Orthodox Bishop of Dresden and choir were in town. Somehow in the church Tatischeff managed to engage with a woman from the choir and engineered her help in his escape. It seems ridiculous given the circumstances, that he was initially able to create a situation with what amounted to little more than suggestive degrees of eye contact and subtle facial expressions. Miss Hoffman responded and Tatischeff was able to slip away from the party of POWs and seek ‘shelter’ with the lady.  

French Lieutenants Perrin & Thibaud

Perrin and Thibaud concentrated on the Saalhaus building, part of which had access to the German yard in Colditz. The building was four storeys high with attic rooms on the top. The camp theatre was on the fourth floor, quarters for senior POW officers were located on the floor below, whilst the second floor contained the baths. Situated on the ground floor was the German kitchen and associated rooms. Apart from a staircase, the other common factor inside the building was an air shaft around six and a half metres square. This ran down from the top floor to a tiled area on the ground floor which had a door leading off into the kitchen, and there were two others to a large storeroom and refrigerator room.
Key factors dictated any escape strategy using the air shaft:
1) The kitchen had an exit which led into the courtyard on the German side of Colditz.
2) Windows looking into the air shaft had been bricked up from the first to third floors.

3) The top floor where the camp theatre was situated had ornamental ironwork over the windows so it was possible to look down the shaft and observe kitchen staff moving across the tiled area between rooms on the ground floor.

 4) Workmen were currently in the castle.

Surveillance from the top floor recorded certain times of the day when visits by the German kitchen staff to the various rooms stopped. This was usually after the serving of a meal. A calculated guess was made that the kitchen was subsequently cleaned and tidied in readiness for the next meal. It was after this point there might be a period when that room was empty.
Perrin and Thibaud  had to:

1) Get access into the air shaft.
2) Climb down forty feet by rope or knotted sheets via the inside of the brick walls
3) Hang out of sight until they were confident no one was in the ground floor area around the bottom of the shaft.
4) Take a calculated risk that the kitchen would be empty, walk in and then exit through the outer door into the courtyard on the German side.
5) Make a left turn and cross the courtyard in full view making for the gate which led out to the roadway and park.
6) Get past the sentry on the gate.
Map of Colditz Castle. Note German kitchen and courtyard in the centre - war44

The men were prepared; they had spent time with their fellow French POWs looking down the airshaft. They wore a reasonable set of workman’s clothes, each with the mandatory yellow armband to signify their status. The extent of any forged papers was likely to be scant, but they had a little money and concealed escape rations. The Frenchmen:

1) Sawed through the ornamental ironwork on a window in the camp theatre.
2) Slid the forty feet down a rope to the ground floor.
3) Checked the immediate ground floor area was deserted.
4) Slowly entered the kitchen before exiting into courtyard.
5) Crossed towards the gate which the POWs went through on their way to the park.

Air shaft is roughly centre of this photograph inside the building. German yard in the foreground - war44

Colditz Officer Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers recorded what happened next:
‘Several people were standing about the German yard as these two men left the kitchen and turned left towards the gate out towards the park. There was a sentry at this point, but his post did not carry a check list of passes in and out and no brass disc was required here.’

Author’s note – this was not the gate which workmen usually used to access and leave the castle. Numbered brass discs were given out to all workmen upon entering the castle through the main gate. These were signed in and out and controlled through a book.
The ‘workmen’ knocked and the sentry opened up. They were wearing suitable clothing and had yellow armbands. He let them through without asking questions. Perrin and Thibaud walked steadily away from the castle. They had pulled it off.

Eggers noted:
‘Quite a lot of coming and going went on through what we called the park gate, as the married quarters were just down the roadway outside…But among the odd people around in the German yard was the man who controlled the laundry for the whole castle. He was standing in the doorway of his store. ..The laundry man wondered idly who are these two? He knew all the comers and goers among the workmen; they were friends of his from the town. …In the end after a good hour he went to the Security Officer and asked him.’
The Officer had no explanation. Soldiers and dogs were called out and soon picked up the trail. The dogs had a good scent so the men followed on bicycles. Lieutenants Perrin and Thibaud were caught six miles away making for the railway station near Leisnig.

Leisneg in 1941 -

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
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

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