Thursday, 10 December 2015

Colditz - The Lavatory Break

Colditz at Night - Tim Giddings

Five days after French Lieutenants Perrin and Thibaud were recaptured (see previous post); the British led another escape attempt on 31 July 1941. Events were to prove significant in the long battle and psychological war between prisoner and captor. Morale amongst the British would have been typically resilient, and the successful home runs by the French would have raised spirits, but all other escape attempts had failed. POWs who were focused on breaking out of prison camps remained realistic about the odds of success and accepted risks of being caught inside or outside the camp. They had nothing but days, weeks and months on their hands to think about the length of time in captivity, hard conditions and the large amounts of work and ingenuity put into failed escape attempts. 
The latest plan to exit Colditz involved breaking through an interior wall at night between the POW and German side of the castle. Once the men had achieved this, a party of twelve would leave in pairs at five minute intervals and find their own way through the building and out of the castle into the grounds. Once through the wall, the second part of the scheme seemed a thin idea, even though POWs would have some knowledge of the castle layout and guard routines on the German side.

Note the position of the 'canteen' which was on the ground floor. The office's quarters and 'Long Room' were above this. The dividing wall was between the grey and orange sections of the map next to the 'canteen' notation and the left  end of the German headquarters block. - war44

In contrast, significant work had been put into preparing escape clothes and equipment; the latter becoming more organised. Although not every officer had false identity papers, each had a home made compass, a set of hand drawn maps traced from originals and a small amount of German money.

There was plenty of time for individuals to adapt and prepare their own escape clothing. Genuine civilian garments were almost impossible to obtain, so with clever alterations to uniforms, dyeing the material, cutting up blankets and applying some creative tailoring; caps, jackets, coats and trousers were made up. RAF uniforms were very adaptable for this. Some of the British officers in Colditz developed their own area of expertise, making multiple numbers of the same items. This co-operative worked well when individuals were working out the composition of their escape clothes.

Examples of 'civilian' clothes adapted by escapers. These are from Stalag Luft 111.
Some of the  Colditz POWs on the lavatory escape went for rucksack, jacket and cap with an adapted uniform -    

A certain amount of imagination was required to store the escape items and prevent discovery. Frequent searches were made and it was a battle to stay one step ahead of their captors. Common hiding places were too risky; it was liken to a game of chess with each side trying to anticipate thoughts and moves. Clothing was hidden behind false-backed cupboards, in trapdoor hides, under floorboards, sewn into the mattresses or coat linings. None of these were guaranteed to remain undiscovered. Small items were easier to conceal, but also vulnerable if the searcher was thinking along similar lines. POWs would constantly shift articles around to try and avoid detection. Smaller objects could be concealed in stores of food, cigarette tins and even weighted and dropped into lavatory cisterns.

British quarters were above the ‘canteen’ (see previous posts on ‘The Canteen’). Part of the accommodation was nicknamed ‘The Long Room’. On the other side of the dividing wall were the German lavatories in the Kommandantur building which was located in the north east corner of the yard. This part contained the guard quarters for the Kommandantur at the end of a corridor on the first floor. The POWs decided to begin work on breaking through the wall on a night when the guard was on sentry duty. They assumed that the quarters in the immediate area on the other side of the wall would be empty. This was a mistake as the castle switchboard was there and manned twenty four hours a day. During the night, the telephonist left his post to visit the lavatory. He heard a noise, like scratching on the other side of the wall. It stopped and started again. Once he had returned to the switchboard he called security.
The Security Officer arrived with the Duty Officer and listened. It was clear that someone was working behind the wall, level with the second lavatory. A decision was made to monitor the situation and do nothing. The Security Officer decided to let the POWs continue to chip away at the wall which was around eighteen inches thick. It would keep them occupied and so long as careful observation remained in place, the situation was under control. The Security Officer also calculated that breaking through was only a matter of days away. The POW’s were unlikely to work much longer without discovery, as the working end of their hole could not be concealed.
RAF FO Donald Middleton Back row 4th left and Lieutenant Herbert Allenby Cheetham ('Allan') Back row 6th left were caught in the corridor after they had exited via the  lavatory room in the Kommandantur building - IWM

Lieutenant John Hyde Thompson DLI was another apprehended 

The following day a check was kept on noises and workings. A breakout had to be imminent; the calculation was for a weekend attempt around mealtime when the officers would be in their mess, the guard was on duty and the Kommandantur building almost empty. The Germans had no idea where the POWs would go once they had broken in to the German side of the building. They viewed prospects of getting away as slim, so it was decided to bore a hole through the door of the guard’s sleeping quarters to keep a watch on the door coming out of the lavatories. This door was kept closed and surveillance took place for two days. On the Sunday a tiny spy hole appeared in the plaster of the lavatory back wall on the German side.  Seven men waited hidden with the Duty Officer as the first pair of POWs came out of the lavatories and crept down the corridor. Hauptmann Roland Eggers described what happened next:
‘We whipped our door open – “This way please gentlemen!” Astounded they followed us in, so astounded that they did not even shout and warn the others behind them.’

Hauptmann Roland Eggers - war44

Accounts of the numbers passing into the corridor and being apprehended vary between eight and ten. The POW plan remained for pairs to leave at five minute intervals. The Germans stripped the first two POWs, dressed their own men in the civvies and sent them down to the park outside the castle. POW lookouts reported that all was going well, but then no more exits followed. A long wait took place on both sides. The Germans had four or five pairs of would be escapers in the bag already and POW lookouts had no further evidence of anyone getting through.

Lavatory and Prisoner 'Excavations' - war44

A check was made on the inside of the lavatory and the tell tale hole in the wall. Guards rushed across the yard and up into the British Long Room. The men were dressed in their uniforms, but one of the stoves was crammed full of civilian clothes. The quick change had not been quick enough, and the collection of escape aids found on the POWs caught in the corridor was impressive. The blow to morale must have been significant; months of effort had been lost. With a sizeable haul of escape aids and adapted clothing now in enemy hands it was game and set to the Germans – until the next time.

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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