Monday, 11 January 2016

Colditz - The Drive to Escape

Despite the failed lavatory escape attempt, Colditz POW’s continued undeterred. Polish Captain Janek Lados was still under cell stubenarrest for hiding in an air raid shelter with British Captain Harry Elliott on the way back from the park exercise area (see post The Park Part Five).  By 2 August 1941 Lados had managed to obtain a hacksaw blade and cut through the bars to his cell located on the castle’s western ramparts. Details of how Lados obtained the blade are not known, but see posts ‘Poles Locks and Bed Sheets’ 1-4 which give some potential leads). He managed to climb down a rope of bed sheets and drop the final 20 feet to the ground injuring his ankle in the process. Somehow in a state of complete exhaustion he managed to reach the Swiss border before being recaptured . Lados may well have reached freedom if it was not for his ankle, which was subsequently found to be broken.  
Colditz Diagram Note Lados cell on the west side - Original image from war44
On 4 August, the daily exercise party trailed up the zigzag path from the park to the castle. The summer heat had slowed everyone down, when jogging along the line back towards the park came two Hitler Youth dressed in sports shorts and vests with a swastika on the front. The pair reached the German NCO at the end of the column, giving the Hitler salute as they passed. The NCO ordered them to halt immediately, berating the men for an appalling salute at the wrong angle. Flying Officer Don Thom and Lieutenant ‘Bertie’ Boustead were convincingly dressed, but were unable to sufficiently answer his questions in German. The game was up.
Flt Lt Donald Thom pictured in Colditz is front row far right - IWM

Hitler Youth (Thom and Boustead were dressed in sports kit)

The relentless drive to escape continued despite disappointments, setbacks and failures. The slim chance of success did not seem to deter POWs in Colditz, despite dips in morale. Paymaster Lieutenant James Mike Moran RN did not arrive at the castle until the following year, but his thoughts and observations provide a valuable insight into the difference between Colditz and other camps both in conditions and the POW’s psyche.

Paymaster Lieutenant  (later Commander) James Mike Moran- You Tube

'Colditz meant nothing to us; we’d never heard of the damn place. When we got outside the station, there were two lines of guards and there were machine guns there and dogs, and we were lined up between these and marched off. The first thing you could see was this damn great castle stuck on top of the hill and it was completely floodlit, and we still had no idea where we were…

There were two problems, one was how closely confined we were, not only in our living quarters but in our exercise quarters, because all we had was that fiddling little bloody courtyard which was not much bigger than a tennis court, we had anything up to 350 chaps and this was their sole exercise space…. And the guards were there with you all the time…with their rifles slung over their shoulders

In previous camps, particularly at Marlag (POW camp for men of the British Merchant Navy and Royal Navy), the chap who wanted to escape was the odd man out. You soon learned in Colditz that if you didn’t want to escape, you were the odd man out. You felt a compulsion to find some way of getting out, to look around and you found a compulsion of being one of the chaps there, you had to adopt a different approach altogether. In Marlag you had to virtually excuse yourself for digging tunnels of for making a nuisance of yourself, and that was how it was thought of there.

In Colditz, you were engaged in some escape activity, even if you knew right from the beginning it was just a waste of bloody time, it would be abortive and it would get you nowhere. Even if one knew that - you had to present yourself to the rest of the chaps as being that sort of chap….I spent weeks and weeks and weeks on the entrance to a tunnel. I knew it would get us nowhere…I couldn’t see that it was going anywhere, but you felt that you had to do this. …the very fact that you were engaged in something, if you had at least an inkling of a hope that it would be successful, well, it kept you occupied and at the same time your approach to things was the general approach in Colditz.’
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
IWM Interview with James Michael Moran
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

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