Monday, 22 August 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part One

Colditz Castle - Wikipedia

The Escape Line is back with weekly posts which will focus on Colditz until the end of 1942, before including other areas of escape and evasion in World War Two. 

On 24 July 1941, sixty eight Dutch officers arrived at Colditz. They joined the existing complement of 140 Poles, 50 British and about 250 French. Around 500 officers and other ranks were now incarcerated in the castle and the Dutch walked straight in to the escaping season. Most of them were Netherlands East Indies officers who had sailed home with their army to Holland at the outbreak of war. Although Holland was still neutral at that time, the fragile situation with neighbouring Germany dictated that maximum military forces were required at home.

After the German invasion of the Low Countries and capitulation of Holland on the 15th May, the Dutch Armed Forces were regarded as prisoners of war by the German High Command. At the end of the month, on direct orders from Hitler, a list of terms for release of the Dutch military was given. Conscripts were released immediately, but specific conditions applied to the regular forces. Officers were required to sign a declaration stating that whilst the Netherlands remained in a state of war with the German Reich, they would not take part directly or indirectly in the fight against Germany and neither would they take any form of direct or indirect action which would endanger the Reich.
Most Dutch officers and other ranks signed the declaration and were subsequently sent home (many later joined the resistance). The sixty eight officers who arrived at Colditz plus five others of various ranks who remained POWs elsewhere, refused to put pen to paper. For officer ranks and above, this would have been against their oath of allegiance to the Queen of the Netherlands who was now in England continuing the fight against the Germans.
The officers who walked in to Colditz on 24th July were special men. Principled, well organised, resilient, impeccably turned out and with a high standard of discipline; they would create major problems for their captors. Multilingual and German speakers, the Dutch were quiet and rigorously routine. The enemy was simply unable to glean anything from them via observation or conversation. Under Senior Officer Major Engles and escape officer Captain van den Heuvel, they became a formidable unit. German records recovered by the Allies after Colditz was liberated stated:
‘The Dutch prisoners of war are Anglophiles and hostile towards the Germans. They have a strong desire to be free which makes it mandatory to establish special security measures.’

Senior Dutch officer in Colditz.  Major Engels is standing far right - IWM

All escape plans were submitted to van den Heuvel for authorisation, which was also standard practice for the other nationalities and their respective escape officers in Colditz. The Dutch decided on priority and order for escape attempts according to their countries’ situation in the war at that time. Personnel deemed to be of best and immediate use to the Dutch military were considered first. The nation still had a navy which had stayed operational after Holland fell and a small air force was stationed in Britain.
Naval officers and pilots received first priority to schemes with the best chance of success. The bigger picture was of overriding importance, although opportunities did exist for anyone who came up with a good plan. They had a chance of being added to a team if it did not jeopardise the escape attempt. This line of thinking ensured continuing proactivity. There were also occasions when low priority young officers were assigned to team up with someone of high priority. This was on condition they did everything possible to assure the escape of the other, including risking their own safety.
Close cooperation in Colditz between the Dutch and English was soon established. During the very early days, neither side revealed their specific escape plans to one another, but ‘notice’ of an impending breakout attempt was communicated between escape officers. It is interesting that van den Heuvel had decided not to make any attempts himself. Instead, he would be proactive in looking for escape opportunities and channel his efforts into the escape work of fellow Dutch officers.

Dutch Escape Officer
Captain 'Vandy' van den Heuvel - The Colditz Story
The new arrivals quickly saw potential in the park exercise ground. Van den Heuvel noticed a concrete manhole top at ground level, covered by a square cover with hinges on one side. About 3 feet square it looked to have a few small air holes and was worth investigating. The next move was to surround the cover, so that the sentries view was blocked and the bolt which secured the cover in position could be removed. A group of Dutchmen casually sat themselves in conversation around the manhole. Some of the men often wore long black cloaks which was part of their uniform and ideal for concealing activity from the enemy. Van den Heuvel managed to remove the bolt and raise the cover a fraction. It looked like a shaft below, which was enough to conceal a man, but the depth was unknown.

The manhole cover and bolt would have looked similar to this - You Tube

Further investigation was warranted. On the next exercise in the park van den Heuvel surrounded himself with a similar group of men and managed to lower a stone on the end of some string into the shaft. The depth was calculated at about eight to ten feet, with a water and a conduit at the bottom. An escape attempt was possible. It is interesting that there is no evidence anyone had seriously considered the possibilities of this manhole before. 

Location of the manhole in the Park (present day) - virtual colditz. com
Captain A L C 'Dolf' Dufour and Lietenant John Smit were the men chosen to attempt a breakout by hiding in the shaft and then escaping later over the wall around the park. Lieutenant Etienne ‘Hans’Larive meticulously briefed the pair on post escape protocol and drew a detailed map of the Swiss border region of Singen, where the crossing would be attempted. Larive had previously escaped from Oflag V1A in Soest and reached the frontier near that point.
The men were ready but to the layman two major problems were obvious:

How could the men remain hidden and undetected after the head count at the re-entry point to the castle did not tally? The park would then be thoroughly searched and a full appell called .

The bolt would have to be left off the manhole cover in order for the men to exit the shaft. This would be easily spotted by guards searching the park.

Next week – How They Did It
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
Escape From Colditz 16 First Hand Accounts - Reinhold Eggers
Author's Notes 

©Keith Morley

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  1. Another great account here Keith...I shuddered at the thought of going onto that shaft.

    1. Thanks Maria. The shaft becomes an integral part of a number of escape attempts. The conditions inside were extremely challenging; both physically and mentally.