Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part Two

‘The Dutch never made themselves conspicuous in any way. Hence their success in springing surprises. Then only, would they approach the bounds of familiarity with the broadest of grins among themselves and occasionally shared with us. They rejoiced in the exercise ground in the park as a field for escape manoeuvres, and profited by it more than anyone else.’
Hauptman Reinhold Eggers, officer in Colditz  - Colditz the German Viewpoint 

It was time for officers of the Netherlands East Indies Army, Captain 'Dolf' Dufour and Lieutenant John Smit to make their move (see previous post). On Wednesday afternoon 13 August 1941 the Dutch assembled for the park exercise parade (see previous posts about the park exercise). Their plan was simple. The two men would hide on a ladder in the shaft below the manhole cover (one would be up to his chest in water at the bottom of the ladder). They would make their escape at a suitable point after the park exercise group had returned to the castle. By now, the British and Polish POWs knew of an impending escape attempt, but had no details. It is interesting how both sets of these prisoners featured in the course of events which followed.
Captain A L C 'Dolf'' Dufour dressed as a German officer
 in a later escape attempt
The manhole was located inside an area in the park known as the ‘sheep pen’. The ‘pen’ formed a piece of ground surrounded by high wire fencing. It was in this confined area that the POW’s exercised and were permitted to walk, run, play ball games and generally move or stand around. The enclosure was well patrolled both inside and out, with the prisoners being closely monitored. To shield a couple of men from the view of the guards for any length of time was difficult. It was an even bigger challenge to do it for long enough to enable the escapers to remove a bolt from the manhole cover, lift the lid and descend into the shaft before lowering the lid down.

The plan had to be sound, as the manhole was potentially a viable starting point for further escapes; providing it remained undiscovered. The Dutch were fairly sure that an escape had not been considered or attempted from the location before,  and they had seen no evidence of guard’s checks on the manhole cover. It was flush to the ground and there was a chance (despite the small cover bolt having to be retained by the escapers whilst hiding in the shaft) that any search might pass by.
Dufour and Smit were confident that they could quickly get into the shaft of the manhole. They also knew that contingencies were in place amongst the POW’s to try and cover their absence when the exercise party reached the castle. The two immediate problems would be:
  • The head count before departure from the park would instigate an immediate and full search of the whole park area. This increased the risk of the manhole cover being lifted.  

  • The count at the castle gates (if by some miracle the POWs had been marched back without the shortfall of two men being discovered.)
Either would result in a full camp prisoner appell to determine who was missing. It was vital that the two men remained undetected for as long as possible to allow an escape. It is likely that they planned to wait until it was dark before climbing over the ‘sheep pen’ perimeter wire and escaping out of the castle grounds via the park wall.

The Park Wall - virtualcolditz.com

Neither Dufour nor Smit had any travel documents or identity papers, so would be arrested at any check. They had civilian clothes made in the camp, a small amount of money to cover train travel and had been briefed by fellow Dutchman Hans Larive on the best route to the Swiss border. He passed on vital information on the geography of the frontier area and any border posts and guards he had encountered in an earlier escape attempt from another camp. 
At least the men spoke German, which would help them buy tickets and keep abreast of conversation and questions. Once on the run, if they could blend in anonymously and avoid checks; they saw themselves as having a real chance of making a home run. The optimism of the ‘would be’ escaper knew no bounds.
Dufour and Smit would undoubtedly have compartmentalised each phase of their plan; moving on to the next action after successful completion of the current phase:  

  • Get in to the manhole shaft without being seen and hang on to the ladder.

  • Avoid detection and don’t suffocate.

  • Exit the manhole, replace the bolt across the cover, climb over the ‘sheep pen’ fence and negotiate the park wall without being seen.

  • If possible, get out of the town of Colditz before the alarm is raised.

  • Travel on slower low risk local trains where there is less chance of checks.

About an hour after their arrival in the park, the Dutch formed a large circle in the ‘sheep pen’ and were throwing a football across to each other. Nothing unusual in that, and the circle briefly moved and fluctuated around the area near to the manhole cover. No problem, as men had been seen sitting around the location before and exercise had passed through that area before.

Dutch Handball Game - Oflag IVC Colditz  YT

The sentries along the fence were being watched, and at an opportune moment, the circle surrounded the manhole cover and moved in closer until the men touched each other’s elbows. For a few seconds the manhole was screened from the sentries both inside and outside of the sheep pen. During that time, Dufour and Smit had the cover up and were down the shaft. The circle widened again and the game continued.

Open Manhole Cover - Oflag IVC Colditz  YT

The whistle blew to indicate that time was up and the POWs assembled near the 'sheep pen' gate for a head count before being marched back up to the castle for another check of numbers and then being readmitted. It was at the sheep pen gate that a shortfall would inevitably be discovered.
Two men short! This was impossible; the men had been counted upon arrival at the park and had been contained within the ‘sheep pen’ throughout the exercise period. The guards searched the park grounds thoroughly, but did not include or notice the manhole. It is likely at this stage, that it had not been considered or highlighted by the German officers, as it had never featured before. It is debatable whether some of the personnel even knew of its existence, because it was flush to the ground and could be easily missed.
At this point a real stroke of luck occurred. British officers had been temporarily suspended from the exercise privilege (this would have been because of some escape attempt, misdemeanour or conduct issue). Earlier, when the party had assembled in the castle for the exercise parade, two British officers had attempted to slip in unnoticed in borrowed uniforms. They were recognised by the guards and sent back. Someone suggested at the park, that because of this, the counted numbers may be correct after all. Despite the mathematics and system in operation, the comment created enough doubt to march the POWs back to the castle. At the outer gate the party was counted and recounted repeatedly by three different guards. No one could agree whether there were two men missing or not.
Colditz Staff - strijidbewijs.nl

An appell was called for all those POWS who had not been to the park and this still did not produce a satisfactory conclusion. The park POWs were then marched in to the castle and a full camp appell taken. An officer counted from the front and a sergeant from the back. The numbers tallied. All POWs were present and the parade was dismissed. How was this possible?
The British had inadvertently helped in all of this, but it was the close cooperation between the Poles and Dutch which produced a classic ruse. At camp appells, the Dutch always stood in rows of five, in neat straight lines which made counting easy. This was a relief for the captors, as the ramshackle, untidy and unpredictable line ups of the British and French, could be time consuming, difficult to manage and count. The Germans got in to the habit of only counting the numbers of Dutch rows, because they were so meticulously predictable. They also stopped looking from the side. Had they have counted from that point on this particular appell, it would have been easy to see that there were two lines not quite straight, where soldiers had shifted position marginally to conceal the absentees. The same ruse was applied at the evening appell and Dufour and Smit slipped away from the park with no German knowledge of their absence.

Colditz French Prisoner Appell on Bastille Day - pegasusarchive (copyright Tim Giddings)

At appell the following morning, the numbers tallied again. Surely it was pushing their luck to adopt the same tactics again?  Numbers tallied, but two Poles had taken the places of Dufour and Smit. That would leave the Poles two short on their own count. Their numbers were correct. During the appell, four Poles were reported sick in bed. An orderly was dispatched to the two corner rooms in the Polish wing where the men were supposed to be located. The rooms were interconnected via a small sliding panel in the wall, making it possible to move from a bed in one room to a bed in the other, faster than someone could walk from one room to the other. The result was ‘four men tucked up in bed ill and an orderly reporting four men sick in bed. This scam was kept up for twenty four hours giving the escapers valuable time.

Singen 1940

Dufour and Smit took the slow route and were finally caught at Singen near the Swiss border before being  returned to Colditz. By the time they were captured,  the Dutch had pulled off another masterstroke in the art of escaping.

Next Week - The Larive & Steinmetz Escape


Colditz The Full Story - Major Pat Reid MBE MC  (Highly recommended read)

Colditz The German Viewpoint Reinhold Eggers  (Highly recommended read)

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Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

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