Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Colditz - The Manhole Hat-trick

Dutch POWs in Colditz - E H Larive

‘Deceiving the German mind was a psychological finesse.’ - Francis Steinmetz

The arrival of the Dutch officers at Colditz castle on 24 July 1941 came at a time when, as Hauptmann Roland Eggers wrote:
‘We had really felt we were getting the place properly bottled up.’
Colditz opened its gates to POWs from October 1939 to October 1940 as a transit camp and from 1 November 1940 as a sonderlager [special camp] or Lager mit besonderer Bewachtung [camp with special surveillance]. Since then, there had been four successful escapes, all of them by French POWs.

Eggers view is interesting as there had been four separate home runs between 11 April 1941 and 18 July 1941. With the benefit of historical overview, his pitch was quite reasonable. Attempts to escape were being stopped on a regular basis, and even though there were periods inside Colditz, when all appeared to be quiet, preparations, tunnelling and scheming was always in progress.

Although Colditz was deemed by the Germans to be escape proof and ideal for incarceration of the most difficult prisoners; it had been built towards the end of the eleventh century to keep people out, rather than keep them in. The interior design of the castle presented opportunities for the hardened escaper and creative thinker. Despite the odds being stacked against the POWs; the Germans still had a massive task in keeping the place secure. A short time after the Dutch arrived Eggers commented that a number of minor and one major escape attemps had been foiled and:
‘the prisoners popped out like corks from unexpected places.’
Staff and guards constantly had to react and make changes to existing security procedures.

Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers -

The Dutch manhole escapes must have shifted the dynamic and morale towards the POWs, increasing pressure on camp Kommandant Oberst Schmidt. He immediately suspended the daily park exercise. Following the sonderappell (special appell) seven  Dutchmen were technically deemed as missing:

Dufour and Smit  (Nearing the Swiss border but close to recapture)

Larive and Steinmetz  (On their way to the Swiss border and a home run)

Lieutenants Frits 'Bear' Kruimink, Douw van der Krap and JJL Baron van Lynden (hiding inside the castle in a space they had access to through a camouflaged hole in their rooms)

van Lyden, Kruimink & van der Krapp - IWM

The three Dutchmen hiding in the castle were another piece in the puzzle to confuse the Germans, in addition to the deception carried out by Lieutenant Gerrit Dames and other Dutch POWs during the Larive and Steinmetz escape. That had been a deliberate ploy to draw attention away from the manhole cover and shaft. (See The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part One) The ‘missing' men remained in hiding and were eventually found by the guards ten days later during a detailed search of the Dutch quarters. 

Security around the park exercise was reviewed and changed before the walk recommenced. Given a choice, it is certain the Germans would have removed the activity completely. The whole end to end process weakened their security. They viewed the courtyard inside the castle walls as satisfying the Geneva Convention stipulation of fresh air every day for the prisoners. The park exercise was a concession, and therefore could be removed as punishment, which they had done in the past. The British had objected to this, took up the matter with their protecting power (Swiss Government) who approached the German High Command. The Swiss had then decided that the park walk was a right and should be reintroduced. How ironic that two of the real drivers behind the original actions of both captor and captive in this (i.e. security and escape), would never be mentioned in discussions with the Swiss. The Germans were left to try and make inroads by indirect manoeuvring, which they failed to do.

Captain 'Vandy' van den Heuvel - The Colditz Story

During the period when the park exercise was suspended, escapers Dufour and Smit were returned to Colditz and placed in solitary confinement as punishment. Caught at the Swiss border on the brink of freedom, they at least had assimilated vital information around leaving Colditz from the park and the current dangers on the Swiss frontier around Gottmadingen. On their return to the castle, this intelligence was somehow passed to the Dutch and reached escape Officer Captain Machiel ‘Vandy’ Van den Heuvel.  Details were given to Major Cornelis Giebel and 2nd Lieutenant Oscar Drijber. Once the park exercise began again, these two men would attempt yet another escape via the manhole.
Lt Oscar Drijber

The German staff and guards had still not worked out where the POWs were escaping from. The diversion from Lieutenant Dames at the wire fence of the exercise enclosure on the last escape (Larive and Steinmetz) had helped to keep the manhole location under wraps. Eggers said:

'Once more we were faced with an unknown breach in our defences. We cancelled the walk for a while and tightened up every part of our patrol system. We also arranged for a halt on the way back from the park now and again, to make an extra count when the “walk” was not expecting one.’
Major Cornelis Griebel

The new drill had only been in operation for a few days when Giebel and Drijber made their escape attempt. The skill was in the creativity, preparation and execution of the plan. Contrary to a version of the Larive and Steinmetz escape, there is no evidence to suggest that the bolt across the manholecover was replaced during their escape whilst the men were hiding in the brick shaft. The same applied to Dufour and Smit. It is likely that the escapers removed the bolt, climbed in to the shaft and only replaced it across the cover after they exited later.  
Even the most optimistic escaper must have doubted there was any more mileage left in the park manhole, as a way out of Colditz. Further POWs escaping from the park via that method, would surely result in the manhole cover being spotted minus its bolt. But the Dutch had one more trick up their sleeve. Escape officer van den Heuvel had conducted Bible-reading classes in the exercise pen in the park. These were led by naval lieutenant Damiaen J van Doorninck and took place over the manhole cover. During the classes the nut and bolt over the cover were carefully measured. A pair of large spanners were made from iron bed parts and would be used to quickly undo the nut and bolt which was in place over the manhole cover. The masterstroke lay in the next part of the plan. An identical strategy involving the POWs playing a game of handball and forming a circle which gradually closed in around the manhole cover would be repeated (see previous posts).
Major Damiaen J van Doorninck

Once Giebel and Drijber had climbed into the manhole shaft without being seen by the guards, the bolt would be replaced on the cover – except that the bolt and nut to be used was a fake. The nut had been made from wood and a glass bolt adapted from an aspirin bottle. Both were painted grey to look like the originals.

There were still four major problems:

1)      The men had to push up the manhole cover and exit the shaft without being seen or leaving any trace of having been there.

2)      The enclosure headcount in the park, (taken before the POWs were marched back to the castle) would have to be manipulated to mask the shortage of two men.

3)      The shortage would have to be concealed on the march up the path if spot checks were made, and also at the final count before entering the castle. (The Dutch had been a little fortunate in that area on the Dufour and Smit escape) See past posts

4)      It was vital to give Giebel and Drijber the maximum amount of time to get clear of the area, before their absence was discovered. This meant somehow concealing the shortage on the headcounts during the next and as many future camp appels as possible.

What the Dutch did next was astounding.

Final part of the manhole saga is next week.


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

Colditz The German Viewpoint  - Reinhold Eggers (Highly recommended read)
Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed




Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Colditz - The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part Two

Nurnberg Streets -

Continued from previous post:

Neither Larive nor Steinmetz mention the blackout in their accounts, but Nurnberg must have been in darkness. The men faced the ordeal of leaving a railway station for over five hours with no idea where they were going. The odds on getting lost or being picked up were short. Staying put was too dangerous, so they decided to keep close to the station and repeat the same circular route. Fortunately, luck was with them.

‘There were a surprising number of people on the streets.’  E H Larive.
This strategy would only hold for a while. Short ‘reconnaissance trips were made, searching for somewhere to rest and hide unseen from the road or neighbouring buildings. Just off the main street, they found a church set back in total darkness. In the garden a number of benches, were occupied by courting couples. It was easy to slope past in the chill night air and find a free seat without being noticed. The blanket used to cover their heads when hiding at the bottom of the manhole shaft in Colditz was draped over their knees.  Larive noted the scene:

‘Love-making was in steady progress all around us and the intermittent sound of smacking kisses, with other noises, made us shake with suppressed laughter. Once in a while our weary eyes closed and our heads sagged down in sleep, only to wake up again with a start. We had to keep a watch for police and possible check-ups. Then a new couple came in from the street and carefully groping their way around in the darkness, trying to find an empty seat, finally had to pick on our bench.’

The men had no choice, but to "merge in" . Larive wore a jacket and Steinmetz a sweater, so wrapping the blanket around his hips to look like a skirt Steinmetz carefully hid his head against Larive’s shoulder and the pair imitated kissing noises. They kept up the act until after 3am when the other couple finally moved off. It must have been a relief when the time ticked round to return to the station.

They caught the train without incident, changed at Ulm and arrived in Singen station on the same day, an hour before dusk, having taken the line south west through Ehingen and Sigmaringen. Larive remembered the territory well from his previous escape attempt.

Singen station -

'After handing in our tickets we left the station and turned left, right and left again, crossed the single line, turned left and came to the road running parallel to double track. I couldn’t miss. I was as sure and confident as if it were my home town.’

Gottmadingen was the next destination. Larive recalled making the mistake of catching the train there on his last visit. This time the men stayed on the road; as it was easier to look for landmarks the Gestapo officer had pointed out on his map. (see last week’s post).The road moved into the woods. No more than half a mile to the border. From now on, the plan was to make a run for it separately if things went wrong.

German border post. Note the pathway on the right - E H Larive
As they rounded a bend, a German border guard fifty yards ahead spotted them. This had changed since the information on Larive's previous escape. The guard started to walk forward. They crossed the road, the guard did the same. The distance between them was no more than twenty five yards. To the right a few yards ahead, a path led into the trees but away from the frontier. Any choice disappeared. The guard shouted ‘halt’. They made a run for it. A shot rang out, the bullet whistling past Larive’s head.

‘We immediately turned off the path and ran on between the trees.’ E H Larive

There was no second shot. The escapers finally stopped running and decided the guard must have returned to his post to raise the alarm. Unsure of their bearings and proximity to the frontier, they circled to the left, reaching the edge of the wood to try for a better sighting and size up before it became too dark what the Germans were doing to try and catch them.

The road looked about 400 metres  away from a patch of farmland. They would have to cross it without being detected. Away to the right, the railway and town of Gottmadingen were clearly visible. The south road out of the town led to Switzerland.  

On the right is the edge of the wood where the escapers hid
to get a better view  - E H Larive

Soldiers on bicycles left the guard post to take up position on the road at 400 metre intervals. Dusk came quickly as it started to rain. The escapers heard rifle shots somewhere behind them and barking dogs. Run or stay? It was best to remain where they were and cover themselves with the blanket. A risk, but it was unlikely the dogs had their scent and the rain and darkness would make searching difficult. The rifle fire was an effort to flush the men out and for the dogs to latch on to the sound of them running away.

The search party came close, but finally moved on. Around ten o’clock  Larive folded up their blanket and they crept away. Guided by his compass, they crawled painstakingly across the ground on their elbows and stomach towards the road, stopping every few yards to look and listen. Before slithering across, both men removed their shoes to prevent any noise. It had taken 4 hours to cover about 600 metres.

'We had been on our way for two and a half days now; without sleep and with only a couple of bars of chocolate to eat, while constantly on the alert or on the move.'

It is difficult to fully appreciate the utter exhaustion at this point, or what really lay in the men's most innermost thoughts . Larive had been so near before. The prospect of another return to Colditz was unthinkable. 

A short detour to the west before veering south again brought them to the outline of some houses. Surely they had done enough now. Steinmetz shinned up a signpost and struck a match to get a closer look. ‘Deutsche Zollant’  - German Customs. They ran away expecting the shots which never came.

Larive described what happened next:

'After a quarter of an hour we again ran into a small group of houses. What were they Swiss or German? According to my calculations we should have crossed the border by now, but had we?...We were soaked through and the chill had numbed us…suddenly the stinging white beam of a strong torch flashed on us. Then I heard what I feared to hear most of all - German:
“Wer sind Sie? Was Machen Sie hier?”  (Who are you? What are you doing here?)
A cold violent anger overpowered me, bringing tears to my eyes: caught again, a hundred yards, maybe fifty yards from the border.'
They were ready to attack the guard. Then he spoke again.

"Sie sind in der Schweiz. Sie mussen mit mir kommen!"  (You are in Switzerland. You’ll have to come with me.)'

Larive & Steinmetz photographed after their escape
 and still wearing the same clothes- E H Larive


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

The Man Who Came in From Colditz - E H Larive (A must read if you can find a copy)

Author's Notes
©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed 


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Colditz - The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part One

Map of The Park - E H Larive

Continued from previous post:

‘I felt slight apprehension of leaving the sheltered known world of the POW camp, but that quickly passed and was replaced by joy – we have done it.’ Francis Steinmetz
Hans Larive and Francis Steinmetz had a clear plan to reach the Swiss border, but the odds were still stacked against them.

‘We had nothing, no identity papers, no travel permits.’ Francis Steinmetz.

Despite this, the escapers had a few cards they could play. By bribing guards with coffee, chocolate and luxuries from prisoner parcels, the POW’s in Colditz had collected essential information on the German search system triggered after grounds and castle had been covered and personnel were still missing.

1) Search parties sent out on foot to cover the immediate neighbourhood and watch local roads

2) A group on bicycles spreading out in a larger area to operate in a similar way

3) Railway and police stations in the area alerted. Once the escaper’s identity was known, police in Leipzig were also notified. They had photographs and descriptions of the prisoners on file. Leipzig was a railway junction which escapers may attempt to travel through.  

4) If there were no immediate results, the search would be quickly widened with all known information.

Dutch Naval Group - Larive is back row extreme left.  Steinmetz is 2nd right middle row - E H Larive

At least the Dutchmen had some detailed awareness of German strategies and what to expect 'post escape'. Larive also had specific knowledge of the border area around Singen. Following his arrest during an earlier escape attempt, information was openly divulged to him by a Gestapo officer at area headquarters on the edge of the village. Although disclosure took place before Larive’s identity was fully known, it is debatable whether that would have made any difference. The Gestapo officer had struck up a strange rapport and his complacency seemed comfortable in the knowledge that he was in a position of total superiority, the war would soon be over and this kind of information was academic.

Larive was shown a map and how he had walked past part of the Swiss border which jutted into Germany at a distance of only about 300 yards. He asked numerous questions ‘which could be of any interest to an escaper and learned a lot.’ The biggest coup was ascertaining there was no real defence line on the border with Switzerland and he could have walked across. This intelligence would be used later by five more Colditz POWs when escaping into Switzerland. 

When Steinmetz recounted their escape, he said that the two men ‘had nothing’. This was true with regard to documentation, but they did hold enough money to cover train travel. Larive had managed to smuggle paper money and a small compass out of his last POW camp in to Colditz.

He noted how this was done before leaving Oflag V111C:

‘I now had to take care of my money and compass and knowing I would be subject to the most intensive search of all, it created quite a problem. I emptied a tin of apple syrup, placed the compass in the bottom of it protected by a piece of greaseproof paper and refilled the tin. The censor usually probed tins and jars with a knife to detect hidden objects and I had to think of some way to counter that. Knowing they, like anyone else, would not like to get their fingers sticky, I covered the outside of the tin with apple syrup, wrapped the tin in a very dirty piece of paper and put it right on top of everything in my suitcase.’

The plan worked as the censor removed the tin from the suitcase, pulled away the paper and took the tin in his hands before noticing the syrup. He dropped it in disgust and after checking Larive’s suitcase told him to pick up the tin and move along.

‘I had concealed the money somewhere on my person and managed to pass that through undetected.’
The ruse with the apple syrup tin worked again at Colditz. As for the money:

‘They searched me intensively and I even had to strip naked – yet they found nothing – not even my money, which was not on my body – but in it. A short visit to the toilet before being searched accomplished this.’

The escape plan was to reach Leisnig in time for the first train, just after dawn. Larive’s compass proved vital and the pair arrived ten minutes before departure time. Checks were almost inevitable, but there was no choice except to take the train and press on. Risks had to be minimised whatever the odds, so Steinmetz bought the tickets to Dresden as he spoke better German. Larive stood at the far end of the platform, ready to slip away if there were problems.

Leisnig Rail Station today -

There were no checks, which was unexpected, as they did not have the advantage of earlier Dutch escapers Lieutenant Dufour and Captain Smit whose absence was not discovered until two days after they broke out of Colditz. Larive and Steinmetz sat quietly in the carriage, each man occupied with his own thoughts. Travel on the faster routes had been their preferred choice, despite the increased risk of checks on identity and travel papers.

At Dresden, they changed trains with a plan to make for Ulm via Regensburg. Steinmetz asked the conductor for the best route and he advised they should alight at Marktredwitz where there were better connections. The town was further away from their destination and close to the border with Czecholslovakia, but with this route, they could move on to get a better train to Nurnberg and then travel direct to Ulm before going on to Singen close to the German-Swiss border.

Dresden Rail Station - wikipedia

Dresden Rail Station -

After leaving Dresden, Larive reported:

‘The only scare we had from time to time was the appearance of the military police patrol. Fortunately, they seemed to confine their activities to checking military personnel.’

Nurnberg Rail Station in 1941 -

The train arrived at Nurnberg around midnight. There was an immediate problem. The first train to Ulm did not depart until 06.00 hours. Larive and Steinmetz already knew that stations and waiting rooms were regularly checked after midnight for obvious reasons. They would have to leave immediately and keep well away until at least 05.30. But two men wandering the streets of a strange town in the early hours of the morning were in danger of being stopped and questioned.        

Next Week - Part Two

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

Colditz The German Viewpoint Reinhold Eggers  (Highly recommended read)

You Tube

The Man Who Came in From Colditz - E H Larive

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part Three

View of the Park Perimeter Wall -

'When the Dutch arrived at Colditz, we realised it would be a difficult job to get out of this one.'
 - Francis Steinmetz

On 16 August 1941, with Captain ‘Dolf’ Dufour and Lieutenant John Smit still at large (see previous post); the Dutch tried another escape from the park. They were confident that the manhole remained a viable option. The different ruses which had fogged camp headcounts since the breakout on the 13th had continued to mask the absence of the two men (see previous post). The author’s view is that the Germans finally became aware of Dufour and Smit’s absence by the evening of the 15th, but did not connect it with any confidence to the park.* The headcounts there for the 14th and 15th had tallied and all numbers at camp appells from the 13th onwards had been ‘correct’.  

*Pat Reid noted that the deception carried out by the Polish POWs in assisting the Dutch had lasted until 15th. Colditz’s Hauptman Roland Eggers in his memoirs refers to Dufour and Smit, escaping ‘in some mysterious way’ after the break of the 16th. This suggests that either his recollection of events was mistaken, or that there was simply no specific knowledge of the time or place of the Dufour and Smit escape.  
By the time the parade assembled for the park exercise on the afternoon of the 16th, there were still long odds against a copycat escape attempt succeeding. Entering the manhole and concealing men in the shaft without the Germans discovering them remained high risk. The Dutch would have to use an identical or a similar tactic as before to gain access to the manhole and then conceal the missing men from the headcount at the end of the exercise period. This would need something diverse and unusual.

Park Escort - pegasusarchive

Observations and information from the exercise periods in the park since the 13th indicated that the Dutch secret may still have been intact. Lieutenants Flanti ‘Francis’ Steinmetz and Etienne Henri ‘Hans’ Larive were the chosen men and had made their preparations. The exercise party arrived at the park as usual and waited in line, whilst the headcount was taken and tallied with the given total before the prisoners left the castle. The men were let in to the ‘sheep pen’ a wire fenced enclosure. It is easy to imagine a scene unfold under the constant scrutiny of the guards. Men sitting or standing talking in groups, others walking around the enclosure as a few decided to run/exercise whilst games of handball or football began.

Francis Steinmetz
Hans Larive

Dutchman Lieutenant Gerrit Dames settled down under a tree in the shade next to the wire fencing. He stretched back relaxing and reading a book. At a predetermined signal he started to work ‘blind’ on the wire behind him with a homemade pair of ‘pliers’ in his free hand. Seated between two guards he would soon be seen. But how soon? It was vital that his preparation reached the right level and timing before he was spotted.
As with the Dufour and Smit escape; the Dutch circle of ‘handball’ players continued to throw the ball around and slowly closed in around the manhole, just as another officer began to rattle the wire in another area of the fence. A sentry shouted across to him and became more agitated, which attracted the attention of other guards. As the sentry aimed his rifle and a commotion began, Francis Steinmetz and Hans Larive managed to free the bolt on the manhole cover and slip down into the shaft. The ‘handball’ circle began to widen again and this was the signal for Dames, who turned around and made ready to creep through a small hole he had made in the fence. Obviously he was seen immediately. He put up his hands in surrender and along with the other prisoners shouted out beyond the fence ‘Run, run.’
Lt Gerrit Dames begins the wire diversion - Oflag IVC  YT
'The Germans would think he was the third man and two had got out.'  - Francis Steinmetz 

The sentries outside the compound immediately began scanning the park, whilst the POWS were herded together for a headcount. Two missing. A full escape alert would be triggered if they were not found quickly. A ground search began, but the area inside the sheep pen was subjected to only a brief examination. The hole in the wire and shouts from the POWs had achieved the aim and deflected attention away from the enclosure. 

As the POWs were marched back to the castle, the two escapers had already taken steps to avoid detection if the manhole cover was lifted. It is likely they followed similar action to Dufour and Smit. Once Steinmetz and Larive descended into the shaft, they hung onto the ladder, took off their shoes, socks, trousers and underwear, which they tied or draped around their neck. They climbed down the rungs inside the well until the water was almost up to their shoulders. A dark grey blanket had been sneaked in to the enclosure and they spread this out above their heads, holding it flush to the corners with their hands. The men had a fighting chance of remaining undetected at the bottom of the shaft, if they could stay in the water for a few hours. By then, searches would inevitably have moved on.
Steinmetz and Larive were having difficulty holding the blanket above their heads for long periods in the pitch black. The pain in their arms was becoming excruciating and despite summer temperatures, the water was numbingly cold. Clothes draped around the men’s shoulders were gradually getting wet as the tired men adjusted position.
The plan was to wait until full darkness at 10pm before exiting the shaft. They had to get out of the water and ditch the blanket. As a few hours had passed, the two Dutchmen made the decision to haul themselves out of the water and settle on the rungs further up the shaft. By pressing their backs against the wall, they were able to dry off a little and slowly put on some of their clothes. As the hours passed, they developed bad headaches and began struggling for breath. Air in the shaft was running out. Larive struggled to the top, pushed the cover up before jamming in his penknife in the gap. The men moved as close as they could to the gap for breaths of fresh air.

Colditz at Night 1940 - Tim Giddings
In the castle, a sonderappell (special appell) had identified Larive and Steinmetz as missing. A snap search of the Dutch quarters also found items of civilian clothing and a map with instructions of how to travel from Tuttlingen in south west Germany and get across the Swiss frontier. This was a significant find. The Germans would need every scrap of information. The sonderappell had revealed three more Dutch officers, Lieutenants Kruimink, van der Krap and van Lynden were also missing.

Around 10pm Larive and Steinmetz exited the shaft, climbed over the wire fence surrounding the enclosure and scaled the twelve foot park perimeter wall by climbing a nearby tree. Negotiating barbed wire on top of the wall with the aid of the blanket, they landed safely on the other side and were on their way to Leisnig.  

Next Week - The Race to the Border


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

Colditz The German Viewpoint Reinhold Eggers  (Highly recommended read)

You Tube

The Man Who Came in From Colditz - E H Larive

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed