Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Colditz - The Dutch and a Park Manhole - Part Three

View of the Park Perimeter Wall - virtualcolditz.com

'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

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