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 - opencaching.de

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 - antikfalkensee.de

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 - thirdreichruins.com

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

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