Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Colditz - The Larive and Steinmetz Escape - Part Two

Nurnberg Streets - thirdreichinruins.com

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 - delcampe.net

'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

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