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




No comments:

Post a Comment