Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Colditz - Airey Neave The First Escape

Airey Neave - National Archives

Lieutenant Airey Neave arrived at Colditz on 14 May 1941. He was another habitual escaper and considered 'enemy of the Reich' who:

‘Could not bear the thought of capture.’ A Neave

A measure of the man was demonstrated as early as May 1940 when the British expeditionary force was pinned down in what became a last stand at Calais. Wounded in his side and lying in the cellar of a French hospital, despite hospital staff attempting to hold him back he dragged himself out of the building whilst the area was under heavy shellfire. Staggering through a minefield laid by the British, he managed to reach the Gare Maritime before collapsing. That evening of 26th May, Calais fell to the German Army and Airey Neave became a prisoner of war. 

Gare Maritime -

He remained in hospital at Calais until the end of July 1940. Even in June whilst still weak from his injuries, he turned his mind to escaping. A plan was sketched out with a French soldier who had managed to avoid detection by masquerading as a medical orderly and regularly visited the hospital ward. Prisoners who had died in hospital, were driven out in an ambulance. The orderly suggested that it would be possible to substitute Neave for one of the deceased prisoners. There were practical difficulties with this and the plan never came to fruition as the British wounded were moved from Calais. The example is an early illustration of the kind of man the Germans were dealing with.

Inevitably Neave finished up in Colditz the next year and quickly turned his mind to escaping. He had first visited Germany at the age of seventeen and his command of the language was reasonably good. Once out of the castle and on the run, his conversation skills and accent would blend in well with the numbers of foreign workers in Germany from occupied countries who spoke varying levels of German.  

He obtained permission from the escape committee to prepare and try his first escape. The plan was to line up at evening appell in the prisoner’s inner courtyard with a ‘home made’ German corporal’s uniform under his British army officer’s greatcoat. Once the order to dismiss was given, the POW behind him would pull off Neave’s greatcoat, leaving him to put on his German cap and march towards the sentry at the gate.

It was a plan which relied totally on:

1) Poor light, so as the uniform would not be identified as a fake (twilight was the only realistic time slot). If the castle security lights were on, it was almost impossible at some point not to be caught directly or otherwise in their glare.

2) German speaking

3) Possession of a brass identity disc. These were used as a pass by guards, staff and workmen entering and leaving the castle.

4) Vital seconds after the appell had been completed. He had to hand in the pass, get through the gate, reach the bicycle racks and ride from the castle without being stopped.

Colditz appell - Carl Hoffkes C4

The plan was bold with an element of effrontery; but successful escapes from camps had been made before by using direct tactics. On the 28 August 1941, he made his move. The use of limited materials in preparation for the break is once again fascinating:

The Uniform
A German corporal (Gefreiter). A Polish tunic, altered by a Polish tailor and a pair of RAF trousers. The field grey colour was produced by ‘dyeing’ paint from the camp theatre into the material. Jackboots came from a Polish orderly via bartering and the cap was an adapted ski cap which had also been dyed. 

The Accoutrements
Bayonet and scabbard were carved out of wood by Lieutenant RTR O’Hara and hung from a cardboard leather belt with a tinfoil buckle.

Escape Aids
Small compass which had been previously returned to him at Plock prison along with his few other personal possessions, when he was ready for transfer to Thorn camp. At that point, the compass was still inside a matchbox and had amazingly been missed by the prison staff. Neave managed to conceal the compass at entry to both Thorn and Colditz. Such was the optimism now; the compass had been sewn directly in to the lining of his converted uniform.

Traced an area of the Swiss frontier from an existing map held by the POWs and hid the sheet in a crevice in a wooden partition of the lavatory.

Identity Card
A Dutch Officer made up one to pass as a foreign worker in Germany.

Given to him by Captain Kenneth Lockwood on the day of the escape in a small cylindrical container around 6 centimetres long. This was to be hidden ‘inside his lower body’ for obvious reasons until he was clear of the castle.

The Brass Disc
Disc number twenty six had been obtained earlier by bribing one of the painters working inside the castle. 

Colditz Castle - pegasusarchive Note entrance gate at 2, guard room at 3 & 4.Main gate at 1

The Escape Attempt
The POWs were dismissed from the inner courtyard, and sentries (not all carrying rifles) made for the gate, with half a mind on a quick exit to the guardroom. The NCO on duty at the gate paid minimal attention to the numbered brass security disks as they were handed in. One man, one disc; the process had been repeated so many times, and in the half light, he knew the look and feel of them.

A junior NCO handed in his disc and said he had a message for the Kommandant from Duty Officer Hauptmann Priem. Instead of following the others to the right towards the guardroom, he turned left.

The NCO looked after him for a moment; something felt wrong. He didn’t recognise the face and the different direction taken had triggered suspicion. He looked at the disc. Number twenty six – the one reported stolen. He shouted to Number Twenty Six who continued walking. Neave noticed as he carried on walking, that the arc lights were making his uniform appear green rather than field grey. Other guards joined in the shouting. He quickened his pace towards the bicycle racks. The sentry under the archway shouted ‘halt or I fire.’ The ‘would be’ escaper stopped and was quickly surrounded by soldiers pointing their rifles.

Airey Neave in false uniform - pegasusarchive
The Aftermath
Impersonation of a German serviceman in uniform was viewed as a serious offence. The Kommandant himself appeared and Airey Neave was marched off to the camp cells. Searched ‘thoroughly’, his escape aids and money were discovered. The next morning, the soldier who brought him ersatz coffee informed him he would be court-martialled and shot. At, still in the false uniform, he was marched over to the Kommandant’s quarters and made to stand in a long, panelled room as an object of curiosity, while all the officers in the camp visited to examine and ridicule ‘the sight’. It was noted that the uniform looked a poor imitation in full daylight, but the photograph shows this to be harsh. Whilst never passing off in ordinary light as a genuine uniform, it was a decent effort for a twilight operation with good tailoring and an example of what could be created with so few materials.

Kommandant Oberst Schmidt - pegasusarchive

The prisoner was humiliated for hours, first being ordered by the commandant to make Nazi salutes and also suffering the ignominy of soldiers and Police officers from Colditz goose stepping around him in a chorus of ‘Heil Hitler.’ The offending uniform was removed to the Kommandant’s escape museum. Neave was eventually returned to the British quarters with no court martial or execution. He would serve his solitary confinement in the town jail very soon, as the camp cells were always full.

Kommandant's 'Escape Museum' - pegasusarchive

That evening at appell, Hauptmann Paul Priem announced to the prisoners (translations following in the various languages) that ‘Gefreiter Neave is posted to the Russian front’. The laughter which followed must have hurt Airey Neave. Despite any embarrassment, he was already thinking about the next escape.   


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

Colditz The German Viewpoint – Roland Eggers (Highly recommended read)

The Escape Room – Airey Neave (Mostly covers his time at MI9 and the famous escape routes. Recommended read)

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

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  1. What a fascinating post. I love the photos. Great details of escape paraphernalia too. Such a pity that attempt was unsuccesful.

    1. Thanks Liz, there are some good photos around on Colditz. It was a good effort by Airey Neave and such a simple plan. He soon tried again. It must have been a nightmare for the Germans trying to keep the lid on things. Colditz castle was originally built to keep people out, not keep them in. The staff and guards had a huge task, with a set of POWs that were all hell bent on escaping.