Friday, 21 October 2016

Colditz - The Hospital Escapes - Did Odry Make a Home Run?

Colditz Courtyard - IWM

A number of POWs in Colditz considered the possibility of an escape from outside the castle and its grounds. By early August 1941 (before the Dutch began their manhole escapes - see past posts), numerous attempts to break out of Colditz had failed to pierce German security. Successful home runs for the Allied POWs read:

British – Nil

Dutch – Nil

Poles – Nil

French – Four (includes one escape by Lieutenant Tatischeff from the Schutzenhaus prison building about half a mile from the castle, where some POWs were housed. Technically this is not a Colditz Castle escape). 

Lt Tatischeff
In April of that year Polish Lieutenants Just and Ryszard Bednarski had escaped from the hospital in Konigswartha after finally convincing camp doctors of their ‘illnesses’ and swindling a spell at the hospital. (See post Colditz Part Two The First Escape). Although both men were later recaptured, the possibilities of a getaway from outside the castle looked attractive, even though the prisoners would be under tight guard.

Appendix, gall bladder, stomach ulcer and other abdominal problems could be genuine or faked long enough to result in a recommendation for treatment and further investigation in hospital. This strategy was not without risks, as once away from the castle the POW had a limited amount of time to make his move. Invasive surgery or a more major operation was a realistic possibility once in the hospital. A very thin line had to be walked. If an escape opportunity was not possible once in the hospital, a prisoner’s medical condition would have to ‘improve’ enough (and his symptoms be sufficiently convincing) to engineer a discharge and return to the castle. On the return journey opportunities to break away might materialise, but an individual would have very few chances to play this kind of deception card more than once.

Polish Lieutemant Kroner had noted the success of the hospital escape from Konigswartha in April. In August his chronic abdominal illness had resulted in a transfer to the same hospital. Whilst there, his condition slowly improved. On the 20 August, he changed the blue and white hospital garments for a set of civilian clothes and escaped under the wire surrounding the hospital. Kroner disappeared and made a successful home run.

French Lieutenant Andre Boucheron had been caught trying to escape before. In September 1941, he escaped from hospital, was recaptured and before he could be returned to Colditz escaped again from Dusseldorf prison.

Lt Andre Boucheron
An opportunity for four French Lieutenants in Colditz arrived in October 1941. Accounts of this are brief and follow a distinct line, including a successful escape by Pierre Odry. An alternative version of some of the events is told by an eyewitness. I have factored them in to this post and any comments on the alternative script are most welcome. 

Pierre Odry had persistent abdominal pain with a possible grumbling appendix/appendicitis. Lieutenant Navelet was suffering from continued painful swelling and fluid on his knee, whilst Jacques Charvet and Remy Levy were unlikely to have been ill. They had worked with Colditz POW French doctor Captain M Le Guet who had convinced the camp vet (no resident German doctor present) that hospital investigation was required.

Lieutenant Pierre Odry
It is likely that Odry was genuinely ill; as considering his 3 pre Colditz escapes and the ‘cupped hands assist’ to Pierre Mairess Lebrun in his ‘leap frog escape, (see Colditz The Park Part Three) the Germans would never have agreed to a hospital trip without very convincing evidence. What happened later endorses this.

Lieutenant Navelet
The hospital was attached to POW camp Oflag IVD at Elsterhorst which housed French officers. It was a significant distance to travel for the genuinely sick. The trip from Colditz involved two train journeys and a three to four kilometre walk from the station on roads running through countryside. The administration formalities at Colditz before release from the castle, added further time to the journey which would take almost a complete day to reach Elsterhorst.
Oflag IVD - Sketch from Captivite by Etienne Morin

The four Frenchmen soon discovered the inevitable when they arrived at the hospital. It was well guarded. Whilst they were receiving treatment there, the possibilities of escape were examined. The Elsterhorst road back towards the railway station crossed open ground and scrubby heathland with scattered pines. More dense vegetation came with a rise in the ground and the road pushed on through a wood with oak and beech trees. The heart of the wood was the best point to make a getaway.

Events in the hospital changed everything. Odry had an appendectomy and Navelet’s knee had not significantly improved. What the men needed now was time to recover before making their move. They did not get it. Despite Odry being very weak from his operation, the German authorities decided all four were to return to Colditz Castle on 14 October.

Jean Remy an officer in the Belgian Army reserve spoke of how he got to know the four Frenchmen whilst they shared the same hospital room at Elsterhorst. He was also aware of their intention to escape, but knew nothing of the finer points.

The routine for prisoners being returned to Colditz from the hospital at Elsterhorst had remained unchanged. POWs were woken at 04.00 hours and were to be fully dressed and ready with their luggage for a full search at 04.30. At 05.00 they would leave the hospital on foot with their armed escort to cover the three to four kilometres to the railway station. The train would depart around 06.00.

Elsterhorst -
It was not light at that time of the year until at least 07.00, so the journey to the station would be in darkness. It was a cold morning and next to the hospital bedroom, a stove was burning in the head nurse’s office. Remy managed to give some hot coffee to the POWs whilst they were searched along with their luggage.   

The escort guards, consisting of one sergeant and a soldier warmed themselves by the stove, while two French POW soldiers from the camp party waited outside with a handcart they would use to carry luggage up to the station. The guards welcomed the hot drinks Remy gave them and the freezing sentry at the gate was invited under the porch of the open door for a cup. Whilst he was there, Navelet, Charvet and Levy went outside to put their luggage on the handcart. Odry could carry nothing and was too weak from his operation to attempt an escape, but he would do everything possible to give the others a chance of getting away. 

Remy kept the guards talking on the merits of the coffee, and with their attention momentarily elsewhere, the French soldiers passed the three escapers some identity papers and a few civilian clothes which Navelet, Charvet and Levy managed to conceal under their military greatcoats before returning inside to the group. 

Once the official paperwork and formalities were completed, the party of eight set off towards the station. Navelet had decided that with his lack of mobility, his chances of getting away were far less than those of Charvet and Levy. He would give the prearranged signal and the three men would run away into the darkness in separate directions, shedding their military coats at the first opportunity.

The party trailed slowly into the woods, the two Frenchmen from the camp pulling the cart and Navelet, Charvet, Levy and Odry being flanked by the two guards. In the darkest part of the woods, Navelet gave the signal and the three men ran off in to the trees leaving Odry behind. The escort sergeant was taken by surprise and took time to get his pistol out and fire several shots. The escapers had already disappeared.

The sergeant had two choices:

Continue to the station, raise the alarm, then travel on to Colditz with one prisoner.

Return to the camp hospital.
He opted to return to Elsterhorst with Odry, the two French POWs and the other guard, which proved crucial to the first part of Navalet’s escape.

Lieutenant Charvet reached Kassel where he took a train to Aachen, but caught the wrong connection and ended up in travelling in the wrong direction towards Dusseldorf. By a total coincidence he met up with Levy there and they journeyed back to Aachen, spending the night in a nearby wood. On the morning of the 18th, they took a tram into town, where they were stopped and arrested. Eventually both men finished up back at Colditz.

Kassel Rail Station 1941 - pic click
Navelet who was the least mobile of the three, worked his way back to the road and hobbled to the station where he caught the train without being stopped. The sergeant’s decision to return to the hospital must have been instrumental in this. Navalet made a successful home run back to France where he went into hiding.    

Pat Reid’s account notes that Odry escaped at the same time as the others and made a successful home run, although there is no mention of what happened after he ran away. Remy’s version seems much more likely, with Odry and the party returning to the hospital at Elsterhorst. Any additional information on Lieutenant Pierre Odry would be much appreciated.


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

Jamais, ne désespère anecdotes de captivité militaire en Allemagne 1940-1945 - Henri Decard (Never Despair Anecdotes of Military Captivity in Germany 1940-1945)

Internet – Various

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

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