One of my favorite films is ‘The Great Escape” with its spectacular cast and haunting conclusion. If you are unfamiliar with the film, it is based upon a true account concerning a POW camp especially built for Allied officers who were “problematic”; that is, always escaping. The audacity of their escape had wide effects, and is said to have helped with the D-Day landing, considering the escapees tied up a whole lot of soldiers trying to round them up. Tragically, the majority of the escapees were executed upon capture in retaliation.
A largely unknown story is about to be told. It is well chronicled in the book “Colditz” by Henry Chancellor (among other books). The town of Colditz is located approximately 150 km southwest of Berlin. Prisoners, upon arrival, found it confusing. Disembarking from the train, there was no camp. They were marched from the station, through the village, up a hill and right into the courtyard of a large, gloomy castle. They half expected to be executed.
Colditz Castle was built in 1014 and steadily enlarged until about 1694 when it comprised about 700 rooms. It was used as a hunting lodge at times until 1824 when it was converted to an asylum. In 1933, it was converted into a labor camp for Hitler’s communist enemies.
The structure looked extremely formidable. It was situated on a rocky outcropping. The outer courtyard housed the 200 or so Germans it took to maintain the place and the inner courtyard was used by the prisoners. The outer courtyard had two exits. One led over the moat into the town, the other into the forest. The prisoner side was lined with a 100 foot cliff into a river. Although this seemed terribly impregnable, one German officer mentioned, “…apart from putting bars on the windows, it had never really been built for he purpose of keeping people in. A more unsuitable place to hold prisoners will probably never again be chosen.” As with similar structures, the place was a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways, perfect for escaping “bad boys”. Still it wasn’t all tea and crumpets. Before the influx of Red Cross packages, they were literally starving.
When the first Allied officers arrived in 1941, there were over 100 Polish soldiers who were also termed “bad boys”. During the war, the Polish and Russians were treated as subhumans by the Germans. The Polish because they were conquered and technically had no country under the Nazi rule and the Russians because they never signed the Geneva Convention. The prisoners were separated into nationalities and housed such. There were Polish, British, French, Dutch, Indian, and so on. There were more unsuccessful attempts than successful ones. It is estimated that there was an escape attempt every 10 days during the four years prisoners were housed there. The attempts were so many, that the Kommandant began an escape museum to train his men in finding and stopping as many attempts as possible.
The British war department was also helpful in these attempts, smuggling useful escape items into the camp in care packages. The would hide compasses in walnuts or spools of thread, saws in shoelaces or combs, maps in wax phonographic records or in false walls of food tins. They had secret codes and maps embedded in silk handkerchiefs that would develop when placed in water boiled with a certain yellow almond. Blankets washed would reveal patterns for making civilian suits. The possibilities were endless and it turned into a serious game to hide them from the Germans.
The first successful attempt was made by a Frenchman name Le Ray. His attempt was fairly simple. Two or three times a week, the officers were led down a zigzag path to a barb-wired area called the park. On the way down they passed an unused building that was under construction. The workers stored their tools in one of the rooms on the first floor. On one of the walks, Le Ray, who had hidden some civilian clothes under his great coat, ran up the small bank and hid in the house while the zigzag shielded him from the guard following him. After changing into his civilian clothes, which was dangerous considering you could be taken for a spy and shot, he made his way over 400 miles to the border and into freedom.
One officer, very young looking and small, was sewn into a mattress as it was being removed by some French orderlies. His costume was that of a Hitler Youth. He traveled quite far, even getting a ride with some soldiers until hunger drove him to the American consulate in Vienna. From fear of loss of diplomatic status, he was turned away and betrayed; directed to a police station.
The attempts became more audacious at time went on. Another Frenchman Lebrun spent time running in the park to build up his legs. When the day came, he was in his accustomed running outfit. Using his friend as a catapult, he ran, stepped into his friend’s cupped hands and leaped clear over the 10 ft wire. Dodging bullets, he cleared another 8 ft wall and escaped. Soon after he stole a bicycle and rode his way to the border. His disguise, also to hide his awful German accent, was an Italian officer on holiday. A few miles from the border, he ditched the bike and took the pump with him as a weapon. Lebrun actually crossed into freedom twice. Mistakenly, he crossed into Switzerland and then back out into Germany. Retracing his path, he ran into a German police, who, for some strange reason, didn’t believe his Italian officer story at 6 a.m. in the morning near the Swiss border walking with a bicycle pump. Lebrun knocked him out with the pump, took his pistol and made across the border again. Enlisting the help of a passing village girl, he had himself arrested by the Swiss police. Two weeks later the Kommendant of the camp received a letter requesting his personal effects.
In true British fashion, a theatre with stage was built and various plays were performed. The soldiers put on full performances, growing out their hair and drawing hose on their legs to play female parts. They were so convincing that a couple of them received invitations to the French officers’ quarters for dinner. In even truer British fashion, the stage and props were built on the promise that the tools would not be stolen or used for escape. No one broke that promise; they made their own tools. Under the stage they cut a hole in the ceiling which opened into a locked room. Picking the lock, they found that the adjoining hall led out into the German side of the camp near the main gates. At the end of one play, they dropped down through the hole, picked the lock on the door, exited out into the German side of the castle. Dressed as German officers, they marched out, even reprimanding a soldier for not returning their salute.
One attempt led 6 officers to make a hole leading from a German officer’s office to an adjoining storeroom where they left the camp dressed as 2 German officers and 4 Polish workers. Two successfully made it on that one.
Other attempts were made using disguises matching either German officers or frequent visitors to the camp. Here is a side-by-side photo of the camp electrician and the POW dressed as him.
One day, while returning from the park to the castle, some British soldiers noticed that a passing lady dropped her watch. The Brits, being all form and manners, picked up the watch and attempted to return it to the lady. The German guards only thought it odd when the lady kept walking instead of retrieving her watch. Upon inspection, it turned out to be a French officer decked out to look like a very respectable woman.
During the numerous attempts to escape, the three or four Appells (roll calls) a day could make or break an attempt. If the Germans didn’t know you were gone, they would not send out the goon squad to find you. The Dutch utilized the fact that they were just counted to give escapees more time. One of the prisoners, an artist, sculpted two heads which were then dressed in a hat and long coat. At roll call, the dummies were brought out and stood at attention with a pair of boots. It worked fine until one day the dummy was told to dress right, which it didn’t.
The most outlandish attempt was never put into play as the war ended before it could be utilized. A British aeronautical engineer designed a plan for a 2 man glider. The prisoners built it in the attic of the castle chapel. It was extremely light and was made with materials at hand: bedding, wooden bed slats, floor boards, electrical wiring. It would be launched off a runway of tables using a bathtub full of concrete to provide the necessary acceleration. The project was extremely well hidden using false walls, lookouts and an electric alarm system.