Meeting: Colditz; Beyond & Behind the Myths
Speaker: David Ray
Wednesday 11th December 2019 7:30 pm
Woodcote Village Hall, Reading Road, Woodcote, RG8 0QY
This month the British Modern Military History Society hosted a presentation by David Ray on:-
Colditz : Beyond & Behind the Myths
The last society talk of the year was a brilliant talk by Coldiz Society founder and chairman David Ray about the iconic POW castle where the most ‘awkward and difficult’ prisoners were held.
Without notes or PowerPoint, David vividly recounted the events and escape attempts gleaned from years of personal meetings with Colditz prisoners and German prison guards, most now deceased.
From Douglas Bader to Airey Neave, David described the extraordinary innovative and brave attempts to make it home. There were 12 British and 12 French ‘Home Runs’ with a handful of others out of the hundreds of attempts. The highlight of the evening for the nearly 90 BMMHS attendees was when David produced the actual original keys to the gates of Colditz castle given to him by the former camp security officer Reinhold Eggers who David Ray got to know after the war.
A fantastic talk much appreciated by us all. The talk raised £90 for the Royal British Legion.
Colditz - Oflag IV-C
Situated on a cliff overlooking a small East German town in the state of Saxony is Colditz Castle. It has stood on this site since the Middle Ages.
However, its place in history became assured during the Second World War, when it was Oflag IV-C, a prisoner-of-war camp for high-profile Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps.
The first prisoners arrived in November 1939; they were 40 Polish officers who had been branded ‘escape risks’.
A year later captured British RAF officers were transported there, all who had escaped from previous Oflags. A famous group was the Laufen Six, named after the camp from which they made their first escape. By Christmas 1940 there were 60 Polish officers, 12 Belgians, 50 French, and 30 British, a total of no more than 200 with their orderlies.
Not only did the Nazis have to deal with a prison population entirely made up of proven escape artists, Colditz itself was a very large prison and so it was quite a difficult task keeping the castle running in a secure and efficient manner.
Day to day at Colditz was far from a sombre, empty experience; if you were to visit it you probably would be surprised by how much of a bustling hive of activity it was. Aside from the prison guards, there were also a large number of civilians and local townspeople who would be on castle grounds.
These included maintenance workers, medics, Swiss Red Cross observers. Some would be there in a supervisory role, such as Nazi Party leaders, while others would be on grounds simply because they were family members of the military officers at the camp.
For the prisoners themselves, they were permitted to entertain themselves. In August 1941 the first camp Olympics were organized by the Polish inmates, with events including football, volleyball, boxing and chess.
Inmates also put on revues, shows and plays, while the most popular sporting pasttime was entirely invented by the prisoners: stoolball was essentially a version of rugby, but which had two stools at either end of the prisoners’ courtyard and goals were scored by knocking off the goalie who was sitting on the stool!
There were many famous Allied prisoners imprisoned in Colditz and these included British fighter ace Douglas Bader; Patrick Reid, the man who made Colditz famous with his post-war books; and Airey Neave, the first British officer to escape from Colditz and who later became a British Member of Parliament.
Others included New Zealand British Army Captain Charles Upham, who was the only combat soldier to ever receive the Victoria Cross twice; and Sir David Stirling, founder of the wartime Special Air Service. Prisoners who were relatives of Allied VIPs could potentially be used by Hitler as bargaining tools; these individuals were known as Prominente.
The first prisoner of this kind was Giles Romilly, a civilian journalist who was captured in Norway but who was also a nephew of Winston Churchill. The serious political ramifications of The British Prime Minister’s nephew coming to harm meant that Adolf Hitler himself specified that Romilly was to be treated with the utmost care.
As the war came to an end the number of Prominente increased. These included British royalty, in the form of Viscount George Lascelles, nephew to George VI and John Alexander Elphinstone, nephew of Queen Elizabeth (better known as the late Queen Mother).
Despite being a daunting prospect, there were a number of escape attempts, each using a range of plans. Inmates duplicated keys to various doors, made copies of maps, forged identity papers, and manufactured their own tools. Less daring plans included pretending to be ill or mentally unhinged in an effort to get repatriated on medical grounds.
Some prisoners even managed to communicate with the outside world. The British War Office communicated with the prisoners in code and smuggled them new escape aids disguised in care packages sent from their families. However, the Germans soon became skilled at intercepting packages containing suspicious material.
Other methods used, which seem straight out of a film, include inmates being sewn into mattresses, trying to navigate through the sewers below the castle, long-term tunnel digging and the tying together of bed sheets to form rope!
Although people did actually escape from Colditz and return to their homeland, most of the escape attempts failed. There was however only ever one fatality, that of British Lieutenant Michael Sinclair, who was killed in September 1944.
The Germans buried him in Colditz cemetery with full military honours, his casket was draped with a Union Jack flag made by the German guards, and he received a seven-gun salute. After the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the only man to receive it for escaping during WWII.
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Meeting Venue: Woodcote Village Hall RG8 0QY
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The Ones That Got Away
The ultimate goal for anyone trying to escape was a Home Run, which is a complete escape from the castle grounds and into Allied territory. There is some debate over how many of these actually happened.
Successful escapee and British Captain Pat Reid claims in his account Colditz: The Full Story that there were 31 Home Runs, including those who were repatriated due to illness prisoners who being transported and therefore were not directly under Colditz staff control.
However, in Colditz: The Definitive History historian Henry Chancellor claims 32 escaped but only 15 were Home Runs: these were 1 Belgian, 11 British, 7 Dutch, 12 French and 1 Polish.
The first to escape was French Lieutenant Alain Le Ray, who did so on April 11th, 1941. He managed to get out of the castle by hiding in a terrace house in a park during a game of football. Seizing the moment he managed to reach neutral Switzerland and freedom.
Another French officer worthy of mention was Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun, who escaped on July 2nd, 1941. After a failed attempt by climbing into the rafters of a pavilion during exercise and waiting until dark, he later vaulted over a wire in the park with the help of an associate. He then reached Switzerland in eight days on a stolen bicycle!
Notable British escapees include the aforementioned Reid, who succeeded on October 14th, 1942 by slipping through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandantur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. It then took him four days to reach Switzerland.
There was also the legendary British Lieutenant Airey Neave, who escaped earlier on January 5th, 1942. Neave crawled through a hole in a camp theatre after a prisoner performance to a guardhouse, then boldly marched out dressed as a German soldier. Reaching Switzerland two days later, Neave later joined M19, the department of the British War Office dedicated to helping POWs escape.
Other escapes were less daring in that they involved basically legging it from the town of Colditz itself; three Frenchmen escaped while on a visit to the town dentist, all on December 17th 1941!
Fall of Colditz
In April 1945, US troops entered Colditz town to conquer the castle. As the troops approached the castle, the Allies and prisoners feared the Prominente might be used by the German troops as hostages, human shields, or that the SS might try to kill them out of spite. However, this was not the case as the Germans moved all the Prominente out of the castle.
This decision was made after the prisoners themselves convinced the guard leader Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger to surrender in secret. With his aide these VIP prisoners reached American lines a couple of weeks later and Berger later received a lessened sentence after his hearing in 1949 because of his actions.
On April 16, after only two days the once-mighty prison for the enemies of The Third Reich crumbled. In May 1945, the Soviet occupation of Colditz began and following the Yalta Conference the city became a part of East Germany. The Soviets turned Colditz castle into a prison camp for local burghers and non-communists and later the castle was a home for the aged and nursing home, as well as once again serving as a hospital and psychiatric clinic.
The last residents moved out in 1996, and since then the castle has been renovated and turned into a museum with visits showing some of the escape tunnels built by WW II prisoners of the Oflag during. There are potential plans to turn part of the castle into a hotel, ensuring that people will continue to visit this historic site for years to come.
Biographical notes – David Ray
David’s interest started in the mid 1950’s & he visited the castle in April 1974. Over the years he has taken many groups to Colditz. In 1991 he established The Colditz Society which today has 130 members in twelve countries. David has also set the questions on Colditz as a specialist subject on BBC’s Mastermind.
The Colditz Society has two meetings a year as well as newsletters. In addition David has met many of the former prisoners in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, France and Belgium.
He has published one book on the subject and has given talks over most of the south of England and South Wales.
David taught at Pangbourne College 1971-78 and at Rugby School for 32 years which provided four Old Boys for Colditz.
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