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World War Two: Breakout - The Escape From Colditz

Updated on July 2, 2012

It's 1942 and the second world war rages around the world, but a silent battle is being fought within the walls of Colditz castle, an imposing German stronghold containing hundreds of Allied P.O.W's, who are planning numerous escape attempts.

Baiting the Goons!

By 1942, Hitler's forces are strengthening their grip over occupied Europe. Their Navy are overrunning the British in the Atlantic Sea and it's combined army and aerial forces push deeper into North Africa and are advancing on Moscow. On every front survivors are captured and prisoners are sent to prisoner of war camps all over germany. Any persistent escapees are sent to the formidable castle prison of Colditz.

The Allied prisoners there, treat their German captors with total disdain and attempt to harass them at every opportunity. They even pelt the Germans with water bombs from their cell windows as the guards process the arrival of incoming prisoners in the castle courtyard below. Noone could say that the prisoners morale wasn't lacking any health and vigour.

The bad behaviour didn't go unpunished however, but the Germans managed to retain a sense of tolerance towards the Allied prisoners high spirits. The British officers nicknamed this constant harassment 'Goon Baiting'. It was far more than just idle amusement of course, and was intended to irritate the guards to distraction, so as the escape committee could continue with their covert escape plans without fear of any guards disrupting them.

Goon Baiting was successfully helping to conceal the escape industry at the castle and it was now gaining official support from London. MI-9 was a newly formed section of the British Secret Service, set up specifically to aid captured prisoners in their escape attempts. They produced a wide variety of gadgets that could be concealed in everyday objects. This sub-industry of camouflaged escape aids were in collaboration with the Red Cross and so were able to get this equipment smuggled into prisoner of war camps with regular parcel deliveries.

Dave Harris Art

  • World War 2 pictures
    New World War 2 pictures by Dave Harris available as limited edition giclee prints. El Alamein "Rats Against the Fox", RAF Dambusters mission in May 1943, Band of Brothers night before D-Day.and Great Escape Montage

Such novel gadgets included tiny compasses concealed in the lids of fountain pens, playing cards which when placed in water, peeled away to reveal a section of map. If a few of these cards where joined together, a much larger map of Germany was revealed containing detail of where each prisoner of war camp was. One prisoner recieved a board game which secreted real german paper money, which was revealed when the board's backing was removed.

MI-9 even had an arrangement with HMV records to conceal thin maps inside their records. After a while however, the Germans began to find the contraband, and so the prisoners would have to steal the parcels before they had been vetted.

This meant getting past a guard and two locked doors. In broad daylight, some prisoners distracted the guard with a chat and a cigarette to keep him busy, while another prisoner, standing with his back to the locked door, picked the locked with a home made skeleton key. Amazingly, it worked, he managed to get through an alarmed second door, recognise the right parcel (marked with a yellow label) and get out again without being detected.

No prisoner was ever caught breaking into this parcel room, but it was a dangerous and unreliable system. Officers were having to become more and more ingenious in their methods and their aptitude would increasingly come to the fore.

Stepping up their Efforts

Only a few maps of Germany made it into the castle, but every potential escapee would require one. An ingenious printing system was devised using Gelatine, which when the original map was pressed onto it would leave an imprint in the jelly mould. Plain paper was then pressed onto the jelly and peeled away to reveal an exact copy of the original map.

In essence, this was a miniature form of a printing press which would never be found by the Germans as the jelly was always eaten after a few copies had been produced.

In the late summer of 1942, the jelly map making and skeleton key producing systems were working at full speed in an attempt to pull off one of the largest and most daring escape attempts from Colditz.

These clandestine activities were being protected by an elaborate system of lookouts known as 'stooges'. Designated prisoners would stand at windows facing in all directions, one with a book, another with a cigarette, and so on. Once a guard came within 15 feet, the man with the book would close it, then the prisoner with the cigareete would light it. Another may scratch his ear or nose, or one may tap their pipe. These would be the signal of an approaching guard and to cease all escape preparations that were being carried out and to conceal any evidence.

There were 84 escape attempts from Colditz in 1942, many of which failed, but some did succeed. Their frequency and ingenuity surprised even the prisoners. They realised of course that not all attempts would prove a success, but some were considered extraordinary.

One day as a group of prisoners were being escorted back to the castle from a local park, a lady walked past going in the opposite direction. Amazingly, none of the German guards gave her a second look, but suddenly, she dropped her wristwatch and one of the British prisoners rushed over to pick it up for her. The guards suddenly realised that a lady should not be walking in the area and on approaching her, realised that she wasn't a lady at all. It turned out to be a French officer in disguise and the British had unwittingly just blown his escape.

By now, the Germans had amassed a large collection of escape equipment, they new that there was probably a lot more hidden in the prisoners quarters and they soon became experts at finding it. A large number of guards would carry out searches of the prisoners quarters without warning. They would remove all the prisoners and then ransack their rooms, tearing up floorboards, turning out bedding, upturning tables, wardrobes and bookcases.

In 1996, local historians and archaeologists uncovered stashed equipment that had never got around to being used and were remarkably never found by the Germans. A duffel bag containing a fake German uniform and a map of of Germany were uncovered below some floorboards beneath a doorway, they had laid their for over 50 years.

One prisoner had managed to escape concealed in a box of rubbish that was taken out of the castle on a daily basis. Wearing a stolen German uniform, he simply walked out of the room holding the rubbish and out of the front gate. He made excellent progress too, keeping his head down and talking to noone, got to within 100 miles of the Dutch border, before a couple of German soldiers, suspicious of his actions, confronted him. As he never spoke any German, this effectively meant the game was up. He was sent back to Colditz where he was subsequently treated as a hero.

Happy to sit out the war?

Even though Colditz housed dozens of men eager to escape, they were in fact in a minority. There was an unusual atmosphere at the castle as many men simply settled for their surroundings and wished to quietly sit out the remainder of the war. Although they admired the escapees, that was as far as their enthusiasm for escape went.

In late 1942, things had taken a darker turn, as escaping Allied officers could no longer guarantee any leniancy from the Germans. This was due to a new directive issued by Hitler, that any Allied officers caught in or out of uniform would be treated as a spy and shot. The escaping prisoners no longer had the protection of the Geneva Convention.

By the spring of 1943, the escape committee were holding back all the would-be escapees. they had a plan that if successful, would eclipse anything attempted thus far. An audacious plan to disguise one of the german speaking prisoners named Sinclair, and imitate a high ranking and easily distinguishable German officer, was hatched.The escape committee felt his distinguished appearance would invite disguise and felt that the Germans would instantly obey what they 'thought they saw'.

Disguised as the German officer, Sinclair would imitate him on his nightly inspection of the sentries, hoping they would not take much notice of him, he would relieve them, replacing them with disguised British officers. Then finally, he would dismiss the guard on the main gate leading out of the castle. This would enable a mass breakout of around forty or fifty men.

The escape committee's production efforts went into overdrive, with men having to create fake uniforms, rifles, medals, insignia, paperwork, holsters, buttons and badges. this took months to prepare and the removal of iron bars on the windows would be a laborious and pain staking process. By the end of August however, everything for the escape was ready

On the night of September 2nd 1943, the plan went into action and Sinclair and two of his fake guards were the first to set out. They approached the first sentry and successfully ordered him back to the guardroom. The second sentry swiftly followed and the men now approached the third. He was also fooled by the disguise, which now left just the guard on the main gate to convince. Suddenly though, an argument broke out between the sentry and the fake officer Sinclair.

The guard had become suspicious, because the forged pass out of the castle was the wrong colour and he raised the alarm, the plan was doomed. Sinclair however, continued with the pretense and he reached for his fake pistol. He was shot by the onrushing guards responding to the alarm. Many of the guards actually thought they had shot the real German officer. The bullet missed Sinclair's heart by an inch, he was taken to the hospital wing where he eventually recovered, enabling him to attempt another escape soon after.

From then on however, the Germans gained the uppper hand with the escape attempts, until the prisoners sought a new exit from the castle...via the sky!


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    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      7 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Hi phdast7, thankyou for your kind comments, it probably helps that I am nuts about World War Two!!...hence the artwork!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      A fascinating slice of history, which few people know much about i think. You write well, your narrative is interesting and compelling.


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