Colditz: Here I am, stuck in the same ventilation shaft that Pat Reid used to escape through just over 70 years ago. It’s a tiny letterbox-shaped hole, about three feet in length, one of the few natural holes through the castle’s monstrously thick outer walls. Captain Pat Reid and his fellow escapers had to strip off naked in order to shimmy through. It’s a cold day and even unclothed I’m far too well-fed to get through the gap, though Steffi, our well-informed guide, tells us ‘two English boys managed it last year, though you have to go through on your back, otherwise your knees get stuck’.
My own Colditz mania was fed as a child by living up the road from Brigadier Jock Hamilton-Baillie, whose homemade sewing machine is on display in the Colditz museum. It was designed for making civvy clothes, and also theatrical costumes. Jock gave talks in our village every year for the Red Cross and was as proud of the high-heeled shoes he made for a Colditz revue as he was of his escape attempts. ‘The boredom,’ he used to say, ‘that was the real enemy.’
Colditz has been open to visitors for a while, but until recently the Germans tried to play down its significance. Finally they have relented and embraced the whole escape thing as something rather glorious and ingenious.
The most ingenious of all was ‘Mad’ Mike Sinclair, who took part in nine escapes from Colditz; he raised escaping to an art form. In his ‘Franz Joseph’ attempt he learnt the particular speech mannerisms of an elderly German NCO nicknamed (because of his huge moustache) Franz Joseph. Sinclair had a replica uniform made, a wig, moustache and a high cap with polished peak. Every sentry except the last fell for it. And then, to further complicate things, the real Franz Joseph turned up. The Germans didn’t know who to shoot, both versions of Franz Joseph claiming to be the real one. But in the end it was Mad Mike who was shot and injured.
Luck. This is the primary currency of the escaper. Chutzpah too, but luck first. Take Pierre Mairesse-Lebrun — dressed only in running shorts he was boosted by a pal over the fence of the Colditz exercise park, ran back and forth dodging bullets until the sentries were reloading. He then climbed the outer wall (you can still see the wall — innocuous enough, about ten feet high) and was off. Running in his athletic kit he looked like a young soldier out training. He then stole a bicycle and when it got a puncture he rode the last 50 miles on rims. In eight days he’d reached Switzerland.
Mad Mike just didn’t have Pierre’s luck. When, in desperation, late in 1944, he tried to copy the Frenchman’s escape, he took too long getting over the fence. Still recovering from the injuries sustained during the Franz Joseph escape, he could not dodge fast enough. A bullet struck his elbow and ricocheted into his heart. Mad Mike was dead — the only man killed while escaping Colditz. Despite the public-school atmosphere of larks and thrills, escaping was a deadly game.
Extending the academic metaphor, Colditz was really the Oxford of POW camps, whereas Stalag Luft III was the campus university, a new-build with intriguing possibilities, inclusive but a bit dull. And, in reality, sadder too. Here, as any who have seen The Great Escape — 50 years old this year — will know, 76 escaped, three made home runs and 50 were shot by the Gestapo. Our guide, Guy Walters, author of the definitive The Real Great Escape, showed us a site where some of the real prisoners were shot. It was by the side of a dual carriageway, cars winging past, no clue to its ghastly past except perhaps the line of pine trees, the relentless forest crowding right up to the hard shoulder, dense woods, ideal for murder and shallow graves.
It’s the forest that impresses you around Stalag Luft III. The camp was carved out of these same densely packed pine trees and the first prisoners spent a lot of time digging out stumps to make gardens and exercise areas. Now the forest has grown back, though the hut bases are there and you can see where the three tunnels — Tom, Dick and Harry — started. The route of Harry has been overlaid with a commemorative line of paving slabs out to its exit point ‘30 feet short of the trees’, according to Steve McQueen in the movie. In reality it is short of the trees, though Guy’s researches have shown this really wasn’t a huge problem. What was a problem was sending out 76 men with dodgy passes and poorly made civilian clothes. The size of the breakout caused uproar and everyone’s hand was against them. Some went by train, many ‘hard-arsed’ it across country deep with snow. Within 48 hours most were recaptured.
Picture the scene: Richard Attenborough and Gordon Jackson are out of the tunnel — now they have to make their way through the trees to the railway station. Haven’t you always wondered how they found their way? Or how far it was? Well, I’ve walked it — in twilight, very similar conditions to those the last escapers popping out of the tunnel at dawn must have experienced. The pines are not very high but they are close together, preternaturally dark with that sound-deadening quality you get from pine needles underfoot. You walk for about 15 minutes, trying to avoid branches knocking your homemade trilby off, due north until the subdued lights of the railway line become apparent. To get to the ticket hall there is a subway, the same subway that existed in 1944. It is long, dark and unlit. Your footfall echoes off the dripping concrete walls. The ticket hall looks closed. But this is Poland: it’s open but only the ticket window is illuminated — with an ordinary light bulb. The rest of the hall is in murky shadow. It was always a mystery to me why the station staff didn’t raise the alarm when 20-odd men turned up in ill-fitting greatcoats and funny little briefcases. In an instant I understand how so many could have escaped from this station: it was too dark and gloomy to be seen.
More than seeing the tunnels and the trapdoors, it is experiences like this which seem to shorten the distance between that time, so long ago, and this.