How POWs tried to escape from the Nazis with drag, cigarettes and sheer willpower
Imagine you’re in prison. (For those of you who’ve ever sat through Freshman Orientation, this shouldn’t be too hard.) You don’t know how long you’ll be there, or if you’ll ever be allowed to go free. While your captors attempt to keep you occupied by organizing trips to the local park encouraging recreational activities, you still have gobs of free time. Not only that, but the prison you’re in is filled with nooks and crannies and easy hiding-spots. You’re just itching to escape.
Now imagine that every other inmate, who you’ve become good friends with, has the exact same idea. The outcome seems obvious, doesn’t?
This was the exact situation for the inmates held during World War II in the Nazi-fortified prison Oflag IV-C, located in the tiny northwest German town of Colditz. The structure, called Colditz Castle, was considered an inescapable stronghold. The castle had previously been used as a concentration camp location, until it was converted into a prison in 1940. The castle boasted a wine cellar, a banqueting hall, a chapel, a garden and a courtyard. It was also where the Germans would send captured Allied officer POWs, including French, British and American officers, along with ‘prominent’ prisoners, including Winston Churchill’s nephew.
If you’re wondering why they kept officers in such a cushy spot: Partly because of the Geneva Conventions, which had certain provisions preventing officers from forced work, etc. and partly out of a sort of decorum. Enemies on both sides treated officers well out of respect for rank, and partly out of fear that their own captured officers would be harmed by the enemy in retaliation. This, of course, depended on the individual camp. (Non-officer POW’s captured by the Germans had it rather worse—they were forced into labor, and faced starvation and long marches.
Here’s the thing about Oflag IV-C: It’s where they shipped not just high-ranking officers, but high-ranking officers who had a history of escaping from the prisons they were transferred from. Getting into a land war with Russia wasn’t the Nazis’ only strategic blunder; so was lumping together a bunch of prisoners with nothing better to do and a tendency to strategically go AWOL.
This resulted in 174 separate escape attempts by the inmates, including (but not limited to) two major tunnels, two failed escapes inside mattresses, a bedsheet rope, crawling through air shafts “Mission: Impossible” style, vaulting over the barbed wire fence, hiding under a pile of leaves at a local park, various escape attempts through windows, a successful absconding through the fog by a prisoner being taken to the dentist, impersonating the camp electrician, impersonating various officers, several hospital escapes, at least one instance of a failed snow tunnel, hiding under a bread delivery van, breaking into an orderlies’ office to steal a uniform and walking out, running away during Catholic confession and one instance of a British officer faking heart disease by drinking black coffee and smoking heavily in order to be repatriated for health reasons.
These are just a few of them, mind you.
Some of the escapes require a bit more explanation.
In 1941, one French officer, Lieut. Chasseur Alpin Bouley, disguised himself as a fine German lady taking a walk through the park. ‘Her” cover was blown when “she” dropped a watch—when one of the prisoners noticed and called out, Bouley kept walking, which aroused the suspicion of the guards, who recaptured him promptly.
One account (which some sources call fake) involved a group of British officers attempting to tunnel through the underneath of the castle to freedom. Instead, they dug themselves into the castle’s extensive wine cellar. Never the bunch to let such an opportunity pass, the group purportedly drank 134 bottles of wine and replaced the contents with urine.
One crew of ingenious inmates attempted escape by a jerry-rigged, homemade glider made from scavenged parts called “The Colditz Cock.” The aircraft was built in the roof of the castle’s chapel, which was too high to be seen into from the ground, and made from bits of bed, table, a stolen gramophone and other such odds and ends. The prisoners used an aircraft construction book sequestered from the prison library as their guide.
The officers in charge, Bill Goldfinch and Jack Best, led a team of twelve they called “apostles.” The plan was to glide from the chapel across a nearby river, giving the escapees time to run away before the guards could detect them. The aircraft, however, never saw flight—the camp was liberated before completion.
While most escape attempts failed, ending in detection or recapture, it didn’t stop people from trying. In fact, with all of these officers escaping left and right, a coordinated system of escapes began to form. The prisoners would coordinate distractions and diversions, creating chances for others to break free (and making sure the attempts didn’t disrupt each other.) The main coordinators were called “escape officers” and generally weren’t allow to escape themselves, instead staying behind to help escapees, obtain supplies, forge keys and run the local black market. They weren’t without help—the British secret intelligence, MI5, would often send in care packages with maps, lockpicks and tools.
One of the ways prisoners would avoid arousing suspicion, particularly during daily headcounts, was to integrate “ghost prisoners” into their ranks. These hidden inmates would ‘escape’ and be marked as such by the Germans. In reality, they would stay behind and hide within the castle’s nooks and crannies, taking place of truly escaped prisoners during roll calls, stealing supplies and generally assisting in perpetuating mayhem.
Overall there were about 30 (numbers disputed) “home runs” (successes) either through repatriation or the inmate making it to safe territory, which was often nearby neutral Switzerland. Recaptured inmates would face solitary confinement and the restriction of privileges– though several of the German officers took the escapes tongue-in cheek, even publishing some of the more entertaining ones in a Nazi camp magazine.
Colditz was liberated by American troops in April 1945 (after, ingeniously, the prisoners convinced the head officer to surrender in exchange for a reduced war crime sentence.) The castle now serves as part museum (with several of the escape tunnels and attempts preserved for onlookers) and a part youth hostel.
What’s the moral of the story? At first you don’t succeed, try try again—even it takes 174 times, a couple of mattresses and a lot of coffee. Stay determined, readers, and stay weird.
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. She tweets @marlese_lessing.