Escape from the canteen
The prisoners were indeed leading us on a merry dance. A sentry reported that
he'd been offered 700 marks (about £50) to keep his eyes shut some night
to be specified, while on duty at guard post No. 9 outside the canteen. There
was another terrace at this point, which went out about 15 yards from the
window, and the sentry's beat was below it. The ground was terraced against the
walls, and left a belt of dead ground outside our sentries' range of view all
around the sides of the prisoners' buildings. Sentry beats were everywhere at
the foot of these first terrace projections. There was a small lawn on the
terrace above post No. 9, lit at night by searchlights.
Colditz inmates squirreled away large sums in smuggled German marks
for use in bribing guards and buying train tickets to freedom once on the
Seven hundred marks was a lot of money. How on Earth had the POWs got hold of
We held a security meeting. The money was obviously being smuggled in. How, we
found later. It came in parcels, and also on the persons of new arrivals. A
British officer once boasted that the British "bank" held over 2,000 marks in
real German money, hidden away. It took me nearly four years to find this
treasure, but I got it in the end. This was 1941, however, when "hot" money was
We told this particular sentry to carry on with the game and keep us informed.
In due course he got 100 marks as the first part of his bribe. Whitsun was
coming. Staff were going on leave, and tension would be relaxed. The guard was
due on duty again between 9 and 11 o'clock the Thursday evening before Whitsun,
May 29th. It was then light till 8 o'clock. Two days before, the
guard was told, "From now on keep your head down when on duty." He passed this
on to us, and we made our preparations.
The canteen. Somewhere near there they were going to break out, but where? From
below? Impossible. The inside drain cover in the canteen floor was sealed. From
above? Not in the searchlights. Would they fuse the lights and come down a rope
in the dark? Would they get out of the canteen by one of the windows? The guard
had been assured that there would be no traces after the escape, so he couldn't
possibly be suspected. How "Zum Donnerwetter" were they going to get
out? We thought and talked and felt very foolish. That we should have to wait
on the prisoners for a line of action!
The Germans thought they had successfully cemented shut the canteen drain
cover. They hadn't.
All duty officers and a number of guards concentrated in a room in the
Kommandantur building, where our northeast corner backed on the canteen
corner of the prisoners' yard. The door onto the grass terrace outside the
damned canteen was on our side of the join in the two yards. We unlocked it
quietly. An NCO and ten men were held ready in the guardroom outside the
prisoners' gate, at the end of the approach yard. A phone call on our internal
exchange would rush them to any part of the castle that we specified. We
decided that the break would definitely be attempted on the Thursday. That
evening we must have been quite as keyed up as the prisoners. We took the
evening parade under the strictest orders to give no hint that we knew or
suspected anything. Everything seemed quite normal. Everyone was present. Were
they perhaps more quiet than usual? The parade was dismissed. We left the yard
and took up our positions at the danger spot. We checked back by phone to the
guardroom. They knew their orders. The tension among us was terrific. It was at
moments like these that the hotheads could make trouble.
"No firing without orders from an officer." "Ja wohl, Herr Hauptmann."
Twilight fell, and the lights came on. The stage was set; we waited in the
wings for the actors. Sentry No. 9 was pacing up and down. We couldn't see him
as he was in dead ground below the level of the terrace. He was an absolute
mass of nerves and so the one most likely to start shooting. We were the ones
most likely to catch it, too. We waited and watched. But what should we watch?
Where to focus? We blinked at every sound. Our eyes watered with strain. We
watched. Suddenly came a movement on the grass. Was it a moth over the
searchlight that flicked a shadow over the lawn? Now we could focus. A line
appeared—a break. A patch of grass started to move, upward. LO1 [stands for
Lager Offizier, or Camp Officer, No. 1] made a sign, "Wait!" A square of
turf rose straight up out of the ground, held in a wooden frame, with legs,
which now showed themselves. The man's hands and arms followed, pushing up the
turf and frame by the legs. Then the frame was stood aside, and up came the
British Captain Pat Reid!
With German eyes on
him, Pat Reid appeared through this hole in the grass-covered terrace one night
in May 1941.
"Heraus"—and we were on him! One man to the phone told the guard to
occupy the canteen at once. Anyone in there to remain there. "Los!" We
caught ten British and two Polish officers in the canteen tunnel, including the
British Senior Officer, Colonel Guy German. All were in civilian clothes, all
had passes; 85 marks in real money was found on the party, and 150 lb. weight
of provisions, all Red Cross food, mostly in tins, plus chocolate and biscuits.
What a haul for us!
The prisoners had loosened the drain cover in the canteen and picked their way
along the drain through the side wall. For night working this involved picking
the locks of two doors, from their own staircase into the yard, and from the
yard into the canteen.
Security counter-measures followed. We began to change the sentries at
irregular times. We saw to it that the same men did not return each time at the
same post. We aimed to break any rhythm in guard postings that might give the
prisoners a fixed person or fixed timing of any kind on which they could
And the guard? He kept his 100 marks. He got extra leave, promotion, and the
War Service Cross. It was worth it.
This was our first big success, and due solely to the loyalty of one of our men.
[For other successes—on both sides—see Escaping Colditz.]