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"Nazi Prison Escape"

PBS Airdate: February 6, 2001
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NARRATOR: In the Spring of 1945, Hitler's armies were all but defeated. On the 12th of April, a detachment from the U.S. 9th Infantry was sent to capture a small town in the southeast of Germany called Colditz. Perched on the top of a hill in front of them was an imposing medieval fortress, Colditz Castle. A prisoner of war camp, although the U.S. troops didn't know it.

JUSTIN L. BLOOM (Private First Class, U.S. Army): My recollection is, we didn't know what was at Colditz. It was just a place on the map.

ROBERT PIERCE (Private First Class, U.S. Army): The rank and file like myself had no idea that there was a prisoner of war camp there.

JUSTIN L. BLOOM: To us it was another town that had to be captured.

NARRATOR: Colditz Castle was the Nazis' top security prison. Here they kept under close guard habitual escapers,allied officers who had already made several bids for freedom.

The Nazi high command declared that it was impossible to escape from Colditz Castle. But behind the fortress walls scheming allied prisoners were determined to prove them wrong. Their mission—to break out of Colditz and rejoin the war against Nazi Germany.

For four years the prisoners ingeniously improvised and stole what they could to forge passes, fake uniforms, print escape maps and make gadgets. Unwittingly, the Germans created an escape academy. The prisoners' ingenuity was matched by their courage and daring, an obsession with escape whatever the cost.

Taken to Colditz in 1940, Peter Allen was one of the first to try and get out. His idea was simple,but it took nerves of steel. Disguised as a Hitler Youth, Allen was bundled into an old mattress carried out and thrown onto a trash cart that came into the castle every week. The Germans often prodded a load of trash with their bayonets, but Allen was lucky. Using contraband money, Allen bought a train ticket to Regensburg heading for the Austrian border. Then, he started walking.Without a map, food or change of clothing, he hoped to reach Vienna and seek asylum in the embassy of a neutral country.

He used his fluent German to hitch a ride part of the way in an SS staff car, nervously sharing the back seat with a senior officer. Altogether, he walked for over 200 miles through enemy territory.

Eight days after escaping from Colditz, Allen made it to Nazi Vienna. He started looking for the U.S. Consulate-open because America was still a neutral country. He found it and asked for sanctuary, but was turned away.

PETER ALLEN: I was very depressed that the Americans refused to help me. There was a man saw me wobbling around and I said, "I would like to get some food. Is there a Red Cross place?" He said, "No. Go in here and they will help you."

And it was a police station. And immediately I saw what was in there. And I had no papers. I just said I was an escaped prisoner.There was nothing else I could do.

In due course, two soldiers came and I was escorted back to Colditz.

NARRATOR: Allen's failed escape was just the beginning. Undaunted, his comrades were desperate to rejoin the struggle against Hitler. Their lives were on the line. No risk was too great if it meant freedom.

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NARRATOR: Located in the former East Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia, Colditz was supposed to be the Nazis' highest security camp.

Late on November 7, 1940, a contingent of British officers arrived at Colditz. They had been recaptured together after a joint escape from the prison camp at Lauffen. Among them was Kenneth Lockwood, a 29-year-old infantry captain originally captured after the fall of Dunkirk. He was to spend almost all the war inside Colditz. Now 88, Lockwood remembers the night he arrived at Colditz.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD (former Colditz prisoner): When you're taken prisoner, the point is that you felt that you could have done more and didn't. We looked up at the castle, looked up at the building. It was gray, the weather was dull. It was depressing. We just wondered what we were coming into.

NARRATOR: Over that first winter, allied officers who kept trying to escape began to arrive at Colditz. Within a year, there would be 40 Poles, another 50 British, 12 Serbs, 60 Dutch, eight Belgians and over 60 French. All these officers had one thing in common-a fundamental part of their training was the duty to escape the enemy.

Without realizing it, the Germans had brought together the best escape brains in the Allied Forces and put them all under one roof.

In the first few weeks, the prisoners were too hungry and weak to contemplate escape. These were easy days for Colditz security officer, Captain Rheinhold Eggers. An upholder of German army discipline rather than Nazi beliefs, Eggers's regime was fair but strict. Eggers wrote a memoir called The German Viewpoint .

CAPTAIN RHEINHOLD EGGERS (Colditz Security Officer) The castle was built to be impossible to get into. My job is to make it impossible to get out of. The prisoners are confined to the rooms of the inner courtyard where the walls are 30 meters high. This will set the limits of their world until the end of the war.

NARRATOR: At the center of the castle was the medieval inner courtyard in which the prisoners were confined. Its walls were up to 12 feet thick, a challenge to any tunneler. Outside this were the battlements, rising up to 75 feet of solid rock. Below these was a double fence of barbed wire. Armed sentries patrolled the wire, night and day.Below the wire, the ground fell away in a sheer drop for 150 feet to the valley floor. At night machine gun nests and searchlights covered the exterior.

The German High Command believed it was impossible to escape from Colditz. The British officers begged to differ.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD: As soon as we got settled in after Christmas, we started to look around for escaping and means of escape.

NARRATOR: An escape committee was formed. To head it, they selected thirty-one-year old Pat Reed.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD: He was an automatic choice really. You know, if you thought of an idea you'd go to Pat. And of course it was the fact that he was a civil engineer, which was invaluable.

NARRATOR: With his engineer's eye, Reed could see beyond the skin of the building to its vents, ducts, drains, its ready-made escape routes.

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD (former Colditz prisoner): The Germans had this maddening phrase they spouted at you when you were first captured. They thought they were being kind, I think.

Spoken in German, subtitled: "For you the war is over."

And it jolly well wasn't going to be over, and this was the one thing we could do,we should do-would be to escape.

NARRATOR: In the early days, prisoners tried anything—jumping fences, risking being shot. It was considered an officer's duty to escape. Soon, finding a way out of Colditz became part of everyday life.

But by 1942 things began to change inside Colditz. Prisoners' efforts began to be coordinated to make the most of everyone's skills, regardless of nationality. For the first time, British escapers could rely on the collective ingenuity of the camp to help them on their way. This was the beginning of an escape industry.

Gadgets and devices were made to order or smuggled in. The art of escaping from Colditz became a science, and as the war progressed the escape attempts received official support from the British Secret Service in London. MI9 was a newly formed branch of the British Secret Service, set up to help prisoners escape. They produced a range of escape gadgets that could be concealed in everyday objects, sent via the Red Cross parcel system.

M.R.D. FOOT (Military Historian): You might get sent a pack of cards. If you drop them into water, the card peels off. And if you put 52 of them together, you've got a very good map of Germany, probably with the Swiss frontier thrown in. Another one, a pencil clip, nothing more ordinary than a pencil on a clip, which one could wear in one's pocket quite normally. But in fact it's a tiny compass. You balance it on the top of the pencil and it shows you where north is.

SKELLY GINN (former Colditz prisoner): I suddenly had a parcel with a board game from Anne French. Well I think back as far as I could, I could never think of an Anne French. I suddenly thought, "God, I'll try and rip this out and see what's in it." And, pulling the board apart, sure enough there was some paper German money in it. And great excitement. "Oh yes, I'll put this by."

It wasn't more than about a week I had it and somebody came to me, had I had any contraband?Anyhow, I had to hand the money to the escape committee.

NARRATOR: One of MI9's most ingenious schemes involved the record company HMV.

M.R.D. FOOT: MI9 had an arrangement with HMV that HMV could cast a record with a map inside it. And word would go in by coded letter—when a record played and the British Grenadiers arrived, drop it.

JOCK HAMILTON-BAILLIE (former Colditz prisoner): Somebody dropped one and it broke, and there in the middle of it was a map, a very thin map.

And people said, "Oh, goodness." And it was an orgy of breaking all our very precious gramophone records, seeing if there was (sic) any other maps. There were no other maps and we had broken all our records, which was rather sad.

NARRATOR: Only a few maps made it into the camp from London, but every potential escaper would need one. Kenneth Lockwood came up with a novel idea of how to duplicate them.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD: When I was at prep school I used to print a small sort of newsletter for our form, and I said I did it on gelatin. We'd got jellies in our Red Cross parcels and so we tried it out.

It had to be lemon. You had to have a light-colored jelly. Now all that's got to happen is for the jelly to set. And I got the tracing that we want to print, so it goes onto the jelly and the jelly picked up the outline of the document and came out onto your piece of paper—a miniature form of a printing press. Of course it could only do a certain amount of copies.

Well then it was never wasted—we ate it.

NARRATOR: Provoking the German guards was a favorite past time—usually a decoy for escapes.

In early 1943, there were repeated attempts to get out of the confines of Colditz. Very few were successful, but still the prisoners tried.

The British escape industry was hard at work making jelly maps and keys for their most daring attempt. The man behind the escape was Mike Sinclair. A professional soldier before the war, he spoke fluent German and had escaped four times before arriving at Colditz.

MICHAEL BURN (former Colditz prisoner): He became legendary because he was absolutely determined to carry out...which, strictly speaking, is the duty of every prisoner...to escape.

NARRATOR: Sinclair devoted every waking hour to escape—a single-minded battle between himself and his German guards.

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD: He was so determined that he never thought of anything else. I'd wake up in the night, because we were usually in the same room, and there would be this solitary figure at the window just watching. Absorbing information, anything that might be useful to him. Amazing man, amazing person.

NARRATOR: Sinclair was the central player in the most audacious attempt to break out of Colditz.

The idea was to impersonate an older German guard called Feldwebel Rotenburger, known to the prisoners as "Franz Josef." A veteran of the First World War, his distinctive appearance invited disguise.

The idea that a German guard would always obey his senior officer formed the basis for the plan. Disguised as Franz Josef, Mike Sinclair intended to impersonate him on his nightly inspection of the sentries. Hoping they would not look at him too closely, Sinclair would relieve them. British officers disguised as guards would take their place. Finally, he would dismiss the guard on the main terrace gate that lead out of the castle. This would pave the way for a mass escape of 30 prisoners.

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD: It was pretty difficult to tell when he was made up that he wasn't the real Feldwebel. Then there was all the equipment. Enormous amounts of equipment had to be made—rifles...dummy rifles...dummy bayonets, the uniforms with buttons and badges and everything. The preparations were the fascinating part. I mean...it took months.

NARRATOR: The escape industry went into overdrive. Cardboard and boot polish became a leather holster. Franz Josef's hat was meticulously copied. And ropes to carry 30 escaping prisoners from the windows to the ground were prepared. Each of the 30 escapers would need a forged pass to travel around Germany. This was called an Auschweiss.

KENNETH LEE (former Colditz prisoner) : This is where the time-consuming part came. It was difficult to copy in the Gothic writing because you couldn't do anything else after that. I mean you couldn't scratch out a letter. I mean, that would...you would have to start again. Otherwise the chap might get shot.

CORRAN PURDON (former Colditz prisoner): I was going to go out as a Belgian worker because I could speak a bit of French and I thought they would excuse my bad accent. So I took the name of Leon Goosens. And so I had to sign that and get used to that. And I put black boot polish on my hair and I hoped I would be slightly less obvious.

KENNETH LEE: The final stage was to rubber stamp the documents. The Germans love rubber stamps, and so you put on half a dozen rubber stamps. The more stamps the better.

GEORGE DREW(former Colditz prisoner): Someone would have produced a drawing of the stamp. I would then transfer that to a piece of sole material, which we got sent in through the Red Cross or somewhere. And then, using a razor blade, one would cut along these lines and then get rid of all the background. To do that with a razor blade, I do assure you, is bloody nearly impossible. And it would take all day and it's just about as boring as paint drying.

This police stamp was the normal one. And then we used to use indelible pencil and spit, which is as good as any, and then go round all the lettering and the eagle in the middle. It did look like a stamp, if not examined too closely. Now hopefully this will come out...stamp it down...I must say that is not too bad. That would pass.

NARRATOR: Their papers complete, the escapers now needed to hide these precious documents.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD: Pat Reed had some cigars sent to him by some friends of his, and they all arrived in their case. Well now, I have still got mine. It was the name that gave us the clue as to how to secrete our papers when you were escaping. I think probably the first time was probably slightly painful, but you got used to it.

NARRATOR: On the night of September 2nd 1943, the plan went into action. Mike Sinclair and his two guards broke out onto the terrace.

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD: I was up at one of these windows back here, one of the far windows along there, and my job was to report what happened when they reached the sentry immediately below me. And they came up to the sentry. I could hear what Mike was saying about reporting back to the guard room. And the sentry clicked his heels and marched away.

DAVID HUNTER (former Colditz prisoner): We were watching it keenly because we had windows which were ready to come out, ropes which we were going to get down into the moat.

NARRATOR: Disguised as Franz Josef, Sinclair approached the next sentry who was also fooled. All that remained now was the guard at the main terrace gate.

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD: I heard Mike say something to him, and I heard an argument start. Mike spoke perfect German and raised his voice and started giving very severe orders to do what he was told and this and that, and there was an emergency on, and I could hear this argument going back and forth. I could hear the sentry saying, "Nein, Herr Feldwebel."

NARRATOR: The guard became suspicious because Sinclair's pass was the wrong color. He raised the alarm. German guard Peter Hofmann rushed out.

PETER HOFMANN (former Colditz guard): I was one of the first on the scene, just behind the relief officer. There were two or three others ahead of me.

Sinclair had become nervous. He was desperate to succeed. Sinclair reached for his pistol case and the German officer thought he was going to shoot. Up above there was a great outcry. They all screamed, "You German murderers! You bloody murderers!"

Sinclair had fooled us all. One of the guards standing right next to the officer said, "Jesus Christ, you've shot Rotenburger." And he really believed Sinclair was the old sergeant. He couldn't tell the difference.

NARRATOR: The bullet missed Sinclair's heart by an inch, but he was taken to the Colditz hospital and lived to try again.

The Franz Josef attempt ended the great era of escapes from Colditz. The Germans had the upper hand and became more ruthless. They had learned how to counter all the traditional means of escape, eventually turning the castle into an effective prison.

By late 1943, bombing raids were inflicting massive damage on Germany. The allied invasion of Europe was already being planned.

The prisoners were more anxious than ever to get back to the war. In a last desperate attempt to outwit their guards, the prisoners looked up to one of the few exits left open. To escape from Colditz now would take a leap of imagination.

BILL GOLDFINCH (former Colditz prisoner): It was winter. Snow was falling. December 1943 we're now talking about. This window looked out over Colditz town. The wind was blowing on the face of this window. But what appealed to me was the fact the snowflakes weren't coming down; they were actually just drifting up and over the top. So we could watch the force of the wind at work on them, and what a smooth flow it was. Just to...sort of like going swimming...launch yourself into this rising air and float gently down to the river. All the other methods of escape had been attempted by somebody. This seemed much simpler to me—to stand on the roof and jump off.

NARRATOR: Bill Goldfinch's idea was to build a glider and launch it from the top of the castle.

The roof stood 300 feet above the ground. If a runway could be improvised along the 40-foot ridge, then by using ropes, pulleys and a counter weight, they could catapult themselves over the ramparts and glide silently over the sleeping inhabitants of Colditz town.

Across the river, they could see the perfect landing place.

A desperate plan. But there hadn't been a home run in over a year, so the idea was approved by Dick Howe, Head of the Escape Committee. Ex-engineer Bill Goldfinch was asked to provide a drawing. Another RAF engineer was brought in, Bill's best friend, Jack Best.

BILL GOLDFINCH: We had been mates ever since we had been prisoners, I think, really, so we more or less talked as one voice. We were called the two old crows, but...

JACK BEST (former Colditz prisoner): Or the wicked uncles.

NARRATOR: Neither one of them had an idea of how to build a glider. But they found a textbook in the prison library.

BILL GOLDFINCH: It was a matter of applying what knowledge one had to say, well, "How big should the wing be? How much is it going to weigh? How strong has it got to be?" We worked all these things out on paper.

NARRATOR: With this information, Bill went to the drawing board and produced the first plan.

BILL GOLDFINCH: Before you make anything, you have got to have some sort of picture in your mind, and then somebody's got to put that, what's in his mind, on paper. So this is the paper representation of what we hoped to build.

GEORGE DREW: What's his name, Goldfinch, was sawing away at a piece of a locker. And I said to him, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Building a glider." And I laughed and went away. And then I think I spoke to someone about it, and said he was building a glider, ha ha, and they said, "Well he is actually."

NARRATOR: The design developed to carry two people, but if they continued making the parts in their quarters, it couldn't be kept secret for long. The prisoners would need a permanent workspace.

HUGO IRONSIDE (former Colditz prisoner): I don't know. I suppose that top bit is the theater.

PAT FERGUSON (former Colditz prisoner): Well no, I can't, but...

NARRATOR: Hugo Ironside and Pat Ferguson were brought in to work on the glider.

HUGO IRONSIDE: Oh, gosh. The dreaded old door.

NARRATOR: They haven't been back to Colditz since the war.

HUGO IRONSIDE and PAT FERGUSON: Do you think we can get through it?

Can we get in? That's the next question.

Oh god, there it all is, much the same except that bloody...

NARRATOR: And little has changed to the prisoners' courtyard. But they are eager to find the secret glider workshop high up in one of the attics. The location was chosen because it was just above the roof picked out for the launching.

HUGO IRONSIDE and PAT FERGUSON: Ah. Now that rings a...

That's familiar, isn't it?

NARRATOR: Back then the staircase only gained them access to the lower attic. From here they had to go up through the ceiling.

HUGO IRONSIDE: And the trap door was, I would say, about...

PAT FERGUSON: About there?

HUGO IRONSIDE: There. The first person in picked up the stools, lowered them down on a rope and then we could be hauled up.

PAT FERGUSON: It was quite an athletic sort of thing to do, really. Had to be reasonably competent.

HUGO IRONSIDE: I wouldn't like to do it today.

PAT FERGUSON: I wouldn't either, Hugo. No, no way.

NARRATOR: Today, the climb is a lot easier.The wall which they built back then to seal them into their hideaway has been removed.

Once they were hidden behind their false wall, production could begin in earnest. Their light came from "fat lamps"—a pajama-cord wick and a can of lard. Homemade tools cut and shaped the wood, which was stuck together with glue bribed from the German guards.

PAT FERGUSON: I thought the workshop was absolutely brilliant. Making ribs for the wings or for the tail planes—which involved shaping the wood, steaming it, bending it and then pinning it and gluing it—was an on-going situation. And so it became a matter of routine eventually.

BILL GOLDFINCH: We were in a great big castle, ancient castle. Lots of wood, lots of stone, lots of metal about, and it lay all around you for the taking. And you were in a protected environment inside this castle courtyard and you could help yourself to what you wanted, which is exactly what we did. Say, "I want that bit of wood." "So take it then."

NARRATOR: The main gate was the only way into the prisoners' courtyard. Through here came special guards called ferrets to search the building for anything out of the ordinary. To keep the workshop secure, the POWs used an elaborate lookout system.

JOHN CHRISP (former Colditz prisoner): Dick wanted one of us to sit on a rafter and take a tile away and look down at the courtyard and look across to the Polish quarters. And if there was a red bottle there...because the Polish quarters were in line with the main, the gate...that meant the goons were coming in.

NARRATOR: The false wall was so convincing that the Germans didn't notice that the top attic was shorter by eight feet.

They would work to complete the glider over the next eight months.

Today, Bill Goldfinch's original design for escaping from Colditz will be rebuilt here, at South Down Aero Services in Hampshire, Southern England.

BILL GOLDFINCH: Lovely, simple fixture.

SOUTH DOWN AERO SERVICES ENGINEER: I agree.

BILL GOLDFINCH: We've got a nice long...the right length. Also we can drill along the hole which we certainly couldn't.

JACK BEST: That is an ordinary German table knife snapped off and sharpened and shoved in there. And the first one I made was out of a chair leg, which was square, and I dug that all out with a penknife.

ONLOOKER : But this explains how you made all the narrow sections for the ribs because this would pass down.

JACK BEST: That's right. This was a spring out of a gramophone. That, of course, is a bar off the window. To have it and the bolts...god knows where they came from.

ONLOOKER: When you took the bar off the window, why didn't you climb out of the window?

JACK BEST: I hadn't got a rope handy.

BILL GOLDFINCH: Oh gosh. That's the most marvelous thing I've ever seen.

NARRATOR: But this glider uses modern technology. Electric saws and planes do the work in seconds that took Jack, Bill and the others weeks.

JACK BEST: We never had any sandpaper.

NARRATOR: The replica is following Bill's plan to the inch. Within nine days the shape of the aircraft is emerging. It took the prisoners nine months to get to this stage.

Compared to the original workshop, marked out on the floor in tape, they have a lot more space. At the rate they're going, it will only be a matter of weeks before the second Colditz glider will be ready to take off.

While the glider kept many hands busy, morale in the castle was the responsibility of another team of prisoners. For months, news of the war could be followed on a secret radio smuggled into the camp.

RADIO SYNCH :...hours GMT. Canadian troops of the 8th Army have landed in southern Italy. At 4:30 this Friday morning, on the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war...

NARRATOR: It appeared that the tide was turning. But there was still no hope of immediate release.

RADIO SYNCH: ...naval and air forces...

NARRATOR: Many of the inmates at Colditz Castle were now spending their fourth year in captivity.

Faithfully following the original, cotton gingham bed sheets covered the skeletal frame of the replica glider, and to make it aerodynamic, it had to be stiffened or "doped." In Colditz, the prisoners concocted a unique recipe from their meager rations to make the starch.

PAT FERGUSON: When we doped the fabric, that was quite an exercise, wasn't it?

HUGO IRONSIDE: Yes it was, wasn't it?

PAT FERGUSON: We used millet, which we had been given by the Germans to eat, and we found that if we ground it up with a sort of mortar and pestle device we could boil it up afterwards and use it as a dope on the blue and white check.

SOUTH DOWN AERO SERVICES ENGINEER: It's incredible. It's got everything that we are seeking there. I mean how far did they have to fly? One thousand yards? That would have lasted easily.

NARRATOR: As work on the glider continued,rumors spread through Colditz of an allied invasion.

RADIO SYNCH: ...staff of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force...A new phase of our air bombing has begun. Those of you who can leave the towns in the 35 kilometer coastal belt now, should.

NARRATOR: As soon as the news was delivered round the world, so it was around the prison camp. The gamblers started laying bets on when the war would end. Suddenly the cry "home by Christmas" didn't sound so hollow.

This is what the Colditz glider would have looked like in September 1944. But their workshop, unlike ours, did not provide the room to assemble it. John Lee, who will pilot the plane, has just finished making the wings.

JOHN LEE (Pilot for replica plane): That's...that's the first link-up.

NARRATOR: They contain over 6000 hand-shaped components.

JOHN LEE: We have no adjustments to make whatsoever. We've got far more travel than I could have hoped for.

NARRATOR: Once assembled, the new glider will be virtually identical to the original.

At Colditz, the glider was almost complete when events outside the castle brought work to a halt.

What became known as the Great Escape was a mass breakout from another POW camp, at Sagan, northeast of Colditz. Seventy-six RAF and U.S. airmen had got out through a tunnel, but only three got home. Of the remainder, Hitler ordered 50 to be selected at random and executed.

In an attempt to justify these murders, the Germans warned that from now on, anyone attempting to escape would be shot. There were no more escape attempts from Colditz.

By winter 1944, Germany was in retreat. And the country was in chaos. The Red Cross parcels couldn't get through and the prisoners of war were desperately short of food.

Throughout the first months of 1945, the Allies continued to push into Germany from east and west. In Colditz, the prisoners were following the advance. But they were unsure of who would be the first to arrive—U.S. troops or Russians?

HUGO IRONSIDE: I was, on this famous weekend towards the end of April, here at this window, preparing the lunch such as it was, and looking out as was my custom, across this expanse of countryside. I suddenly noticed, just to the left of that line of trees there, a line of tanks.

NARRATOR: They were U.S. tanks with their guns aimed right at the castle.

OTA CERNY (former Colditz prisoner): The castle was hit few times. The most important one was the one on the top floor between the two windows. That was a direct hit. And that made us put anything we had out to indicate "Do not shoot. We are prisoners." And luckily they did seem to understand.

NARRATOR: The shelling from the approaching U.S. tanks was quickly directed away from the castle, and it was turned on the Germans.

The U.S. troops were used to the Germans surrendering in the thousands and were surprised to meet stiff resistance in the small town of Colditz. Many of the Germans were young boys, members of the Hitler Youth.

ROBERT PIERCE: The Hitler Youth were put with a couple of regular army inside of these little wooden sheds. There was about six by six, six by eight in the garden area. They were particularly inside or behind it, and you know, you're looking right at 'em, and you're shooting right down into 'em. So we fired about two clips of ammo and then Gallagher says, "Okay, move out."

We came right through there and literally overran two or three Germans. They were running ahead of us, and we screamed, "Halt!" and they dropped their rifles and raised their hands and surrendered.

JUSTIN L. BLOOM: I was surprised to see boys who were maybe 13 or 14 or 15 years old and trying to be soldiers and trying to kill us. And they weren't good soldiers, and they...they were not determined to fight to the death. They gave up quickly as soon as we...as we could face them. But there were other troops in the...there were other people like them in the town who were being goaded on by the SS, so they didn't have the option of just throwing down their weapons and surrendering. They were being forced to fight and they did fight. And they killed and wounded a goodly number of our...of us.

NARRATOR: The order was given to attack the town. Twenty-two riflemen approached through the woods, supported by more troops with heavy machine guns. Crack SS troops supplemented by a ragged army of old men and Hitler Youth were no match for the U.S. troops. After a night of heavy shelling the SS has withdrawn, leaving Colditz undefended.

With orders to set up an observation post by the river crossing, one of the first to enter Colditz the next morning was Robert Miller.

ROBERT MILLER ( Private First Class, U.S. Army): There was a guy on the other side of the bridge and I assumed that he came from the castle. And the guy said, "They want to surrender in the castle." Now I believe at this time—before daybreak—the SS had just left the place. We didn't know anything about the SS at that time, you know? We learned all this later on. But we decided to follow this guy.

The road took us right to the opening to get to inside the castle. So we walked through and came out the other side.

CORRAN PURDON: And the gate rather cautiously opened. And there was an unmistakable American helmet poked 'round the gate.

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD: He was filthy and dirty from battle, steel-helmeted and armed to the teeth, and he came in and we all cheered, "Hooray!" you see.

ROBERT MILLER: And you never heard anything louder in your life. Those guys start screaming...

GRIS DAVIES-SCOURFIELD: And he stopped. He was frightened. Now he had been through battle—battle causes great stress. Even to veterans sometimes. And he was under stress and there we were, these mad people waving their arms and shouting at him. And he quickly took down his rifle which had been on his...he was holding over his shoulder and menaced us, you see? And said, "Stay back! Stay back!" he said. We said, "We're friends," you know? And then he relaxed and some other soldiers came in and it was all very jolly.

ROBERT MILLER: They were celebrating and I could hear it.

NARRATOR: The U.S. liberators found another more sinister camp in Colditz, a slave labor camp run by the SS. Hundreds of Hungarian Jewish men and women had been marched there from Auschwitz in November 1944. The U.S. troops found a mass grave for over 400 men and women who had been shot, but there were a few survivors among the bodies.

The seriously ill were taken to a medical center.

Kenneth Lockwood had spent almost all the war in Colditz castle, oblivious to what was going on just a few hundred yards away.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD: They were Hungarian Jews, all intelligentsia. I found this out because the American doctor, a fellow named Rose, was looking after them. He was doing what he could for them, and I simply said to him, "I've got nothing to do, can I be of any help?" And he said, "Well yes," he said...gave me a mug and some water and said, "Now get them to sip this."

Well I never want to see human beings like it again. They were literally skin and bones and nothing else. Their skin was a parchment yellow. And the doctor said, "It is important that they only sip. They mustn't...they mustn't swallow it. And only do it very slowly." Well, I went 'round, and he was doing it as well. We ran out of water. And he had a couple of German soldiers there, who hadn't left the place—most of them had by then—and he told one of them to go and fetch some more water. And the chap refused. He wasn't going to fetch any water for any Jews. And it looked...I thought, "Oh, this is going to be tricky." Anyhow, the doctor ordered him to do it again, and he refused again. And so the doctor produced his revolver and shot him. The other German that was there went and got the water.

I never want to see anybody in the condition that these Jews were in. It was appalling.

NARRATOR: But the prisoners and their U.S. liberators weren't ready to go home just yet. High up in the roof of the chapel lay the completed parts of an aircraft, waiting to be put together.

JACK BEST: Bill and I, before breakfast, we went up there, knocked a hole in the ceiling, brought it all down and we...I was assembling one side and he was assembling the other. Your side went together perfectly. My side I had to ask you to just pull two bits together while I put a bolt through.

And none of those things had been fitted before. We hadn't been able to. So it shows how accurate our work was.

NARRATOR: This is the only known photograph of what was christened "The Colditz Cock," taken that day by an unknown GI. Jack and Bill proudly displayed the glider to their German guards and their U.S. liberators.

ROBERT MILLER: And a couple of the lads come out, the British, they said, "We'd like to show you something." So they took us back in. They took us where the glider was. They took us... It was amazing. To have all this stuff. They must have built a wall, you know, that the Germans didn't know all this stuff was behind. There was a big map. They had a desk. They had a radio. I mean they had everything. It was amazing. And they told us how they could lift the roof off and put things on there when they were going to take...try this glider.

NARRATOR: More than 50 years later The Colditz Cock will be reborn, witnessed by the prisoners who secretly and carefully crafted the original. It was left behind in Colditz when the prisoners were evacuated back to Britain. They never saw it again. But rumor is that is was burned after the war.

BILL GOLDFINCH: Ah! Good lord. The fabric's gone. It's so smooth and shapely.

JACK BEST: It looks lovely, Bill. Doesn't it?

BILL GOLDFINCH: Well...

JACK BEST: It really does.

BILL GOLDFINCH: We never thought we'd see a thing like that, did we?

JACK BEST: The material looks to be exactly right. Doesn't it to you?

PAT FERGUSION: Marvelous. There's room there. There's the rudder right at the end.

BILL GOLDFINCH: Absolutely lovely. Tennis balls. German ones are they?

SOUTH DOWN AERO SERVICES ENGINEER: Seven and a half weeks. And the wings were built 60 miles away.

CORRAN PURDON: You've done a wonderful job on this. You really have.

OTA CERNY: And look. This is the most important bit. Absolute luxury.

BILL GOLDFINCH: I think we should have had the advantage with our launch up there, because we had a good old diving start. Oh, yes.

JACK BEST: Providing we were under control from the word go.

KENNETH LOCKWOOD: Next thing is, hopefully, it will be in the air.

NARRATOR: And finally the question of whether it would have flown can be answered.

BILL GOLDFINCH: It's all out. It was lovely. That was beautiful. He's cast off. I would never have believed we'd get airborne as quickly as that.

I can't see him, he's got so high. It doesn't seem to lose any height. I can't find the bloody thing.

I think we should have invited Pupka and Eggers. They should...perhaps they are watching. Perhaps they are.

Look at that. Beautiful. Brilliant, brilliant.

Colditz Castle is not the only prison to have witnessed ingenious escapes. Revisit some of history's great escapes, from Alcatraz to the Tower of London, on NOVA's Web site at pbs.org or America Online, keyword PBS.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Nazi Prison Escape

Narrated by Roy Scheider

Written, Produced and Directed by
Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones, Chris Durlacher, Henry Chancellor, Adam English

Associate Producers
David Coward
Gerald Lorenz
Marti Louw

Edited by
Rick Aplin
Paul Bernays
Simon Rose

Camera
Jeff Baynes
Douglas Hartington
Chris Morphet
Chris Openshaw

Music
Daniel Pemberston

Assistant Camera
Kirsten Priebe

Set Design
Nick Edwards
Ushi Tamboriello

Production Manager
Gina Marsh

Online Editing
The Edit Store

Colorist
Aidan Farrell

Audio Mix
Peter Jones

Sound Recordists
Mick Duffield
Andrew Cottom
Tony Burke
George Hitchens

Production Co-ordinators
Rachel Shadick
Armgard Rees

Archival Material
The Colditz Museum
Imperial War Museum
British Broadcasting Corporation

Special Thanks
Kenneth Lockwood
The Reid Family
Colditz Castle and Tourist Office
Manfred Heinz
Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Theatre School, Leipzig
The Railway Museum, Chemnitz

Executive Producers for Windfall Films
Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones
Oliver Morse

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Publicity
Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Katie Kemple

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Unit Managers
Jessica Maher
Sharon Winsett

Paralegal
Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Business Manager
Laurie Cahalane

Post Production Assistant
Lila White Gardella

Assistant Editor, Post Production
Regina O'Toole

Associate Producer, Post Production
Judy Bourg

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Production Manager, Post Production
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Producer, Coproductions and Acquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A Windfall Films Production for NOVA/WGBH and Channel 4

© 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

 

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