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Nazi Prison Escape

Glider plan Top-view plans for the Colditz glider, copied from the drawing made at Colditz. Click on the image to view a larger version.
The Colditz Glider
Building the Colditz Glider

On a snowy day in December, 1943, while he looked out over the German town of Colditz, POW Bill Goldfinch noticed snowflakes outside his window drifting upward. Perhaps it would be possible, he thought, to escape from the prison in a glider. The updraft would help in getting the glider airborne. Also, there was an ideal area from which to launch a glider: the castle's chapel roof, which was hidden from the guards' watchful eyes. The prisoners could use ropes, pulleys, and a counterweight to propel the glider along the roof.

Goldfinch presented his idea to Dick Howe, head of the prison's escape committee, who approved it. Goldfinch's best friend, Jack Best, was also assigned to the project.

Using a textbook discovered in the prison library, Goldfinch and Best, both engineers, worked out the specifications for a glider. It would carry a pilot and one passenger. The wings would have enough lift to carry the glider's occupants over the town of Colditz—more than 300 feet below—and across the River Mulde. Goldfinch then drew up the plans.

Glider plan (side) Side-view plans for the Colditz glider.
Goldfinch and Best began building the glider in their rooms. This, of course, could only be temporary since it would be impossible to hide such a large project from the guards. So in one of the castle's attics—the one adjacent to the roof slated for the runway—prisoners created a workshop. Using shutters and mud made from attic dust, they constructed a false wall at one end of the attic, giving the glider builders a small space that could accommodate the largest of the disassembled glider pieces. When they were finished, anyone who went into the main part of the attic saw a convincing false wall at one end and no indication that the attic was eight feet shorter than before. To gain access to the shop, the prisoners also built a trapdoor in the shop's floor.

Replica preparing for flight A replica of the Colditz glider preparing for its initial flight.

The materials needed to fashion the tools and glider were for the most part scavenged. The prisoners made a plane from a table knife, drills from nails, saw handles from bed boards, and saw blades from both a wind-up record player's spring and the frame around iron window bars. For the glider's control wires they appropriated electrical wire taken from unused areas of the castle. For the wings' spars (main supports) and ribs they availed themselves of floorboards and bed slats, respectively. And to cover the glider's wooden frame they used bed sheets, which they doped with hot millet (part of their rations) to stiffen the fabric. They obtained a few items through bribery: casein glue and a metal drill, for example.

Constructing the glider's parts was tedious, to say the least. For the wings alone the builders had to craft over 6,000 hand-fashioned pieces. To make just one rib, they had to shape a piece of wood, steam it to render it pliable, bend and pin it, then finally glue it into place. And the glider required hundreds of these.

Replica glider in flight The replica glider in flight.
Takeoff was finally scheduled for the spring of 1945. The plan was to assemble the aircraft, then catapult it off the chapel's roof using a metal bathtub filled with concrete as ballast. The tub would fall five stories. The glider would then sail out silently over the town of Colditz, giving its occupants a good head start over the German guards, who would soon discover a bathtub in the yard and two prisoners missing.

But alas, the launch never took place. The war was nearing its end, and it was decided to postpone what would have been the glider's brief and only flight.

Escaping Colditz | The Jailor's Story | Great Escapes | The Colditz Glider
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