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Nazi Prison Escape

Eggers Reinhold Eggers
The Jailor's Story
by Reinhold Eggers

Reinhold Eggers, who was promoted from duty officer to chief of security at Colditz Castle in 1944, served on the prison's staff for longer than anyone else, from November 1940 until the end of the war in April 1945. His tenure, along with his ability to speak English and French, "gave me as good a chance as anyone on the German staff of knowing what was going on," he wrote in the preface to his book Colditz: The German Side of the Story (Norton, 1961). "How little this sometimes was will become evident from this story."

In his book, which we excerpt here with permission, Eggers chronicled dozens of escape attempts in an admiring, almost tongue-in-cheek manner. Far from the stereotype of the harsh, heel-clicking Nazi officer, Eggers comes across as an avuncular, highly likeable fellow, like a schoolteacher who is more amused than angered by his charges. (In fact, he was a schoolteacher before the war.) Here, read about how Eggers felt about his job, his inmates, and their courageous antics, including one rather famous escape attempt involving a piece of apparently levitating turf. As you read, feel free to orient yourself using our map of Colditz.

Masters of escape
My records show that more than 300 would-be escapers were caught in the act, often the same people trying again and again. On 130 occasions escapers actually got out of the castle or got away when in transit locally. The number who got clear away over the frontier and were never taken was 30, breaking down into six Dutch, 14 French, nine British, and one Polish, as near as I can remember. I was not in complete charge of security until 1944, but until then had, of course, to contribute what I knew or could find out or could work out, to our camp security office.

2 POWs recaptured Many prisoners got out of the castle, but only 30 managed to get away for good.

We held security conferences whenever an escape took place and at least every week as a matter of routine. Practically every routine occasion was an escape occasion, and one way and another every escape was an occasion in itself. In fact, I claim some honor for having been part of a team, a very amateur team I admit, of a German "holding" force whose clumsy efforts were nonetheless so successful that the experts had to lay on absolute masterpieces of escape to beat us.

The stage for this battle between the two security teams, German and Allied, was in some way set to the advantage of the prisoners. The POWs were, first of all, experienced in the job. In addition, our hands were somewhat tied by our not very practical superiors at Army Command HQ in Dresden and, above them, in Berlin. We made things better for the prisoners by cramming Colditz with new escape materials week after week. Each new arrival brought with him knowledge of new methods of escape, acquaintance with fresh routes, knowledge of extra documents required, checks likely to be made at railway junctions and on trains, and so on. In this castle, the prisoners had the interior lines of communication and the initiative as well. Our effectives, real effectives, were hardly a dozen, while their team ran into hundreds.

Group of POWs Each would-be escaper had dozens of potential accomplices at his disposal.
Guarding against success
In Colditz it was true to say that there was never a dull moment. As time went on, we could see the pattern, and it was one that we had imposed upon us, whereas it was we who should have been the ones to call the tune rather than follow it. The prisoners and we were engaged in an unending game of leapfrog. First we were ahead with our security barriers, then they were, scheming successfully round them. Everything the POWs did or said or thought was planned to give them an advantage, an advantage either immediate or several jumps ahead.

If, as a result of an escape or an attempt to escape, we altered our arrangements or introduced some new plan, they would catch on quicker than our own people who had, after all, other things to think about than their hours of duty up at the castle. Most of the prisoners were "on duty" the whole time; they had no other life.

Another major security difficulty concerned our regular camp staff, particularly NCOs [noncomissioned officers]. The longer these stayed in the castle, the better they got to know the prisoners and their methods. But they became all the more subject to bribery with cigarettes, chocolate, or coffee, and to the softening effect of familiarity and simple politeness between themselves and the prisoners. Another weakness was the disadvantage that the German lower rank feels in dealing with officers, of whatever nationality. And if we replaced these NCOs, it took new arrivals months to learn the tricks of the trade, during which time the prisoners took full advantage of their ignorance.

Contraband German guards pose with some of the contraband smuggled into Colditz.

All our NCOs at Colditz had nicknames, knew it, and were rather amused by it. There was Cheese—he was a little man, what we call "three cheeses high" (Dreikäsehoch); the Policeman; Hiawatha, who rather fancied himself until he discovered that his mate was known as Minnehaha; Big Bum; Auntie, the Quartermaster—he was in Colditz right to the end; Fouine (the French word for ferret)—known to the English as Dixon Hawke, very clever at smelling out tunnels; and Mussolini, our staff sergeant in charge of the orderlies, an old soldier from the first war who disliked all officers, even his own!

These men, and, of course, the general mass of the guards, could not fail to be impressed by the active life of the castle, and more so by the tricks the prisoners got up to, but most of all by the escape success they managed to register. All this reflected on us, their own officers, who were shown up as that much incompetent and helpless.

Continue: Escape from the canteen

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