Colditz prisoner became a top lawyer
ALAN CAMPBELL enjoyed a distinguished legal career which began informally but in deadly earnest when he was imprisoned in Colditz Castle for much of the war after having tried to escape several times from other prisoner-of-war camps.
During his incarceration, he used his newly acquired knowledge of the law to remarkable effect in providing brilliant defence arguments for many of his fellow prisoners who were tried on various serious charges.
He had been called to the Bar in May 1939, but left London immediately to begin his training as a Supplementary Reserve survey officer with the Royal Artillery. He went to France with the British Expeditionary Force in September 1939 and, after the onset of the German offensive in May 1940, was taken prisoner on the road between Bethune and St-Pol-sur-Ternoise.
A gruelling march to Trier was the first leg of the journey to Oflag VIIC at Laufen on the Austrian border, from where he made his first escape attempt by crawling boldly under the wire between two Spandau machinegun posts while a friend chatted to the sentries.
A chance appearance of another German guard resulted in recapture so, after several further attempts, he was designated ‘‘deutschfeindlich’’ (hostile to the Germans) and sent to Oflag IVC, Colditz Castle in Saxony, in 1941.
With a small group of other British prisoners, he was later moved to Spangenberg near Kassel. This was also a castle, but the drawbridge over the moat appeared to offer an escape route.
Captain Jimmy Yule and Campbell chose a wild and blustery evening to cross the moat by way of the drain casing along the drawbridge. A falling stone attracted a sentry’s attention and several bursts of automatic fire. When the firing stopped, they dropped into the dry moat and surrendered. Both men were returned to Colditz, where they were to spend the rest of the war.
While Yule turned his attention to taking watch on the prisoners’ secret radio, Campbell put his legal training to use in advising those facing severe punishments under the German military penal code. He was unable to represent those arraigned officially, as it was the responsibility of the protecting power, Switzerland, to appoint a German lawyer to act in their defence, but he could advise each accused of his rights under international law, respected by the German authorities in these cases, and the tactics for the conduct of his defence.
He produced guidelines, written in minute script, for each accused to follow when dealing with his defence lawyer, in particular keeping defence witnesses to a minimum and allowing no irrelevant diversions.
In all, he was associated with the defence of 42 accused prisoners, some facing the death penalty if found guilty. An early case was that of Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce, who had escaped from Spangenberg by picking a lock into a walled-off part of the castle, where he found a German officer’s uniform.
His subsequent escape attempt failed and, when put in a cell after recapture, he kicked down the door.
Bruce was charged with breaking and entering, theft (of the uniform) and sabotage of state property (the cell door). The sabotage charge was especially serious, carrying a long prison sentence.
Campbell constructed an argument for the defence that the acts committed by Bruce were solely in the execution of his duty to escape – an argument the Germans accepted under international law – and, as he had used no personal violence, he was not subject to charge under the military penal code.
He also cited the case of the German fighter pilot Hauptmann Franz von Werra, who had escaped in Canada by jumping from a train near the St Lawrence river, stealing a boat and eventually reached the German consulate in New York in then neutral United States. Bruce received a moderate sentence of three months in the Colditz cells.
Much more threatening were the cases of 13 Czech aircrew of the RAF who had been shot down and taken prisoner.
Under a German law, enacted after the takeover of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that made all subjects of the country ‘‘protected citizens’’, they were charged with treason for bearing arms against the Reich.
Campbell based their defence on a seven-point rebuttal of the treason charge: all were Czech by birth; they left Czechoslovakia immediately after the occupation; the Prague Parliament was not consulted before President Hacha invited Hitler to take over; Czechoslovakia was constituted as an independent state in 1918; and hence the validity of the German ‘‘protected citizens’’ law was questionable under both constitutional and international law; consequently the airmen could not be arraigned on a criminal charge under that law; and finally the airmen were wearing British uniforms when captured and so had the rights of British citizens.
The German court ruled that the hearing of the cases should be postponed until after the end of hostilities.
Also under threat of a death sentence was Lieutenant-Colonel WH Schaefer, of the US Army, who had been the senior officer in Stalag XXB at Schubin, in occupied Poland. There he had supported an American junior officer who had stood in the way of a German NCO posting up a notice announcing ‘‘Escaping is no longer a game’’. Under German military law, any prisoner interfering with a German soldier carrying out his orders could be subject to court martial and sentenced to death if found guilty.
Schaefer was moved to Colditz to await trial and, having met Campbell there, applied for his trial to be held in Saxony. This request was refused but, just before he left for a court martial elsewhere on December 27, 1944, Campbell was able to brief him on how he should conduct his defence.
Schaefer handled his defence well, but was nevertheless sentenced to death and returned to Colditz. Campbell prepared an appeal and again was able to prolong the legal argument until Schaefer was saved by the end of the war.
Campbell resumed his legal career soon after liberation in 1945. He took silk in 1965 and was consultant to the legal committee of the Council of Europe on Industrial Espionage, 1965-74, chairman of the legal research committee of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, 1968-80, and a recorder of the Crown Court, 1976-89. He was created a life peer in 1981 and served on the House of Lords select committee on murder and life imprisonment, 1988-89, and was a member of the law advisory committee of the British Council, 1974-82.
In 1998, he became involved in the cases of two Scots guardsmen, Jim Fisher and Mark Wright, who had been convicted of murder after an incident involving their patrol in Belfast in 1992, in which Peter McBride was shot and subsequently died.
After the guardsmen’s release from prison, he gave much time in advising on the preparation of their submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, with a view to gaining leave to appeal against their original conviction.
Both guardsmen were released under licence in 1998 in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement and the Army Board decided to retain their services because of the exceptional circumstances. In recognition of his work in their cause, Campbell was elected to the Scots Guards Dining Club as a ‘‘perennial guest’’.
Alan Robertson Campbell was the son of J Kenneth Campbell. He was educated at Aldenham, L’Ecole des Sciences Politiques, Paris, and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His first marriage, to Diana Watson-Smyth, was dissolved in 1953.
His second wife, Vivien, the younger daughter of Commander AH de Krantzow, DSO, RN, died in 2010.
In 2011, he married Dorothea, daughter of the late Colonel Edward and Lady Elizabeth Berwick. He is survived by his third wife and a daughter from his first marriage.
Reminiscing: Three of the 33 former prisoners of Colditz Castle, Germany, during a reunion at the Pathfinder Club, Mount St, London. From left, Major Pat Reid, author of the book on which the film The Colditz Story is based; Lieutenant Alan Campbell,...