Mod­ern day es­cape from Colditz

Last week’s report by Don­ald Stan­ley on Airey Neave and his es­cape from two Ger­man pris­oner of war camps came as quite a sur­prise to one reader. Wolf­gang An­sorge, Ger­man-born and liv­ing in Bea­cons­field, has just re­turned from re­cre­at­ing the dar­ing breakou

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I am Ger­man and live in Bea­cons­field, as the crow flies less than mile from where Neave lived. In 1989 my wife and I were in­vited to travel to Colditz with a group of for­mer prison­ers which in­cluded Peter Allan who lived in Farn­ham Royal and Tubby Broomhall also from Bea­cons­field.

There were about 25 mil­i­tary en­thu­si­asts, and our Ger­man lan­guage came in very handy as it was still the days of the GDR and English was not spo­ken there – only Ger­man and Rus­sian.

Fol­low­ing this trip the Colditz So­ci­ety was formed and we were in­vited to join.

We have been ac­tive mem­bers and found the whole story fas­ci­nat­ing, vis­ited Colditz many times and I even re­searched and trans­lated a book about Colditz.

Over the years, most for­mer Colditz in­mates have passed away and the so­ci­ety, now over 100 strong, re­mains the only link to the camp and its his­tory.

Colditz POW camp, known as Of­flag IVc, was housed in the me­dieval part of this beau­ti­ful cas­tle which is set above the river Mulde in Sax­ony, about 25 miles from Leipzig. It be­came known as ‘the naughty boy’s camp’ be­cause here of­fi­cers from France, Hol­land, Poland, Bri­tain and other coun­tries who had es­caped from other POW camps were held to­gether – the Ger­man army thought this a clever idea. But over the years had to deal with nearly 120 es­cape at­tempts, many suc­cess­ful.

Among the Bri­tish POWs was Lt. Airey Neave, aged 24, cap­tured at Dunkirk.

He had pre­vi­ously es­caped from Sta­lag XXa in Thorn, West Prus­sia. Like all the oth­ers he thought of noth­ing but es­cap­ing.

On the evening of Jan­uary 5, 1942 he and Dutch of­fi­cer Toni Luteyns put on fake Ger­man of­fi­cer uni­forms, climbed from un­der the theatre stage through a hole in a ceil­ing into a cor­ri­dor lead­ing past the Ger­man NCO mess and marched out of the cas­tle, shout­ing at a sen­try “why don’t you salute an Of­fi­cer”. To cover their ab­sence the Dutch used two dum­mies at roll calls and it was only on Jan­uary 7 that the Ger­mans dis­cov­ered that these two were miss­ing.

It was win­ter, deep snow and cold. Once away in the woods they changed into civvies and walked the eight miles to the near­est un­guarded rail­way sta­tion of Leis­nig. From there they went by train to Leipzig, hid dur­ing the day in cin­e­mas and took the night train south to Re­gens­burg. They had forged trans­fer pa­pers al­low­ing travel to Ulm.

There they had a lucky es­cape af­ter be­ing picked up by a sus­pi­cious rail­way po­lice­man and man­aged to get by train to Stock­ach and Sin­gen near the Swiss bor­der.

From Sin­gen they walked the fi­nal five miles to the Swiss bor­der and in deep snow man­aged to sneak across to free­dom, but still had to get through France and Spain to Gi­bral­tar and then by troop ship to Scotland where they ar­rived in May 42. It was the first home run from Colditz by a Bri­tish of­fi­cer.

Ear­lier this year it was de­cided by the Colditz So­ci­ety com­mit­tee to do some­thing never done be­fore – re­trace the en­tire es­cape.

There were 30 of us – we joked we were 27 Brits with two Ger­man guards and one Ir­ish ob­server.

We flew to Ber­lin from Gatwick and Manch­ester. From there we trav­elled by train and coach to Colditz cas­tle where we stayed overnight. The for­mer Ger­man Kom- man­datur part of the cas­tle is now a won­der­ful mod­ern youth hos­tel and the for­mer POW part a mu­seum.

Af­ter din­ner a guide took us into the prison yard where a card­board fig­ure of Airy Neave, and an­other one of a Dutch dummy greeted us.

He then let us into the theatre and from there through dark cor­ri­dors and empty, derelict rooms down the stair­case past the for­mer NCO mess and out of the cas­tle to the bridge over the moat where Neave had spot­ted a wicket gate through which they got into the dry moat and thus out of the cas­tle grounds into the woods.

The next morn­ing half of our group walked the eight miles cross coun­try and on roads to Leis­nig sta­tion.

It was wet and mis­era- ble and gave us an idea of what it must have been like for the two es­ca­pers.

Leis­nig sta­tion is now very run down and cov­ered in graf­fiti, but the train to Leipzig could not have been more mod­ern and com­fort­able, un­like the old steam train in 1942.

We went to the Stasi Mu­seum in­stead be­fore tak­ing trains to Re­gens­burg, Ulm, Stock­ach and Sin­gen over the next three days. This was also the time the es­ca­pers had taken to reach the Swiss bor­der on Jan­uary 8, 1942.

From Sin­gen there was an­other five mile walk through very pleas­ant coun­try­side and a now very open bor­der into Switzer­land, fin­ish­ing at the Gasthof Hirschen in Ram­sen which would also have seen Neave and Luteyns.

An­other night was spent in the lovely town of Schaffhausen, the next morn­ing a quick visit to the Rhine Falls and af­ter­noon flights from Basle back to the UK. It was a mem­o­rable, fan­tas­tic trip.

Our last­ing im­pres­sion was how brave and how lucky the two es­capees had been to get home. Neave ac­tu­ally sent a post­card to the Colditz Kom­man­dant from Switzer­land, thank­ing him for the hos­pi­tal­ity! I would have liked to have seen his face and heard what ex­cuses he made to avoid be­ing sent to the Rus­sian front.

Whilst fly­ing home we read some pa­pers the So­ci­ety Sec­re­tary let us look at.

And from these I found out that Airey Neave lived in Bea­cons­field.

But there was no fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, and I am now very grate­ful to Don­ald Stan­ley’s ar­ti­cle for hav­ing en­light­ened me.

Airey Neave de­scribed his es­cape and ca­reer in his book They Have Their Ex­its.

It was first pub­lished in 1953 and has been in print ever since.

There was even a Ger­man edi­tion, but I doubt that this was a best­seller.

Young Airey Neave: The card­board cut out at the mu­seum

Im­pos­ing: To­day Colditz is a youth hos­tel and mu­seum

Run down: Walk­ers at Leis­nig Sta­tion

Later life: Airey Neave as an MP

Es­cape route: Through the tun­nels of Colditz

Es­capees: Wolf­gang An­sorge, sec­ond left third row, and his wife Elis­a­beth, left front row, with mem­bers of The Colditz So­ci­ety

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