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
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