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Oflag IV-C: The Celebrity Fit Club of German POW Camps

June 2, 2010

[Cross-posted from tumblr]:

Camp guards collected so much escape equipment that they established a “Kommandant’s Escape Museum”. Local photographer Johannes Langetook photographs of the would-be escapers in their disguises or re-enacting their attempts for the camera… Security officer Reinhold Eggers made them a regular part of Das Abwehrblatt, a weekly magazine for the German POW camps.

Oflag IV-C was the Celebrity Fit Club of German prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War.  “Celebrity” because the camp hosted the VIP contingent of Allied POWs, mostly relatives of high-ranking Allied politicians.  “Fit Club” because the lengths to which the camp inmates went in their attempts to escape are on the level of the absurd physical challenges faced by the show’s contestants.  The difference, I suppose, being that they were POWs trying to escape to freedom, instead of rehab washouts trying to reignite their 15 minutes of fame performing dog tricks in front of a national audience.


Anyway.  Oflag IV-C was also known as Colditz, after the castle that dominated the grounds.  Because most of the prisoners had important political connections (and could therefore be used a leverage in prisoner exchanges, or hostages if everything went to hell), the Geneva Convention was followed to the letter.  You didn’t get a whole lot of the summary executions that marked certain other German detention facilities at the time.  What you did get was an ad-hoc culture not terribly dissimilar from a modern liberal-arts college.

Prisoners had to make their own entertainment. In August 1941 the first camp Olympics were organized by the Polish prisoners. Events were held in football (soccer), volleyball, boxing, and chess, but the closing ceremony was interrupted by a German fire drill… Prisoners also formed a Polish choir, a Dutch Hawaiian guitar band, and a French orchestra.

The British put on homemade revues, classical plays and farces including: GaslightRopeThe Man Who Came to DinnerPygmalion, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Several prisoners even intentionally grew their hair long so as to better portray female roles. Prisoner Jock Hamilton-Baillie even used to shave his legs, rub them in brown shoe polish, and draw a line down the back of his legs in pencil to simulate the appearance of silk stockings. This allowed him special “bath privileges” in the German guards washroom, since the prisoner’s showers were unable to get the polish off his legs.

And in some ways, indistinguishable.

Another pastime which occupied much of the prisoners’ time was the production of moonshine alcohol. Initially started by the Polish contingent using a recipe of yeast, water, German jam and sugar from their Red Cross parcels, and then taken up by other prisoners, it did not take long for stills to be secreted all across Colditz (one of which remained undiscovered until a tourist trip in 1984).

Actually it’s really eerie.

Some prisoners would get black teeth or even temporary blindness from consuming this beverage — a condition known as “jam-happy” — as it contained many impurities. Although the German guards despised the drunken prisoners, they generally turned a blind eye to the distilling.

Tweets from Prison Camp

The camp was touted as “escape-proof”, in much the same way the Titanic was touted as “unsinkable”.  In fact the camp has the rare distinction of having not one but TWO entries on Wikipedia dealing with escape attempts from the facility.  The first page is a comprehensive list of attempts, notable mainly for its terse hilarity:

  • Lt. E. Boulé, French, Attempted to walk out disguised as a woman. Detected.
  • [10 British, Polish, and Belgian prisoners], “Toilet Tunnel”; Detected.
  • Lt. J. Durand-Hornus, Lt. J. Prot, Lt. G. de Frondeville, French, Escaped into fog on trip to dentist. Successful.
  • Capt. Dr. Le Guet Padre Jean-Jean, French, Ran away during private Sacrament of Confession. Recaptured.
  • Lt. R. Bouillez, French, Sent for court martial in Stuttgart, jumped train but found unconscious next to tracks, sent to hospital, escaped from hospital. Successful.
  • Lt. P. Storie-Pugh, British, Lt. F. Kruimink, Dutch, Over roof of Kellerhaus. Discovered by dog on ground.

Down and Out in Vienna

The second article details some of the inmate’s more over-the-top (HA!) attempts:

In late 1940, British officer “Peter” Allan (real name Anthony Murray Allan) found out that the Germans were moving several mattresses from the castle to another camp and decided that would be his way out. He let the French officers moving the mattresses know that one would be a little bit heavier. Allan, a fluent German speaker due to his schooling in Germany before the war, dressed himself up in a Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) uniform, stuffed Reichsmark in his pockets, and had himself sewn into one of the mattresses. He managed to get himself loaded into the truck, and unloaded into an empty house within the town. Cutting himself out of the mattress several hours later, when all he could hear was silence, he climbed out of the window into the garden and walked down the road towards his freedom.

Then, like so many high school-graduates backpacking across Europe, he has a bad hitchhiking experience and ends up shit outta luck in Vienna:

Along the 100 mile way to Vienna via Stuttgart he got a lift with a senior SS officer. Allan recalled that ride as the scariest moment of his life, “To be vulgar, I nearly needed a new pair of trousers.” Allan had been aiming to reach Poland, but soon after reaching Vienna he found he was out of money. At this time the Americans had not yet entered the war, so Allan decided to ask the American consulate for assistance; he was refused. Allan’s stepmother Lois Allan (founder of Fuzzy-Felt toys in the UK) was a U.S. citizen and he felt that they would provide sanctuary because of this. Allan had been on the run at this point for nine days; broke, exhausted, and hungry, he fell asleep in a park. Upon waking he discovered he could no longer walk due to his starvation. Soon after he was picked up and returned to Colditz, where he spent the next 3 months in solitary confinement.

Taking a Mental Health Day

Then there we those who, like a fat kid in gym class, tried to get out with a doctor’s note.  Royal Army Medical Corps Captain Ion Ferguson falsely certified several POWs as insane, allowing them to be repatriated under the Geneva Conventions. And in a twist that I simply can’t believe no one was suspicious of, he then convinced the Germans of his own insanity, and was returned to Britain.

Of course, while we’re sitting here laughing, Wikipedia sternly reminds us:

However, there were also officers who went genuinely insane.

Going for the Extra Point

Taking advantage of a lapse in security, Mairesse Lebrun and Lieutenant Pierre Odry ran to the fence at the temporarily-unguarded back end.  Just before the fence, Odry knelt and cupped his hands.  Lebrun stepped into his partner’s hand, at which point Odry catapaulted him over the fence like he was serving a human volleyball.  Only after staring for a few moments in dumb silence did the guards unsuccessfully open fire.

Eight days and a stolen bicycle later, he made it to Switzerland.

Cock and Balls Story

But by far the most balls-out insane plan to escape what was by all accounts one of the most lenient POW camps in Germany at the time involved a device inexplicably known as the “Colditz Cock“. 

A group of prisoners, no doubt bored out their fucking skulls, devised a plan to use a, well, a glider to escape.  It was noticed that chapel roof was not only a) completely obscured from view from the ground, but b) really high up, making it, well, a good place a to launch a glider, if you happened to have one.  They didn’t have one, but they set about changing that.

In a bizarre twist of fate that’s really just par for the course for this prison camp, in the prison library was a book called “Aircraft Design“, which explained in detail how to – you guessed it – design an airplane (I guess I can sorta see how that book might have been considered harmless enough to include in the prison library).  Oh right, and one of the prisoners just happened to be an experienced glider pilot

They used bed slats for the ribs, floorboards for the wings, and sleeping bags of all things for the skin.  But they didn’t even stop at building a glider.  They built an electric alarm system in case guards got too close; a runway from tables; and a gravity-assisted propulsion mechanism that used a bathtub full of concrete on a pulley.

After all that effort, it had to be kind of a disappointment when the camp was liberated in April 1945, before the Cock ever got a chance to fly.

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