Airey Neave in the fake German uniform he used to escape Colditz.
Colditz the TV Series
On 24 May 1940, Lt Airey Neave and his men found themselves fighting a rearguard battle against overwhelming German Forces of the 10th Panzer Division, in the town of Calais. Neave was part of the 30th Infantry Brigade, whose job was to try and slow down the German advance on Dunkirk, so that the British and allied soldiers trapped there could be got away. Running from house to house as the German tanks pounded the buildings, Airey Neave realised that this was a hopeless cause, but continued to try and delay the German advance. As he ran across the road, tracer bullets from one of the German tanks followed him, and one struck his thigh sending him crashing to the ground.
Dragging himself into the relative shelter of a nearby house, he was picked up by other British soldiers who took him to a small French hospital for treatment. All that day and the following night, he and many other wounded men lay in the cellar of the hospital listening to the almost continuous bombardment of the town. Then, as he heard that the Germans were closing in around the town, despite his painful wound, Airey Neave decided that he was going to make a break for it and regardless of protestations from the hospital staff tried to make his way out of the hospital. It was then, and only then, that he realised how seriously wounded he was and that there was no way for him to escape without help.
The offer of help came from a French soldier by the name of Pierre d’Harcourt, a medical orderly who Neave discovered later was a member of a tank regiment that had been decimated by the German Panzers. He had taken on the role of a medical orderly in order to effect an escape when he could. His idea was to substitute Airey Neave with a dead soldier who had died in the hospital. The driver of the ambulance that took the bodies away for burial was a loyal Frenchman and was more than willing to help.
Unfortunately, they discovered that the Germans examined very carefully every body that was being removed. Before any of Pierre d’Harcourt’s ideas could be put into action, word came through that all wounded prisoners were to be transferred to another hospital at Lille. Pierre d’Harcourt decided it was time he left and headed for Paris. Some time later, when Airey Neave returned to England and worked for MI9, he heard that Pierre d’Harcourt was helping run an escape line through France and had aided a number of allied airmen and soldiers to escape.
The wounded from the hospital were placed in German trucks and the convoy headed for Lille. On reaching Baillieul, the truck carrying Airey Neave broke down. The walking wounded were allowed to walk around the small town unaccompanied and at almost every house the door opened and the men were invited in and offered food and wine. Their generosity was overwhelming and, despite the risks, some even offered to hide them and then help them escape.
Airey Neave accepted all the townspeople had to offer regarding the food and wine, but not their offer to help him escape. He knew that his physical condition at the time would be a serious stumbling block in any attempt to escape and it would probably cost those who helped him their lives if he were to be caught.
With the truck repaired, the journey continued on to the hospital at Lille. Within days of being there a young French nurse offered to help Airey Neave and Corporal Dowling of the Durham Light Infantry, to escape. Plans were made to obtain civilian clothes and some French money, but with no travel documents or identity papers it was going to be difficult. Somehow the Germans seemed to get wind of an escape attempt and told all the wounded prisoners, in no uncertain manner, that anyone escaping would cause severe reprisals to be carried out on those left behind. It was the threat of the latter that caused Neave and Dowling to shelve their plans for the time being.
The following week all the walking wounded were collected and the long trek to Germany started. After travelling through Belgium the prisoners were placed on a coal barge and taken up the Schelde and then into the river Waal. They passed under the bridge at Nijmegen in Holland, a bridge that was to pass into history some four years later when the 1st Airborne Division were involved in the Battle of Arnhem.
As the barge entered Germany, Airey Neave felt the first pangs of despair, realising that any chance of escape was slowly disappearing with every mile covered by the barge. Two days later they reached the prisoner of war camp at Spangenburg near Kassel – Oflag IXa. Settling down to recover from his wounds, Airey Neave started to look around at his surroundings with the intention of leaving at the first opportunity. A number of escapes had already been attempted, but none had been successful. In fact some of the escapees had been captured and severely beaten by local civilians.
The morale among the junior officers was extremely low, mainly because of the negative attitude of some of the senior British officers. They considered that escape attempts were hopeless, disrupted the smooth running of the camp and upset the Germans, who retaliated by issuing meagre rations. However the noncommissioned ranks in the Stalags, who went on working parties outside the camp, were given additional rations because of their work environment. These men also had access to the outside world and were able to assess the terrain, the roads, railway stations, in short anything that would aid an escape attempt.
Red Cross parcels started to filter through the system, which made life in the camps more bearable and raised morale considerably. Then in February 1941, the prisoners at Spangenburg were moved to an old fortress on the banks of the river Vistula, just outside Thorn, Poland. The fortress was damp and cold and the rations barely enough to sustain them. The reason for the transfer was given as retaliation for the alleged ill treatment of German prisoners of war in Canada. This was of course total nonsense and was just an excuse to undermine the morale and well-being of the prisoners.
As the train pulled into the station at night at Thorn, German Field Police met the prisoners with snarling Alsatian dogs, whilst searchlights lit up the area brighter than day. Surrounded by tanks, the men were marched to the fortress and deposited in the dark, damp cellars. The conditions were harsh to say the least and the chance for exercise and fresh air extremely limited. From a possible escape perspective, the fact that they were now in Poland lessened the chance of escape, because it was one of those countries of which very little was known at the time.
Airey Neave then discovered that just 3 miles from the fortress was another prisoner of war camp, Stalag XX-A, a camp for NCOs and other ranks. Among the inmates were a number of men from his own company who had survived Calais. Working parties from the Stalag came to the fortress every day and it was through them that Airey Neave gradually discovered that there was an escape committee in existence.
The fact that he knew a number of the men personally helped him to devise an escape plan. Together with Flying Officer Norman Forbes, it was intended that the two of them visited the camp dentist, a British Army officer, whose surgery adjoined the Stalag. They would escape from the surgery and hide in the hut occupied by warrant officers. They had already been approached with the idea and had agreed to help. The two men had obtained civilian clothes from Poles working with the work parties and the intention was that they would slip out with one of the working parties.
With the planning in place, the two men, with a number of others, were marched the 3 miles to the dentist’s surgery, which adjoined the Kommandant’s office and was opposite the main gate into the compound. The two men went into the surgery, removed their uniforms and slipped into the civilian clothes. They then picked up some bundles of wood and at a given signal walked into the Stalag compound whilst other prisoners engaged the guards in conversation. Once inside the compound they were taken to the warrant officers’ hut where they stayed.
The Germans soon realised that two of the inmates from the fortress were missing and immediately started searching for them outside, not realising that the two men were hiding inside the Stalag. For the next five days the NCOs hid the two men. The two men watched with amusement as they stood just inside the wire, watching and listening to SS men being given orders on where to search for the two escapees, not knowing that the two men were standing just literally feet away. During roll call they stayed under the beds of the warrant officers.
When it became obvious that the Germans had scaled down the search, believing the men had escaped, the two men left the compound in a work party to fill pallisasses with straw from a local farmer’s barn. As the work party filled them, the two men slipped away and hid under the straw. Two others who had been hidden in a ration truck took their places. When the work was finished the work party returned to the Stalag with the same number of men as went out.
The two men slipped out of the barn under cover of darkness with the intention of heading for Warsaw. There was an airfield nearby and as Forbes was a pilot, they had considered sneaking in and stealing an aircraft, but as neither of them were navigators they decided to head for Warsaw instead. The terrain consisted of thick, dark forests and rocky, rough tracks. After four days of struggling through this terrain, exhausted and hungry, the pair suddenly found themselves at a control point and were promptly arrested.
Handed over to the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) they were taken to their headquarters in the town of Plock. Airey Neave realised that he had a drawing of the airfield at Graudenz in his pocket, but managed to tear it up before it was found. Unfortunately he forgot about another one that he had in a matchbox, and that one they found. Airey Neave was justifiably worried as the possession of this map made him look like a spy. The interrogators immediately started to ask questions and accused him of spying for the Russians. What Neave did not know, was that the airfield at Graudenz was a bomber station and that preparations were under way for a massive bombing campaign against Russia, which was to take place two weeks later.
The two men were then taken in front of a civilian member of the Gestapo interrogation team. Dressed in a dark suit, the man had blond hair and cold, blue eyes, and spoke excellent English. He started by accusing them of working for the British Secret Service and when told that the map they had was to aid them to escape to Sweden, he screamed that they were lying. They then told him that they had received the information from three Canadian pilots who, in home-made German Luftwaffe uniforms, had been captured trying to steal an aircraft from the base at Graudenz.
Only the Germans and fellow prisoners at the camp could have known the detailed information regarding the attempted escape by the Canadians. The Gestapo decided to check the story and Neave and Forbes were thrown into a cold damp cell. They pondered their fate throughout the night, drifting in and out of sleep.
The following morning they were dragged from their cell and taken separately into interrogation rooms. Fearing the worst, Airey Neave steeled himself, but was surprised when his civilian interrogator offered him a cigarette and addressed him as ‘Herr Leutnant’. Immediately suspicious, he listened as his interrogator told him that he too had been in the army and had been in the forefront of the attack on Poland. He had later been transferred to the Gestapo because of his ability to speak English. His attitude was almost pleasant, but then he started to press Neave for information regarding the map of the airfield and how he had managed to escape from the prison camp.
Determined not to give any information about the Polish farmer who had helped them, Neave repeated his story regarding the map and said that they had escaped from the dentist’s surgery at the camp and lived off food from the Red Cross parcels. For the time being Neave felt that he was being believed and he was returned to his cell after another two hours of questioning. Up to this point neither man had been mistreated, but the interrogators had created a sinister and threatening atmosphere throughout their questioning, leaving Neave and Forbes wondering when the interrogation would become physical.
Up until this point, there had been no training given to British soldiers on what to expect when being questioned, so this was new territory. When Neave finally escaped and joined MI9, he made certain that troops were given information regarding the interrogation techniques used by the Germans.
The interrogation continued for the next ten days and all the time the threat of violence continued to build. At night both men, now in separate cells, wondered whether or not they would be shot as spies, as this appeared to be the underlying implication of the questioning. Then after the tenth day they were told that they were being returned to the prison camp and that guards from the camp were coming to collect them.
On their return the Kommandant placed both men in cells deep inside the fortress and in solitary confinement. The cells had no ventilation or windows and were lit by a solitary dim electric light bulb. After spending one month in these conditions, the men were returned to the main body of the camp, but within weeks Airey Neave had been transferred to another camp Oflag Ivc – Colditz.
At the beginning of May 1941, Airey Neave and Norman Forbes arrived at Colditz, also known as a Sonderlager (Special Camp). The inmates of this infamous prison camp were deemed to be persistent escapees or enemies of the Reich. The huge castle near Leipzig, once the palace of Augustus the Strong, was an intimidating sight as it dominated the skyline of the Saxon countryside. The security in and around the castle was said by the Germans to make it impregnable, which immediately made the inmates all the more determined to prove them wrong and achieve freedom.
The only thing on the minds of most allied prisoners of war was escape. Within days of the first inmates being incarcerated each nationality had formed their own escape committees. This was not because they planned all their escapes according to their nationality, but because they were separated and imprisoned in different parts of the castle. They all co-operated with each other and helped each other in any way they could. For example Captain Van Doorninck, a Dutch officer, had once been a locksmith and was an expert in repairing instruments and watches and often did work for the German guards. Consequently they allowed him to collect a large range of tools necessary for the work, the same tools he used to fashion keys for the cell block locks and other doors.
For weeks Airey Neave observed the movements and mannerisms of the German guards. It was during one of these observations that he became aware that anyone entering the inner courtyard, where the prisoners were kept, was required to collect a numbered brass disc from the guardhouse and return it when they left. Then a visiting workman was bribed to part with his disc, however on leaving he reported to the guardhouse that he had lost it. All guards were then warned to be on the lookout for the disc or anyone presenting it.
With the obstacle of the disc overcome, the escape committee arranged for duplicates to be made in preparation for future escape attempts. One other problem arose, and that was that all the German guards carried a rifle with a fixed bayonet, and making a fake weapon would be extremely difficult. The answer, as far as he was concerned, was to try and pass himself off as a soldier on special duty. This however required him to carry a bayonet in a scabbard. Fortunately one of the other prisoners was a skilled woodcarver and fashioned him one from a bed board. He then created a buckle out of tin foil and placed it all on a cardboard belt.
Airey Neave had one advantage over most of the inmates in that he spoke German very well. The camp had a theatre in which inmates put on shows but which also gave them access to costumes, paints, dyes and props. Neave put forward a proposal that he would dress as a German corporal, using a converted Polish officer’s uniform painted with some scenery paint. The insignias were made out of cardboard and although very realistic at some distance, would not pass close scrutiny. He would take advantage of a theatrical performance, which large numbers of inmates and guards attended, and then just walk casually out of the main gate.
Everything was set and the evening performance started. Neave, dressed as a German corporal, mingled with the other guards and slipped out of a side door. Walking past the first sentry on the inner perimeter, he approached the second sentry and into the arc lights that illuminated the area. Speaking in fluent German he handed over the brass disc and told the guard that he had a message for the Kommandant from the duty officer. The guard watched Airey Neave march away then looked again at the number of the disc, then realised that the number ‘26’ was the one that had gone missing. The guard then raised his rifle and shouted ‘Halt’. The guardroom personnel were quickly called out and it was then that Airey Neave saw to his dismay that the paint on his uniform had turned bright green under the arc lights, not the field grey that it looked under normal lighting.
Bundled inside the guardroom, Airey Neave was threatened with a firing squad for insulting the German army. He was then taken to solitary confinement. The next morning he appeared in front of the Kommandant who sentenced him to one month’s solitary confinement in the town jail. He was also photographed for German Police records as a criminal. He was then taken from the castle, over a drawbridge across a dry moat and into the town jail. All the time he was being marched there, Neave was taking in the surrounding area and making a mental note of a possible escape route for future use.
That moment came on 5 January 1942 when, together with a Dutch officer by the name of Anthony Lutyen, he effected an escape. The two men, dressed in painted German officer’s uniforms with cardboard insignias attached, clambered down through a trapdoor beneath a stage, made a hole in the ceiling into a storeroom and then went down the stairs and through the guardroom. Anthony Lutyen, who spoke fluent German, chatted nonstop as the pair sauntered out of the guardroom, past the sentries and across the drawbridge. What Airey Neave did not know until after the war was that there was a police photograph of him pinned to the wall of the guardroom.
As the pair stepped out of the guardroom they were met with freezing temperatures and driving snows which, although it aided them considerably as they walked past the guards, also numbed them with cold. After walking over the drawbridge, they clambered down into the dry moat and struggled up the other side, slipping and sliding in the frozen snow. On reaching the top of the moat, they then had to clamber over a 12ft-high outer perimeter wall. Airey Neave stood on Anthony Lutyen’s shoulders and grasped the ice-covered top. With great difficulty, but aided by the urgent desire to escape, he managed to pull himself onto the top of the wall, then reaching down he grasped the hand of Lutyen and pulled him up. The pair dropped heavily onto the ground on the other side, their fall cushioned slightly by the deep snow.
Taking off the German greatcoats, they buried them as deep as they could in the snow, pulled their converted uniforms and ski caps made from blankets on, and set off through the driving snow. Their forged papers identified them as Fremdarbeiters (foreign workers) with permission to travel from Leipzig to Ulm.
After two days of travelling through the snow they arrived at Leipzig and bought two railway tickets to Ulm. They had acquired the money by selling Red Cross chocolates and cigarettes to the German guards back at Colditz. Cash from the escape fund of the escape committee had also supplemented them. Safely aboard the train the two men settled down for the 100-mile journey and a chance to get warm. Once at Ulm, they went to purchase tickets to the small town of Singen, which was close to the frontier, but after showing their travel documents they were arrested by the railway police. Despite this setback, the two men managed to convince the police that they were genuine Dutch foreign workers and they were taken to the office that dealt with foreign workers.
Placed in a room whilst further checks were made, the two men quickly made their escape through a window. They hid in a forest nearby until the following day when they jumped aboard a train going to the small town of Stockach near Ludwig. They then headed across country and through forests towards Singen. The snow had ceased, but the temperature continued to drop. Hungry, frozen and on the point of exhaustion, they were stopped by some elderly woodcutters who were on their way to work. Neave and Lutyen identified themselves as ‘Polish’ labourers from a nearby labour camp, but this was met with disbelief because none of the woodcutters knew of any labour camp in the area. Realising they had been rumbled the two men headed off into the forest, whilst the woodcutters went for the police. For the rest of that day and through the night, the pair struggled through the deep snow.
As dawn broke, they stumbled upon a small hut deep in the forest and after smashing a window to get in, collapsed into a deep sleep. Waking at dusk, somewhat refreshed, they ate what was left of their meagre chocolate ration and planned their last leg of their journey to freedom. They had been given a rough map of the area by one of the inmates of Colditz just before they left. Looking around the hut, they discovered a couple of white coats and some shovels. Putting the coats under their clothes and carrying the shovels, the two men set off for the frontier trying to give the impression that they were returning from the forest after work.
As they approached the lights of Singen, they were stopped by two young boys in Hitler Jugend uniforms, who demanded to know who they were. Anthony Lutyen explained that they were workers from Westphalia who were staying in Singen. All the time Airey Neave gripped the handle of his shovel tightly and admitted later that he would have had no compunction in killing the two boys had there been no option. Satisfied with their explanation, the two boys admitted that they were on the lookout for two British prisoners of war who were on the run and trying to cross the frontier that night.
Watching the two boys cycle off through the snow, the men heaved a sigh of relief, and glancing down at their compasses, headed to the north of Singen. They tramped through more forests, then swung south until they crossed the railway and then on to the road to Schaffhausen. Then in the light of the moon they could see the German frontier post just 100yds away. Putting their shovels down and donning the white coats, the two men edged their way closer. The temperature was falling rapidly and both men were beginning to suffer from exposure and frostbite.
Airey Neave and Anthony Lutyen could hear the voices of the frontier guards clearly. To get to the frontier they would have to cross the road and then get across an area of no-man’s land before reaching the Swiss border. Suddenly clouds obscured the moon and the wind got up, blowing snow into drifts. Taking advantage of this the two men crawled across the road slowly, under the fence and through the deep snow covering no-man’s land. The white coats and the driving snow prevented the guards from spotting them.
After struggling for over an hour, they suddenly reached the Swiss border fence and clambered over. A few yards further on was a road, which they knew led to the small town of Ramsen, Switzerland. With renewed effort, bolstered by the realisation that they had made it, they walked into the town and handed themselves in, with great relief, to a Swiss frontier guard. They were taken into a guardhouse and given hot drinks before the Swiss police arrived to take them away and place them under ‘hotel arrest’. The following morning they were taken to Berne where, eighty-four hours after escaping from Colditz, Airey Neave was drinking tea with the British Military Attaché.