Dr. Bill O' Gorman, from WIT, speaking about this site on WLR

Friday, October 9, 2009

Pat Reid: Escaping from Colditz

General Goering of the Nazi Party boasted that security in the Colditz prisoner of war camp was escape-proof.

However, he hadn't bargained for the ingenuity of an Irishman, more specifically one from Carlow! Within weeks of his arrival with the first contingent of British prisoners-of-war, Pat Reid was masterminding the first escape attempt from the famous German fortress.

During his two and a half years at Bad Boys Camp, Pat was the British Escape Officer, planning many attempts. In his book The Colditz Story he recounts many exciting tales, culminating in his escape in October 1942.

Pat was first captured by the Germans in late May 1940. Ten days later, on 5 June, he was one of 200 men taken to Laufen, which could accomadate 1,500 men.

Pat shared this account of his welcome to Laufen:
"For the first time we were searched idividually and thoroughly. Our heads were shaven under riotous protest and we were each given a small aluminium disc with a number on it. Capt. Reid was Number 257. Our photos were taken and we were let loose in a small compound as fully recognised prisoners-of-war."

Within a week of his, arrival, Pat was planning an escape. At the time, he revealed his motivation to a friend called Rupert Barry : "I have a date for Christmas which I don't want to miss."

So the two men decided on digging a tunnel from the prison basement. With the help of six other prisoners, seven weeks and 24 feet later they reached the other side: a small shed adjoined to a private house!

The six escapees, all disguised as women, made their getaway at 6:30 a.m. on 5 September. Their destination was Yugoslavia, 150 miles away across the mountains of the Austrian Tyrol.

However, this time luck deserted the runaways and Pat's group was captured in the small Austrian village of Radstadt, five days after breaking free.

Back at Laufen, Pat spent a month in solitary confinement. He was given only bread and water and had to sleep on a bed of boards.

If this punishment was designed as a deterrent, it didn't work! Rather, it seemed to strenghten the resove of Pat to break free to get home sooner rather than later.

No one had managed to escape from Colditz during World War 1, when it also acted as a prison.
In his book, Pat gives this daunting description of the challenge that lay ahead for anyone who dared try:

"The garrison manning the camp outnumbered the prisoners at all times. The castle was floodlit at night from every angle. Not withstanding the clear drops of a hundred feet or so on the outside from barred windows, there were sentries all round the camp with a palisade of barbed wire. Beyond the palisade were precipices of varying depths."

However, life in the prison was not as rough as you might expect. It was the "showpiece" German prison and abided by the terms of the Geneva Convention.

Therefore inmates had opportunities to learn foreign languages, play sport, read and plot their escapes!

The first attempted escape led by Pat was made up of a group of 12 officers. It relied on the co-operation of a German guard. They hoped a bribe of £34 would persuade him to keep quiet.

The plan was to escape through the sewer system into an outer lawn of the prison. Then there was a forty foot drop to a 12 foot barbed wire wall - then freedom! However, they chose the wrong guard to bribe. He took the money but kept his bosses informed of the plan!

So it was back to solitary for Pat and friends: at least for a few weeks anyway.

For the next year and a half Pat Reid helped in many other failed and succesful escape attempts from Colditz. By 5 October 1942, he and three other inmates decided to risk all one more time. Following a marathon 11 hour escape route, involving a naked climb through a nine inch by three-foot chimney and a ten foot barbed wire wall, the little group made it out.

In less than four days Pat and one of the team, Hank Wardle, had made the long journey to Switzerland. This photo was taken in October 1942, shortly after his succesful escape. Here, he rejoined the British Intelligence Service and remained in Berne till the end of the war.

Pat's book on his adventures was published first in 1952. It was a sensational success, selling more than 500,000 copies. Inevitably, Hollywood also called and in 1955 the The Colditz Story was turned into a popular film.

He was also awarded an MBE from the Queen of England for his efforts in helping allied soldiers escape from Colditz. Before his death in 1991, Pat wrote four more books about his wartime experiences.

His original book still sells in shops today. There will probably never be another story like it.

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