Flight From Colditz
by Tony Hoskins
I used to think I was well-informed for knowing that the World War Two POWs of Offizierslager or “Oflag” IV-C – the infamous Colditz Castle – had built a two-man glider in the attic of their prison before they were liberated by the 1st US Army in April 1945.
And yet, I’m apparently the only person who didn’t know about the 2012 reconstruction of this ‘Colditz Cock’ (as it was known) in the UK, using the prisoners’ original drawings; or the Channel 4 recreation* it was built for; or this book about the project.
How wrong I was
I still haven’t seen Channel Four’s program, but I do know the kind of thing. I remember their 2011 recreation of 617 Squadron’s famous ‘Dambusters’ raid, shot in Northern Canada using a Buffalo Airways DC-4 flown by the legendary “Buffalo Joe” McBryan.
This was obviously a reprise of that winning formula, again hosted by Cambridge Professor of Engineering and Fellow of Trinity College, Dr. Hugh Hunt – who’s uncle, incidentally, had been a Colditz POW during the war.
So the book’s subtitle, Would the second world war’s most audacious escape plan have succeed? could have come straight off the TV listing. Which is a shame, because it made me think this was just the book of the documentary . . .
And how I wrong I was.
Quite sensible in comparison
At first, Flight From Colditz behaved pretty much as I’d expected. Although I was pleasantly surprised to see a foreword from Regina Thiede, current Curator of Colditz Castle, outlining the building’s long history, current state and ongoing restoration into a museum. There’s also a valuable Appendix detailing the handful of Colditz Cock replicas that have been or are being built, with their current locations.
The main content is organised into two parts. The first is a good history of Offlag IV-C and the many escape attempts made by its inmates – with surprising detail, given its brevity – followed by a more specific account of the original Colditz Cock, which is an amazing tale in its own right.
The remainder (and bulk) of the book recounts the 2012 attempt to build and fly a replica from the castle roof, to see if it really would have worked.
And that’s where things get interesting. Obviously launching any aircraft from a roof top “to see if it would work” is a dangerous proposition.
Make it an amateur-designed homebuilt sailplane, and suddenly kids jumping off a barn, with or without a cape, looks quite sensible in comparison.
A constant risk of failure
While the show simply set out to build (well, have Tony Hoskins and his team build) a replica glider drawn straight from an amazing chapter of World War II history, the reality was far more challenging.
Incredibly, the prisoner’s original drawings had survived internment, liberation, repatriation and the intervening years, but there was no reference for details like fittings. These were simply ‘scrounged’ as needed.
Nor was there any clear plan for getting the glider up to flying speed, with two men aboard, before it ran out of rooftop. One method the prisoners did discuss was dropping a bathtub full of rubble as a counterweight – a difficult and dangerous procedure, but still the best the researchers could find.
Clearly, a large degree of informed ingenuity was going to be needed.
Secrets and subterfuge
But the Producers still wanted to make sure their audience would be hooked on a healthy dose of tension and suspense. The guards and guns were gone, but they still managed to engineer a constant risk of failure into the build process – using time pressure, tight budgets, surprise camera crew visits, plus various other physical and technical constraints in the name of historical accuracy.
Tony Hoskins recognised this factor early on, but he and his team still wanted to build a glider that would fly. A pile of matchwood was hardly going to do their reputations any good.
The result is a pressure-cooker tale of secrets and strategic subterfuge, as the team schemed to produce a safe, airworthy, accurate and legal replica of the Colditz Cock in spite of their sponsors, then figured out how to build it in an attic and launch it from Schloss Colditz with a reasonable chance of success.
I should point out that this was never done with hostility, or even negativity. I just got the feeling the show’s Producers genuinely didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the aviation challenge they’d set.
Just hours before they were due to launch, Hoskins pulled the show’s Executive Producer aside and asked about his criterion for success.
‘When it leaves the roof . . . ,’ was the reply, ‘we have a programme. If it crashes never mind. If it crashes in the field, that’s better. If you guys can land it in the field, that’s better than we all imagined’.
Like I said, a lack of appreciation . . .
Flung off the castle roof
Tony Hoskins’ real job is running South East Aircraft Services – his own business carrying out repairs, modifications and maintenance on gliders and vintage powered aircraft. Along with being a pilot, manager and certified maintainer, it turns out he’s a pretty good author too.
The text is very well written, slowing down to patiently explain technical details while still drawing you in to the inexorable build-up of pressure and pace as the filming deadlines approach.
There are a few niggling editorial issues. Have fun spotting the typo in paragraph one of Chapter One, for example. And there is a weird thing where the captions for photos on a right hand-page are placed on the left, but then separated by a folio of (equally fascinating) colour images. It took me a while to figure that one out.
But overall, those things merely distract, rather than detract, from the insightful and exciting text.
When the glider was finally flung off the castle roof by its bathtub full of rubble, I felt like I was going with it. My metaphorical fingernails were bitten as short as Tony’s must have been, and I fully felt the waves of fatigue, frustration, tension and redemption he’d been put through.
And by the time his replica has finished playing gravity off against aerodynamics (I won’t spoil the outcome for you), we’ve been so tightly strapped into Tony’s emotional roller coaster that his description of the moments after is palpable. There’s a strange mix of elation, exhaustion and ‘what do I do now?’ that he describes perfectly.
Imagine taking a space walk straight after winning the Tour de France. Like that.
The inside view
As I said, Flight From Colditz looks for all the world like the sort publication that always accompanies this sort of documentary – a lasting record, for the fans.
In fact, it’s a surprising inside view of how the program was even made possible. This isn’t a side of the story the Producers didn’t want you to see, it’s a side of the story they weren’t even aware of.
If your aviation interests peak in the areas of history, homebuilding and gliding, as mine do, this is a rare nexus.
As a great record of building planes, beating odds, and honouring brave men, what’s not to love?
*The program aired as Escape From Colditz in the UK, and Escape From Nazi Alcatraz (on PBS) in the USA.
Want some more historical context for this story? Well, here it is.
About This Review
I wrote this review at the invitation of the publisher, Pen & Sword Aviation. Pen & Sword were kind enough to provide a review copy of the book, but no money has changed hands and the views I’ve expressed are entirely my own.