Over the walls

Flight From Colditz

by Tony Hoskins

Flight From ColditzPublished by Frontline Books (Pen & Sword Books), 2016.

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.

The only known photo of the original Colditz Cock, inside Colditz, as snapped by US war correspondent Lee Carson shortly after the castle was liberated in April 1945. Oh, to have see those 1st US Army soldiers' faces! (NARA)
The only known photo of the original Colditz Cock, inside Colditz,  by US war correspondent Lee Carson shortly after the castle was liberated in April 1945. Oh, to have see those 1st US Army soldiers’ faces! (NARA)

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.

PoWs Bill Goldfinch (right) and Jack Best (second from left), the men behind the original Colditz Cock, at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, in 1942. (Courtesy of Pam Smith)
PoWs Bill Goldfinch (right) and Jack Best (second from left), the men behind the original Colditz Cock, at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, in 1942. (Courtesy of Pam Smith)

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.

Annotated drawing for the Colditz Cock, from September 1944 – a remarkable piece of work in itself. (Colditz Castle)
Annotated drawing for the Colditz Cock, from September 1944 – a remarkable piece of work in itself. (Colditz Castle)

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.

Work progresses on the replica glider's wings, in the lower attic of Colditz Castle. The PoWs had far less space – if a lot more time. (© Tony Hoskins)
Work progresses on the replica glider’s wings, in the lower attic of Colditz Castle. The PoWs had far less space – if a lot more time. (© Tony Hoskins)

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.

The finished glider on its rooftop runway, with the landing field framed under the wing. (© Ben Watkins)
The finished glider on its rooftop runway, with the landing field framed under the wing. (© Ben Watkins)

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.

Falling with style... The completed replica leaves the castle roof (from by the clock tower, centre) and picks up flying speed. (© WIndfall Films)
Falling with style… The completed replica leaves the castle roof (from by the clock tower, centre) and picks up flying speed. (© WIndfall Films)

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

The project team. L to R: Pat Willis, Jess Nyahoe, Tony Hoskins, Ben Watkins; and kneeling with a copy of the Lee Carson photo, Dr Hugh Hunt. (© Ian Duncan)
The project team. L to R: Pat Willis, Jess Nyahoe, Tony Hoskins, Ben Watkins; and kneeling with a copy of the Lee Carson photo, Dr Hugh Hunt. (© Ian Duncan)

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

Pen & Sword logoI 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.

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8 thoughts on “Over the walls

  1. Amazing that they were able to build a full-scale glider from scratch without being detected. Most WWII prisoners were lucky if they could fashion a small weapon or conceal a bit of food. If they were able to get access to the roof, it seems rappelling down the side of the building or fashioning some kind of parachute would’ve been a lot easier than designing, building, and launching something like that from atop their prison.

    Still, a fascinating story on modern grounds alone. The aviation authorities in Germany are notoriously strict, so I’m somewhat surprised they’d allow such an effort to actually launch from the rooftop. I don’t know if you read the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog, but there’s a guy there writing a column about what it took to export his Piper Cub to Germany and fly it. Suffice it to say it was not easy.

    1. I’m sure if those guys thought base-jumping off the roof was half-way feasible, they would have given it a go (inventing a new extreme sport as they went). They were unbelievably resilient and resourceful. I get the impression they were reasonably well treated in Colditz, although they still suffered deprivations by war’s end. 1st US Army soldiers were surprised by the bony, pink-ish complexions of the prisoners at liberation (but I STILL can’t find a record of their impressions when they found the glider!).

  2. Even more reason to buy and read my book. The LBA were in fact very helpful, as long as you knew their rules in advance and approached them in a sensible manner. Initial permissions took just a few weeks, with full permissions taking no more than 3 months. Details are in the book!

    1. I did find the regulatory side of the story interesting. Your concept of national aviation regulations being from “the land of can” or “the land of can’t” is a great insight.

      1. Thank you airscape. That is certainly the approach I take when teaching those new to aviation legislation how to understand a topic that is certainly much bigger than can be covered in a few days of study. Its quite simple and it works. I have been lucky enough to have been invited to give many talks on the subject in the last 4 years and this approach goes down equally well with audiences who have little knowledge and a shorter timescale to get an understanding! The authorities do seem to get a lot of criticism mostly unfairly. I find that with the right approach, most are there to assist aviation and those in it, not limit it!

      2. Yeah, I can’t figure it out. I hear accounts like yours, of helpful and efficient regulators – and I’ve never had anything but good experiences with CASA. But there are also so many horror stories of pedantic ridiculous and downright obstructive behaviour from all around the world.
        It seems to me that the parent bodies have the best intentions, but the occasional martinet generates a lot of bad press.
        Equally your man Reinhard Schott’s comment “if this goes wrong, we’re both in trouble” raises the question of just how much your approval to fly was due to the LBA’s “land of can” efficiency, and how much was due to Reinhard’s personal enthusiasm?

  3. Very true. The regulation that allowed us to fly was very strict on the 150kg limit, we were very close to that and were pushing the boundaries a lot. Had it gone wrong it may have led to those regulations being revised. Few people would utilise this regulation day to day, but it does raise awareness indeed. Reinhard was indeed very keen, and without him, the process would have been much harder!

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