Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Colditz Romeo...

Cliff-top prison ... Colditz
Cliff-top prison ... Colditz

IT was the legendary cliff-top prisoner of war camp the Nazis thought was escape-proof.

But they had not reckoned on the bravery and ingenuity of Allied PoWs held at Colditz - or a secret code devised by an amorous Army officer.
Captain Pat Reid was the prisoners' first "escape officer", immortalised on screen by actor Sir John Mills in the 1955 movie The Colditz Story and by Edward Hardwicke in the famous 1970s TV series.
Determined ... Pat in the Laufen Six
Determined ... Pat in the
Laufen Six
But what neither the film nor the series showed was the legendary jail-breaker's complex love life, or how it helped keep the captive British servicemen involved in the war effort - right under the noses of their German guards.
A heroic Army officer and brilliant engineer, Pat was also a first-class lothario.
He had a string of girlfriends at home in England, and before the war he kept in touch with them - and kept them secret from others (and possibly each other) - using simply coded love letters.
And he saw no reason to stop the practice when he became one of the first PoWs sent to the Nazis' new high-security camp for serial escapers and important prisoners.
"Pat was quite a womaniser in his youth," said Brian Degas, his friend, business partner and the co-creator of the Colditz TV series, which is based on Pat's recollections and returns to our screens on Tuesday for the first time in 15 years.
Later years ... at 1985 PoW reunion
Later years ... at 1985
PoW reunion
"He used to communicate with old girlfriends in code and when he got to Colditz he just started to communicate with his girlfriend in the same simple code.
"Two of his fellow prisoners, Dick Howe and Rupert Barry, realised that if they could make the code more sophisticated they could communicate with London and pass on information they picked up from military gossip."
Pat wrote coded "love letters" - sent through the Red Cross - to his girlfriend, while other PoWs did the same to their loved ones.
The women in turn passed the messages on to MI9, part of the War Office.
Brian, 75, said: "The guards and German officers often spoke about troop movements and by passing on details like that to MI9, our men could still play a part in the war.
"The Germans were great code-breakers but they never even spotted it."
Pat was 29 when he was captured in May 1940 in France after he unwittingly drove into German lines while trying to organise ammunition for his men. He was taken to the Laufen, Oflag VIIC prisoner of war camp in Austria. Four months later, with others, he managed to escape through a tunnel while dressed as a woman.
He and his fellow escapees were recaptured, thrown in solitary for a month, then the "Laufen Six" were among the first sent to Colditz.
Their first attempts to break out were thwarted as they clashed with other freedom bids by Dutch, French, Czech and Polish PoWs.
So Pat suggested setting up a committee to coordinate break-outs and his commanding officer asked him to be the "escape officer".
As such he was not allowed to break free himself, but masterminded the escapes of others and kept up a stream of "love letters" to Britain packed with important information about the Germans.
Tally ... French edge it
Tally ... French edge it
The PoWs were able to reveal details of gasoline and rocket fuel reserves 30 miles from Colditz which the US later bombed.
And when a group of captured British commandos were held in the local prison before being taken away to be shot, the PoWs were able to pass on their names to London - and help prove they had been murdered despite German claims later that they had been killed in action.
Brian said: "Pat's code was based on the frequency of numbers in different words, and there could be different frequencies within the same sentence.
"He explained it to me but I could never work it out and nor could a maths professor I showed."
After two years Pat handed over his escape officer role in April 1942 to try to break free himself.
After several failed attempts - and spells in solitary confinement as a result - he and three others managed to escape in October 1942.
They slipped through the camp kitchen, removed bars to drop through a window on to a flat roof and climbed down into the German yard and the cellar.
They managed to climb through a tiny air vent nine feet above the floor - with Pat having to strip naked to do so - then down a rope made of twined sheets to a dry moat and out of the castle grounds.
Persistent ... Brits lead
Persistent ... Brits lead
Brian explained: "The Germans put up big wanted posters but, when he had first arrived at Colditz and been photographed, Pat had managed to grab some sweater material to make a convincing false moustache, so the posters showed him with a moustache when he was clean shaven."
The men split into pairs and took four days to cross 350 miles of enemy territory to reach Switzerland, where Pat stayed until after the war. Now his story is revealed as part of a new documentary, Colditz: The Legend, showing at 10pm on Monday, with the Colditz series starting on Tuesday at 10pm - both on the Yesterday channel.
Pat's daughter Diana McLeod, 62, said: "He was quite good at finding a solution to anything. He made many attempts to escape and spent a lot of time in solitary. When I was older I knew he did not like to be on his own and I think that was the aftermath of so much time in solitary."
Film role ... Sir John Mills
Film role ... Sir John Mills
Diana continued: "He used the code to write to a girlfriend while he was in Colditz. I think her name was Barbara. Daddy had a few girlfriends. He was mad about them and he always kept up with them.
"He never married before the war, but when he escaped Barbara got dropped and he married my mother, Jane Cabot - an American trapped in Switzerland with her widowed mother."
After the war Pat served as a military attache in Switzerland.
He then joined the Foreign Office and moved to Ankara, where Diana was born, returning to Britain in 1952. Even then Pat's escape skills were evident when he worried about what would happen if fire broke out in the family's attic lodgings.
Diana said: "He made up this escape rope with a sheet or something. He put it round our waists and he would drop us each down the side of the house."
Pat and Jane divorced in 1966 and he went on to wed twice more before he died, aged 79, in 1990.
Diana, who lives near Inverness, said: "During his time as a prisoner he was always trying to escape. He desperately wanted to get back to the war effort - not just his girlfriends!"

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