That One Time the Gestapo Helped Some Prisoners of War Escape   3 comments

By the end of summer in 1940, it had become clear to all but the most stubborn that the Nazis were about to take Europe.

In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland; in April 1940, Denmark and Norway; in May, a strike through Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; on June 23, 1940, Hitler went on tour in Paris.

When the Dutch capitulated to the Germans (amidst that dreadful summer) all naval officers were required to sign a statement that they would engage in no hostile activities; some refused, including Lietuenant-Commander Etienne Henri Larive. Larive was consequently sent to the POW camp Oflag VI-A in Soest, Germany.

He got out two months later (using a civilian clothes disguise) but before he made to freedom, he had to get out of enemy territory to Switzerland. He noticed that the railway from Singen to Schaffhausen passed very close to — but did not pass through — a protruding piece of the Swiss border. He theorized that controls would not be as tight as at the place where it actually crossed. Starting from Singen, he went west, then turned south, but got lost and ended up in Gottmadigen.

He tried to ask for directions but aroused the suspicion of locals; eventually, he smuggled into a train for Schaffhausen, but was caught at the last stop before the border, and taken back to Singen.

From Google Maps; you can see how close Larive got, and why a map and compass — which Larive did not have — were important tools in a POW escape.

Under interrogation from a Gestapo agent, Larive admitted he was a Dutch officer.

What happened next was the consequence of two things 1.) the unnamed agent had worked in Holland before the war so was relatively friendly and more importantly 2.) the agent was convinced the war was going to be over by Christmas.

The agent explained how the original plan was a good one, as the Singen train stop was the last before papers were checked; he asked why Larive hadn’t simply gone over the border. Realizing that Larive didn’t know the local terrain, the agent showed just how close he had gotten on a map and explained how the border was not guarded.

Perhaps the agent’s monologuing was also due to Larive’s next destination: Oflag IV-C, aka Castle Colditz, the castle turned maximum security prison, considered “escape-proof”.

It was not escape-proof.

View from the inside. Source. CC BY 3.0 from SKOMP46866.

The war, of course, lasted long past Christmas, and Larive in the meantime spread the word of the “Singen route” before breaking out in 1941, this time for good.

His escape involved a game called stoolball similar to rugby.

Several times a week, prisoners were taken outside the Castle to exercise in a small park. The Dutch discovered there was a bolted manhole.

Under the cover of a “scrum”, two of the prisoners (one of them was Larive) unbolted the manhole and slipped inside. One of the prisoners who stayed outside replaced the bolt with a replica made of glass.

In order to foil the headcount made before going back in the Castle, the Dutch had made dummies:

This photo gets shown off in a brief NOVA video where they re-enact the escape.

The Singen route was used by other POWs escaping from Colditz, including one of the most famous; we’ll get to him — and the subsequent landmark in board game history — next time.

Posted April 20, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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3 responses to “That One Time the Gestapo Helped Some Prisoners of War Escape

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  1. Been busy; sorry the next post is taking a while, folks.

  2. Nice rememberings of The Great Escape in Spectrum 48k, where a triad of objects were needed to escape: the pliers, a map, and a compass.


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