Archive for the ‘escape-from-colditz’ Tag

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

Tagged with

Escape from Colditz (the 1973 board game)   Leave a comment

For my regular readers wondering “where are the old adventure games?” and perhaps pining after ghastly parsers and erratic typos, rest assured they will return soon; I just happened to hit a game in my sequence that took an abnormal amount of background-building to write about it.

For this was Colditz and these prisoners were the bad types, undesirables in the eyes of German High Command. Many of them had already established reputations as disturbers of the peace with their frequent attempts to get out of captivity. That was why they were sent to us.

— from Reinhold Eggers, Colditz; the German side of the story

In addition to “escape-proof” design sensibilities, Colditz Castle was for Prisoner of War officers. By the Geneva Convention, general enlisted men as POWs could be used for labor, while officers could not.

From Pat Reid’s book — we’ll get to him in a moment.

It had multiple Appells (roll calls) a day where all prisoners went to the courtyard for a head count.

If you squint at the floor plan, you’ll see the aforementioned courtyard, but also a canteen, sick ward, chapel, and theatre. Yes, the prisoners put on plays. Some grew their hair longer to play female parts.

Amidst all this, the prisoners of war and German guards were playing a game, of sorts. Both sides considered it the duty of Allied officers to attempt escape, and it was the duty of the guards to stop them. Punishment for being caught escaping was a month in solitary, not death. By all accounts, Reinhold Eggers, the security officer in charge of Colditz, treated all escape attempts with good humor, although he made sure to take pictures and pass them on to other POW camps when something new was attempted.

When Pat Reid (Royal Army Service Corps) arrived, he had already made one escape attempt from Oflag VII-C (Laufen castle in Bavaria) involving a 24-foot tunnel. At his arrival at Colditz, he attempted a second escape attempt with 12 prisoners, this time going through a sewer pipe, but the guard he bribed had warned his comrades and they were waiting.

As was the traditional punishment, he spent a month in solitary confinement; after leaving he accepted the position of Escape Officer and helped with other escape plans before finally making an escape himself in October 1942. He went in a pit, through a cellar, and out a flue, using the Singen route to make it all the way to Switzerland.

Pat Reid is perhaps the most famous escapee because he wrote about his exploits in his memoirs, which later got turned into a 1955 movie…

From IMDB.

…and then a 1971-1973 BBC series.

From Nostalgia Central.

A writer for the series (Brian Degas) teamed up with Bob Brechin and Pat Reid himself to make a board game, Escape from Colditz.

Picture by Gary James, Attribution Share Alike.

The map for the board follows roughly the real floor plan. The setup is asymmetrical: one guard player, four Allied players, each playing an Escape Officer trying to help their men escape. Movement is done via dice, and the objective of the Allied players is to collect an Escape Kit of Compass, Food, Disguise, and Papers (each represented by a card) before making a final break for freedom. The objective of the guard is to stop that from happening (in the original version, within a certain real amount of time; on a more recent reprinting, within a certain number of turns).

From an old eBay auction.

While the game was quite popular on release, roll-and-move (think, ex: Clue) was the norm. Modern players (including, to be fair, myself) don’t have as much tolerance for highly random mechanics, but I still think Escape from Colditz is a narratological marvel. Gameplay and theme are not only tightly wound but the involvement of an actual Escape Officer meant heightened verisimilitude. I sometimes wonder: if tabletop RPGs hadn’t spawned from standard wargames, but they were still invented, where would they come from? It seems like a small jump from narrative board games — in Escape from Colditz the players are characters in an asymmetrical setup, just like Dungeons and Dragons — to dropping the board and having story scenes start to trump mechanics.

According to the CASA database, Colditz spawned 9 different adventure games. Escape from Colditz (1981) is the first, sharing a title with the board game, and is indeed based on it. I’ll get more into the relationship between the two (and how good the game itself is) next time.

Posted April 27, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with

Escape from Colditz (1981)   22 comments

The original Crowther and Woods adventure hits above its weight class. It has all the sloppy edges of an innovator, but there’s a tactile atmosphere lacking in most of the imitations that follow, and I theorize that this is due to the original being based on the actual Colossal Cave in Kentucky, closely enough that it is possible to match the map of the game to the cave. It’s awful easy to link rooms called “cave” together just out of one’s imagination, but harder to match the character of the WINDOW ON PIT, or Y2, or the HALL OF MISTS, all real locations.

The strength of coding and reasonable puzzles didn’t hurt, either, but my general point is that a certain grounding in reality can elevate what otherwise would be a mundane room location.

The TRS-80 game Escape from Colditz by Stuart Wilkinson is based on a board game, and the board game was made with consultation of someone (Pat Reid) who lived the experience. So for what qualities the game has, it automatically gets some via the same grounding in reality as Colossal Cave.

Unfortunately — and I regret to inform you, given I wrote two posts worth of buildup — in most other respects, the game is very, very, bad.

At least the title screen is a good rendition of the castle.

The instructions state


and that before an escape attempt can begin, you need to collect an “escape kit” consisting of a compass, document, map, uniform, and meal. (Compare with the rules for the board game: “The Escape Kit consists of Civilian Disguises, Magnetic Compass, Food, false documents, maps, and money (Reichmarks). For the purpose of this game, documents, maps, and money have been combined together, providing a total of four components to be collected.”)

The opening screen is above. Notice: no room exits, and more or less no description. This holds throughout the entire game. The only way to find out an exit works is to try it out, and even then you may not know, because the game simply reprints the room description if going a direction fails instead of stating outright a particular move is impossible. We’ve seen this before in Arnstein’s Haunted House, which compounded the problem by putting two identical rooms next to each other (so you couldn’t tell you had changed rooms!) Escape from Colditz repeats the same trick.

The Theatre is three rooms. I only found this out very late in my playthrough. I had entered the westmost room, and then tested the exits by typing GO EAST, GO SOUTH, and GO WEST, which of course looped me back to where I started without realizing I was changing rooms! This meant I missed the eastmost room (with a ladder) altogether.

I had found a PASS CARD, a COMPASS, a MEAL, and a TAG that read “DER BEUTELMAUS” fairly early but I was otherwise stuck. I knew I likely needed to go north of the APPEL


but I was stuck trying “password” phrases, including various permutations of DER BEUTELMAUS. I finally broke down and looked up hints, to find that the prompt was being a continuation of the parser, and rather than the prompt being for what the player would say in response to the guard’s question, it was asking for another parser command, one that had to be typed in exactly.


Bravo, game: you found a brand new way to be awful.

Once I made it by the guard I found a KEY and some DOCUMENTS. Combined with the COMPASS and MEAL I was lacking before, I just needed a MAP and UNIFORM.

For the map, I needed to win another epic struggle of getting the computer to understand me.

The MAP is past this door in a tunnel.

For the missing uniform, the game here invokes another nearly unique bad trope, one I’ve only seen in the original Dog Star Adventure. In the earliest type-in version, that game had a supply room where you had to guess at what the room contained and just try to GET stuff (like a BLASTER) and hope you were lucky.

Once I had my uniform disguise, I was able to stride back through with the pass card and make a beeline for the front gate.

Here we come up to the second-to-worst part: there is only a 50% chance the action above will work. (No doubt attempting to invoke the randomness of the board game.) If the action fails, you lose, with no indication it was random chance that did you in.

And yes, I did say second-to-worst. That’s because there’s an entirely different escape route. You remember the ladder from the theater? You can use that plus a rope to try to climb over a wall, but you always get caught, 100% of the time. (This is after going through the work of collecting an escape kit.) You can check Dale Dobson’s writeup for more detail. (He calls it a “bug” but I’m not so sure the game isn’t just trying to be cruel here.)

Looping back to my introduction, despite all the suffering, there is an interesting setting buried in here. The real Colditz has plenty of tunnels and obscure nooks and crannies via the centuries of history, the board game replicates the same thing, and the TRS-80 game tries to do the same. It’s legions off my being able to recommend it to anyone, but there were still moments, like when I first went underground, or I first stepped in the Chapel, that I felt the distant wonder of adventure games.

I did mention last time there were nine Colditz-inspired adventures — here are the other eight in chronological order —

Colditz (Hans-Peter Ponten, 1981, in Dutch)
Colditz Adventure (Superior Software, 1983)
Colditz! (LVL Software, 1983)
Castle Colditz (Felix Software, 1984)
Colditz (Phipps Associates, 1984)
Mission Secrète A Colditz (CPC, 1985, in French)
Colditz Escape (Adventure Probe, 1986)
Colditz (Uto, 2010, in Spanish)

— and yes, the existence of the Dutch Colditz means it may have come first, but I have a few question marks to resolve with that game before I can say more.

Having gone through mounds of research for a profoundly terrible TRS-80 game, I can say there is good reason why Colditz spawned so many adventures; everything is naturally self-contained, the plot is clear and dramatic, and the interaction for most escapes was based mainly on cleverness-with-items rather than smooth-talking the guards (see: Reid’s failure to bribe a guard in his first escape attempt). It also used to be part of the cultural landscape; there was a time the name Colditz gave instant recognition.

And perhaps it still has instant recognition now in some places? A question I put to my trusty readers.

An 1828 painting of Colditz Castle by Ernst Ferdinand Oehme.

Captain Yule also arranged music for the prisoners’ orchestra. The strains often drowned out preparations for breakouts or distracted guards when escapes were in progress. On one occasion, the music started or stopped to signal two escaping prisoners on the whereabouts of sentries who were in view of the prisoner musicians. And a space below the theater stage was used by four escapees as an exit toward passageways leading to freedom.

From the obituary for Lt. Col. Jimmy Yule who died in 2001. As a prisoner at Colditz, he operated a hidden radio. The secret radio room was discovered in 1993 (!) and still had Yule’s old codebook. It included a poem: “Back in London, here we are / Back to clubs and caviar. / Back to Covent Garden’s fruits, / Back to 50-shilling suits.”

Posted April 28, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with