Prisoners of War

We seem to have developed a bit of a World War 2 theme in the last few days! We’ve travelled from Rostock on the Baltic coast down to Colditz, visiting Peenemünde and Żagań along the way.

As soon as Mark worked out that Peenemünde was “just round the corner” from Rostock, it went onto the “must see” list. From the ferry port, we drove to the small lakeside town of Dargun on Tuesday afternoon. The free motorhome parking there was on the edge of a small woodland park – we did a nice little loop though the woods and then back through the town on the opposite side of the lake (not very far. 4.5-5km or thereabouts?). Then on Wednesday it was off to Peenemünde.

The Germans opened a huge military test site at Peenemünde in 1937. It’s on an island, there were few inhabitants nearby (the fishing village that stood there was just demolished), and it offered a perfect rocket testing path over the sea towards the east, parallel with the shoreline.

The V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket were both developed and tested here:

Unfortunately, the V2 rocket above is a replica. It’s a shame that they haven’t managed to get their hands on an original rocket as there do still seem to be a few of them out there in museums around the world.

The train behind was part of the site’s railway system. One of its tasks was to transport forced labourers (or “contract workers” as the Germans liked to call them. Many were brought from occupied eastern Europe).

Prisoners of War were also made to work at the site. One of them, Mikhail Devyatayev, was a Russian fighter pilot who’d been shot down and captured, ending up at Peenemünde. He noticed that planes landing at Peenemünde tended to be refuelled immediately and left sitting on the runway ready to take off again….

In February 1945, Devyatayev and the nine other prisoners in his work party managed to overpower their guard and (with one of their number dressed as the guard) steal a He 111 bomber. They successfully landed back in Soviet-held territory (despite having been shot at by Soviet air defences along the way). Our first escape story of the week! (As it turned out, five of the ten were then killed in action on the eastern front within a matter of weeks…. )

In August 1943, 596 RAF heavy bombers attacked Peenemünde. The museum contained an engine from Lancaster bomber that came down in a nearby lake:

After the attack on Peenemünde, V2 production was moved to an underground factory near Nordhausen in central Germany. The tunnel system was dug by prisoners from the Mittelbau concentration camp (until 1944 a satellite camp of Buchenwald). The statistics on how many died there were pretty horrifying. Apparently, the V2 is the only weapon in history where more were killed in the production process than were ever killed by the weapon…..

I don’t know why, but the museum at Peenemünde didn’t really do it for me. Maybe it was all just a bit too politically correct? Or maybe it was that I didn’t really feel the information linking to Peenemünde being the place where it all happened? The museum is housed in the old power station (none of the other buildings have survived) and the rockets are replicas…… Mark liked it though……

The car park near the Peenemünde museum (not the official museum car park, which is apparently / inexplicably more expensive) gives you 24 hours for €5. There were no signs saying you couldn’t stay overnight, so we figured that armed with a ticket valid until the next morning, we must be allowed.

We reached our next destination, Templin, in plenty of time to scoot round to the local tyre place before they closed on Thursday. Good old German efficiency – we got an appointment for 10am Friday morning for SOK to get two new front tyres.

SOK’s new dancing shoes, as Mark calls them:

Armed with our new tyres, we set off south. Some of the roads weren’t quite what we’d expected!

All very picturesque, but after a couple of miles of cobbles, the novelty had well and truly worn off! Thankfully, it was only a couple more miles before we emerged back onto tarmac.

Crossing into Poland for just one night this trip, we headed to Żagań, where we spent Friday night on the car park outside the museum:

Żagań has apparently been an army town for a good couple of hundred years. Sure enough, we’d passed a massive barracks complex on our way through town. During the Second World War, there were quite a few camps in the area, housing around 300,000 prisoners in total. The one that most visitors are interested in is Stalag Luft III, built in the spring of 1942 to house allied air force officers and the scene of “The Great Escape”.

There’s a cute little museum on the site of the neighbouring camp, Stalag VIIIC. They charged us all of 5 zlotys (just over a quid) each to get in. There were plenty of artefacts to look at. This is ventilation ducting (used in the escape tunnels) made from the powdered milk tins prisoners received in their food parcels:

I found the Criminal Police information sheet from 1944 interesting. It lists the details of seven prisoners who are on the run, with physical descriptions, information about what they’re thought to be carrying (in terms of falsified papers etc) and so on:

The poster telling prisoners that “escape from prison camps is no longer a sport!” quite possibly had little effect, quoting as it does a “secret and confidential English military pamphlet” that basically tells British POWs to create havoc:

The actual site of the Stalag Luft III camp is slowly being reclaimed by the forest, although they seem to be keeping the area around hut 104 in the north compound of the camp clear of trees.

On the model above, you can see the line of one of the famous “Great Escape” tunnels, Harry, coming from hut 104 (in the middle of the first row of “end-on” huts) under the fence, between two other buildings (the larger one on the left being the hospital and the other the “cooler” then out under the outer fence past the watch tower.

There’s a replica watch tower in the corresponding location and the line of the Harry tunnel has been marked out on the ground. You can still see the concrete bases of the hospital and cooler.

Looking out from inside the perimeter of the camp to where the escapees emerged:

Further back at the start of the tunnel (you can just see SOK through the trees):

The Great Escape took place on the night of 24 March 1944. Of the 76 prisoners who escaped the camp, only 3 made it; the other 73 were recaptured (some having travelled some considerable distance). Fifty of them were shot on the personal orders of Hitler.

There’s a mausoleum near the camp built by the prisoners to hold the ashes of the fifty who were killed:

The urns were removed after the war and are apparently in a military cemetery at Poznán.

There was lots of interesting info to be had at Żagań, about the famous Wooden Horse escape and the Great March at the end of the war among other things. This guy seems pretty apprehensive at the idea of the 75km march ahead of him (can’t say I blame him):

By complete chance, we followed the route of the Great March from Żagań to our Saturday night stop at Bad Muskau on the German / Polish border:

The Stellplatz at Bad Muskau was great – €10.50 for the night (a bit more if we’d wanted electricity) and slightly quirky. You have to get water from a tap inside on the wall of the shower room (it’s an outside wall but they haven’t got round to drilling a hole through the wall for an outside tap). They’re going to be getting electricity posts installed so that all of the pitches have power. The guy looking after the place was very friendly and very happy that we could speak German as he learned Russian not English at school (as one did back in East Germany in those days) and he’s really struggling to communicate with the Scandinavians who speak perfect English but no German!

Right across the road from the Stellplatz, a path took us into the Fürst Pückler Park. It’s a landscape-type park developed in the early 19th century by Prince Herman von Pückler-Muskau (his name just slips off the tongue, doesn’t it?).

Two thirds of the park is in Germany and one third in Poland (the river that runs through the park being the border). Mark just had to jog across a bridge so he could say he’d run to Poland and back!

We could easily have spent another night at Bad Muskau but time was ticking by so we decided to press on to Colditz, arriving whilst they were still open on Sunday afternoon so as to get ourselves booked onto the extended tour on Tuesday morning. That gave us Monday to generally doss around (ie do some food shopping, wander round the town, and go and explore the local woodland – there’s a “Lutherweg” path that runs through Colditz and supposedly connects lots of sites in Saxony that are linked in some way to Martin Luther).

We were really surprised on Monday afternoon / evening when two more motorhomes showed up on our quiet little car park – and they were both British! We can’t quite remember the last time we shared a car park with fellow Brits (Hi, Mark & Sue!). Even on the big aire we stayed at in Oslo, we didn’t see a single other British van…..

I don’t really know what to say about Colditz. The tour was brilliant. We went all around, visiting the locations of some of the many famous escape attempts that took place during the second world war.

We did learn that if you see a photo relating to an escape attempt, that tells you that the attempt failed (the photos were taken later for use in training guards etc). Some of them were SO close to getting away!

A brilliant disguise! Willi the local electrician on the right and the prisoner who tried to saunter out of the castle impersonating him on the left:

This escape costume must’ve taken some planning!

We saw the French escape tunnel (a great achievement from a castle built on a rock), the tiny tiny space that Pat Reid and comrades wriggled through to escape, and so on. The most incredible thing we saw, though, was the glider loft – British prisoners built a fake wall to shorten an attic and in the hidden space behind the wall, assembled a glider (as one does….). The glider was designed using information from books on aircraft design in the prisoners’ library!

As things turned out, the war ended before they were quite ready to take to the skies.

This is a replica. The original was photographed when the americans liberated the castle but then disappeared. No-one knows what became of it… (it’s suggested that the locals may have used the frame for fire wood).

Yep, it was kind of a gingham glider, the covering having been made from bedding. To seal it and pull the fabric taut, they painted it with porridge!

The plan was to knock a hole in the gable end of the attic. Tables were then to be balanced on the ridge of the roof outside to create a runway for the glider to take off from. A pulley system, with a bath (filled with concrete) dropped off the building on a rope, would provide the required acceleration!

Here’s the roof (the runway was to be the ridge visible at top left):

Taken from the same spot, here’s the view. The aim was to glide down and land on the green meadow in the middle of the photo (which was much bigger at the time: many of the buildings in the photo were built after the war):

We saw a 15 minute version of a programme documenting a 2012 reconstruction – the reconstructed glider was flown off the roof of the castle and successfully landed (albeit controlled remotely; the original glider was designed to carry two men but I guess they were short of volunteers….). Well, OK, it sort of crash-landed, but that was done deliberately due to the shortage of landing space (now that people have inconsiderately built houses in the landing area!). Jeez…..

All pretty amazing stuff. We both really enjoyed Żagań and Colditz. The jury’s out on Peenemünde.

From here, we’re going to head slowly west in the general direction of Calais. We’ve finally got round to booking our ferry, for Thursday 12th September. Once again, the Camping and Caravanning Club came up trumps on price (10% cheaper than ferrysavers…).

One comment

  1. Wow! That was quite a post! All sounds very interesting, and your photos are great. We were in Saxony about 15 years ago or so with a quite different van, on a quite different adventure, so a lot of your detail brought back some memories. We stayed near “Coldtiz” Castle , and our German friends, who had been under Russian influence when they were growing up, had never even heard of it, or indeed the film The Great Escape.


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