Flying the Colditz Glider
During World War Two, British prisoners of war at Colditz Castle began work on one of the most daring of escape attempts ever considered. In an attic on the top level of the castle, officers built a false wall to hide a tiny secret workshop in which they would build a glider strong enough to fly two people from the roof and over the River Mulde.
Having escaped during an air raid under the cover of darkness, the idea was that the daring duo would help prevent any possible massacre of the prisoners by the SS, by reaching Allied Forces.
Constructing the glider was a painstaking project, with the British using bed boards, bucket handles and a gramophone spring blade to put together the glider, called the Colditz Cock.The glider was approaching
completion when the American Army liberated the camp on 16th April 1945.
But the story of the glider has been a constant source of fascination and inspiration ever since. So it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to put the prisoners’ plans to the test…
In August 2011, Tony Hoskins, chief engineer and owner of South East Aircraft Services in Partridge Green, received a phone call. Tony said: “I got a call last August from Windfall, a production company who work with Channel 4 on a number of documentaries. They said ‘we’ve got this great idea. We want to build the glider out of the materials the prisoners had in the castle, and we want to see if their launch method of filling a bathtub with rubble and dropping it off the building actually works’.
“I said ‘you’re joking?’ and told them I would give it some thought. I thought it was crazy, and for the next two months I thought it would never work. I went to London and they said ‘is it possible?’ I said ‘yes, but it’s a huge amount of work, and please don’t underestimate the amount of things we’re going to have to do here’. They took the feedback to Channel 4, and they said ‘let’s do it.’ We got an email in November telling us to be at Colditz Castle for filming early in 2012.”
There had been attempts before. In 2000, Southdown Aviation Ltd built a replica Colditz glider for a Channel 4 documentary, but with modern materials. The glider was flown successfully by John Lee on its first attempt at RAF Odiham with Jack Best, Bill Goldfinch and about a dozen of the veterans who had worked on the original proudly looking on.
But for the new documentary, to be screened later this month, Windfall wanted to create a true replica within the castle itself. So in March, Tony headed off to Germany with his team of engineers – Jess Nyahoe, Ben Watkins and Patrick Willis, who would be piloting the remote controlled aeroplane.
Initially, Tony had a German pilot lined up to control the glider but the producers said that there couldn’t be a German flying the Brits escaping from Colditz.
For Tony’s company, it was a true test. South East Aviation Services (SEAS) was only formed in 2009, with Tony building on the contacts he had made since he started gliding in 1995. In just two years, the company has earned a reputation for its quality and value and in 2011 SEAS became the sole UK agent for Czech manufacturer HpH Sailplanes. The business also moved into a new unit in the village of Partridge Green.
But the Colditz challenge was unlike anything Tony and his engineers had attempted before. Tony said: “The production team were strict on what they wanted. They didn’t want elements of pre-building or sections transported out to Germany, but I said if they wanted us to cut everything in the castle it would take months and be too costly.
“So we agreed to make the wing ribs and the fuselage frames beforehand. It had to be done as we only had fifteen days out in Germany, which included several day of filming that basically meant we had nine days. We got all of the books on Colditz and read what they had done. They had bits of wardrobes, doors and floorboards and beds, all beach and pine. We knew they used hinges and door fittings so we used the same with glue and tacks to put it all together. We went on the only plan that exists, from September 1944. But those designs don’t all actually fit together.”
The team turned up in Germany with a big trailer and set about creating the glider. Tony’s team spent £3,500 on
materials and built their replica to the exact specifications – 33ft 9in wide and 19ft 7in long, although at just under 23 stone (150kg) it was half the weight of the original glider to accommodate a dummy rather than two prisoners of war.
They built in the top corner of the upper attic, in an area about 17 feet by 8 feet. Jess recalls: “The rooms of Colditz all had painted ceilings and walls but it’s all been left to rot. It’s such a shame. The castle is so spooky – we had to work until really late at night and it would get to a certain time when I wouldn’t go downstairs on my own! I read some of the stories from the days as a mental asylum that weren’t very nice!
“Windfall wanted us to put millet all over our lovely glider as that is what the prisoners would have done. We needed something to tighten the material and keep it watertight. Millet tightens it but doesn’t cope well with water, so there were always problems we had to overcome.”
There were also major balancing issues which meant that the engineers had to re-calculate where to drill the holes for the tail. But the problems were all overcome and after an enjoyable couple of weeks of constructing the glider, the team prepared for the launch.
During the war, the prisoners had planned to launch at night with table laid out across the roof, but for the re-enactment a team of carpenters built a nice flat surface. To the disappointment of thousands of local people who had turned out to watch the escape bid, the team were not able to finish in time for a Friday run, and instead got up at 5am on the Saturday morning to prepare for take-off. At 6am parts of the glider were moved to the roof.
The glider was put into position, and a dummy pilot – named Alex as he looked like Jess’ brother – took his seat. Originally, the prisoners planned to weaken the floors, fill a bathtub with rubble, run a pulley system under the roof and then kick supports out so that the bath would crash through the floors of the castle.
Needless to say, the idea of allowing a bathtub to destroy Colditz Castle for a British documentary was out of the question, so instead the bathtub was propelled off the side of the building. But would it work?
There were glitches right up to take off. A late addition of tin plates to the runway, which was allowed as the castle’s guttering is made of tin, may have made for a faster launch, but it interfered with the signal for the remote control system which was being operated from a field on the other side of the River Mulde.It meant Patrick had to re-position himself, but after that final delay, the bathtub was ready for the drop. Then came the moment of truth…
“It flew beautifully,” remembers Tony. “When the glider was released it bounced down and a hook ripped the tail end. But it still flew nicely over the river and landed in the field where we had moved to. When it went straight down we all thought it was going straight into the ice cream factory, but Patrick said he deliberately sent it down to get some speed. We wanted to use the wind to fly down the river, do a 180 degree turn and land facing back into the wind. But the damage caused on the take-off to the tail meant that we couldn’t make the turn. Unfortunately, Alex’s head came off on landing as it’s made of polystyrene and kept on with one screw. If he was made out of plastic he’d have been alright!
“There were several thousand people who turned out. They had to close the bridge, and you could see people had friends and family over and were having barbecues in their gardens whilst watching the flight attempt.
“When it landed, I was relieved that it had gone well, nobody had been hurt – the glider hadn’t crashed into a house below and we’d achieved all the objectives of the crew. We all sat in the field and I said ‘must be beer o’clock!”
But what conclusions can be made of the reconstruction of the Colditz glider attempt. Would prisoners Best and Goldfinch have launched a successful escape bid, or would they have plummeted from the castle in a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful quest? Tony said: “I think the glider would have flown. Ours did, so theirs would have done. The idea is bonkers and the launch would have been difficult but I’d like to think it would have worked.
“They were going to do it at night, during an air raid. If they had got on to the roof, tied a bath tub to it and got in it, dropped the tub through the floors, then maybe it would have worked. It might have fallen down on the fact there the roof is not flat and it’s hard to create a flat surface.
“The prisoners were going to put out a few tables but the roof goes up and down, left and right. You couldn’t pre make anything that would sit flat up there and they would have discovered that on the night. We were okay as we had skilled carpenters building a flat surface on the roof for six days. But I think building the glider must have been something to keep the prisoners going as much as anything.
“As for us, it was just a great experience. I think sometimes the production crew didn’t think we were taking it seriously as there was so much laughter coming for the attic!”