David Jordan follows in daring and heroic footsteps as he visits some of the most iconic locations of WWII in Europe, including Colditz Castle and Stalag Luft III.
Most of us know the Hollywood version of the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III. After all, if you live in the UK, you’ll have watched the Great Escape repeated on TV almost every Christmas. But, although the 1963 film made compulsive viewing, the real story was a little different.
For a start, no Americans took part in the escape and there were certainly no Triumph motorcycles around for Steve McQueen to jump a barbed-wire fence. However, what is true is that of the 76 men who escaped on the freezing night of 24 March 1944, only three made it back to England and, on Hitler’s orders, 50 of those recaptured were shot in the head by the Gestapo and their ashes returned to the camp to deter others.
A sobering thought. For men of a certain age, like my mate Robin and I, WWII holds a particular fascination. During our childhood, the memory of war was still fresh in the minds of our parents and their stories of conflict. Bombing raids and sacrifice witnessed at first hand, painted vivid pictures of the reality of war and made us thankful we were not born 20 years earlier. Both Robin and I worked as apprentices in the aircraft industry during the 1960s and many of the men we worked with served in the RAF as ground engineers and, in some cases, aircrew in raids over enemy territory.
At the time, we saw them just as silly old men but now we realise we’d been privileged to work with silent heroes who had risked their lives to defend our country and experienced things we can only imagine. It was against this backdrop we decided to visit some of the places forever associated with the men and women of the RAF and still bear witness to the heartbreak and heroism of those dark days of war.
As the sunset over Harwich International Port on the east of England, we boarded the Stena Hollandica for our overnight crossing of the North Sea. It’s 550 miles from the Hook of Holland to the Polish border and another 50 or so to the town of Zagan where the remains of Stalag Luft III are located.
We decided to take it easy on the outward leg, taking three days to allow time to visit the Möhne dam (of Dambusters fame) and the infamous Colditz Castle where RAF officers, including Sir Douglas Bader and escapee Airey Neave, were among its most celebrated inmates. My BMW F 700 GS and Robin’s 1993 BMW R 100 R had run perfectly during our journey from Northamptonshire despite heavy rain and walls of spray thrown up by speeding cars and trucks on the German autobahns (never forget your waterproofs).
The Möhne Dam lies about 10 miles south of the German town of Soest. We parked the bikes in the pay and display car park and, after scoffing a couple of Bratwursts and a coffee (I never drink tea abroad) from one of the many wooden stalls, we took a walk along the parapet of the dam.
The Möhne Dam is now a popular place for locals to bring their families for picnics, but on the night of 16 May 1943, the Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron led by 24-year-old Guy Gibson breached the dam using specially designed bouncing bombs, causing severe disruption to the industrial heartland of the Ruhr region and the deaths of hundreds of people caught up in the torrent of water that followed. Eight aircraft were lost with 53 crew members killed and a further three captured and tortured by the Gestapo. It was the first and only time the bouncing bomb was used during the war.
It was time to get back on the road. As we left the Möhne, the first tell-tale spots of rain appeared on my visor. We were going to get a ducking again. As we searched for our hotel in the nearby town of Kassel, I made a wrong turn and found myself heading straight for an oncoming tram! In a panic, I swung the GS at a steep angle across the slippery steel tracks to avoid a head-on crash. Whether it was fatigue caused by the incessant rain or just inattention, I don’t know, but it was a scary moment and a good excuse for a stiff drink when we finally arrived.
The next morning the rain had finally stopped and, after checking the bikes, we headed for our next WWII destination, Colditz. Colditz Castle, or Schloss Colditz in German was known as Oflag IV-C during WWII. It was a prisoner of war camp for ‘incorrigible’ Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps. During the 1970s, a popular British TV series told stories of life in the camp and the many attempts its reluctant inmates made to escape. As Colditz is located in what was then East Germany and behind the Iron Curtain, the series was actually shot at Sterling Castle in Scotland, nevertheless, it was pretty convincing at the time.
Even today, Colditz is a remote part of Germany and perhaps not surprisingly, very much off the tourist track. Finding a hotel or even somewhere decent to eat is not easy so, if you want to stay here, it’s best to book first but we didn’t. After squelching around the town for an hour or so (yes it was raining again), we eventually found the Pension Zur Alten Stadtmauer. It was run by a man best described as a German version of Basil Fawlty. Actually, he was a nice guy and made us very welcome.
After changing into dry clothes, we climbed the steps to visit the famous castle and bought a ticket for the official tour. We were the only two customers. Our guide, a Polish man with a strong Yorkshire accent (he apparently lived in Barnsley for many years) showed us around the deserted castle. It’s a fascinating place with a history that stretches back many hundreds of years, but it was WWII and the RAF we were most interested in.
Our Polish guide (whose name I can’t pronounce let alone spell) told us some of the many stories of daring escape attempts including the famous glider nicknamed Colditz Cock that prisoners built in the loft of the castle, apparently without the knowledge of the German guards. The idea was to launch the flimsy aircraft off the roof and fly as far away from the castle as possible to make good their escape. It was never used, and no one knows what happened to the original, but there’s a full-size replica on display and lots more ingenious artefacts, including a homemade radio and brilliantly forged fake ID papers, in the castle’s museum.
That evening our search for a cosy bar with log fires, hearty food and locally crafted beer were sadly in vain. An Italian ice cream parlour about to close and a Chinese takeaway were all we could find in the gloomy town square that Monday night. There was no one around to ask, but eventually, we spotted a filling station with a café frequented by local teenagers riding noisy mopeds. It was not very prepossessing but by now we were desperate.
The Turkish man behind the counter smiled a cheroot-stained smile and pointed to the whiteboard menu hanging on the wall, clumsily written in red felt pen. We both went for number six, not having the remotest idea what we’d ordered. Ten minutes later we were tucking into one of the best chicken dinners we’d had in a long time, all washed down with a complimentary bottle of German beer. How quickly we judge.
The countryside around Colditz is stunning. As we rode out of the town heading east towards Poland, a pair of deer sprinted across the field in front of us and in a flash disappeared into the forest. Despite all the things we saw on our trip, the site of those wild deer running freely on that dewy, misty September morning will stay with me forever. Before leaving England, we’d been warned by ‘expert travellers’ that Polish roads were terrible and the police delighted in frog-marching motorcyclists to the nearest cash machine for the most trivial traffic offences.
The first rule of motorcycle travel should be never believe what people tell you. As we approached the border at Görlitz, I checked the GS’s mirror to make sure Robin’s headlight was still behind me, mentally preparing for the inevitable interrogation by the fearsome border police. I was pleasantly surprised as we passed the blue EU Polska sign on the autobahn and crossed into Poland at 75mph without so much as a glance from the two cops busy drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes outside the now-abandoned border post. How things have changed.
It took less than an hour to reach Zagan on the super-smooth, empty motorway and we headed for the nearest bank to get some Zlotys to pay for a traditional Polish lunch and fill up with petrol for around £1 a litre. The old prisoner of war camp is about half a mile south of the town centre.
Take the road past the big Tesco store and look out for the Stalag Luft III signs on the left. There are three main sites to visit, the first is the cemetery where the remains of the 50 officers shot by the Gestapo were buried. The second is the camp itself, and the third has a museum where you can see artefacts from the camp and explore a full-size replica of Hut 104 where the escape tunnel ‘Harry’ began.
The unmade road to the camp is unchanged since the war and the loose uneven surface needs care to negotiate. After about half a mile on the right, there’s a reconstructed wooden lookout tower and, on the left, a memorial marking the exit to Harry which to the dismay of the escapees emerged a few meters short of the tree line in full view of the Goons. The prisoners of war (POWs) mockingly called the German guards Goons who apparently willingly accepted the nickname after being told that it stood for German Officer Or Non-Com.
The route of the tunnel has been marked on the surface and can be seen stretching 102m to the foundations of Hut 104. Harry was one of three tunnels dug by the escapees. The others, Tom and Dick were discovered by the Germans and destroyed. It is thought that around 200 tunnels were dug by POWs during the life of the camp.
Unlike most historic sites, there are no restrictions for visitors and we were able to wonder around freely, trying to imagine how the camp would have looked back in 1944. The concrete floors of the punishment cells (coolers), where prisoners were put in solitary confinement for misdemeanours, are clearly visible. Men would often spend weeks in there on reduced rations, probably dreaming of home and wondering when the war would end.
Opposite the cells are the remains of the hospital building with slimy overgrown steps leading down to the half-open door of the cellar. We couldn’t resist the temptation to look inside. At first, there was nothing to see, only blackness and the smell of decay. As our eyes adjusted, a long corridor emerged from the gloom and we ventured further inside. Dark rooms probably used for storing medicines and equipment, now dripping with water, lined the passageway. It was spooky. We’d seen enough and, with a shiver rippling down our spines, we scampered back up the steps into the warm late summer sunshine.
It was time to head for home. We’d already covered more than 800 miles on our trip so far and we needed to be back at the Hook of Holland to board a ferry in a little over two days’ time. It had been a great journey so far and a great escape (sorry) from the routine of everyday life. However, seeing Stalag Lufft III and the other sites we visited at first hand brings home the reality of war and the evil it breeds in otherwise civilised people. Sadly, it seems we never learn
Want to ride the Stalag Luft III?
Depending on the route, it’s around 700 miles to the camp from Calais although we chose the shorter route taking the ferry crossing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland with Stena Line. We paid around £400 return for the two of us including a mandatory cabin. The Dover to Calais crossing by ship or tunnel is cheaper at around £100 each. We used budget hotels for our five overnight stays at an average price of about €60 (around £54) per room. We didn’t book in advance to give us more flexibility but finding accommodation was generally easy.
The weather in central Europe tends to be very hot in high summer and bitterly cold in winter, so I would recommend planning your trip for either the spring or early autumn. We travelled in September. Whenever you go, it will probably rain at some point, so make sure you’re well prepared.
The two BMWs we used for the trip couldn’t have been more different. Robin rode his 1993 R 100, while I used a 2015 F 700 GS. Both bikes performed well and we were able to cruise comfortably at 80mph on the German Autobahns, although Robin found the fully-laden R 100 tended to become a little unstable at anything faster. The GS however, even with a large top box and panniers, remained rock steady, even on windy stretches.
Fuel consumption was surprisingly similar for both bikes at around 60mpg for the R 100 and about 65mpg for the GS. Both could easily cover 200 miles between fuel stops. A word of caution: Fuel stops on German Autobahns can be a long way apart, so fill up early to avoid getting caught out. Running out of petrol on a motorway anywhere in the world is expensive, but in Germany, you could also get a fine if the Autobahnpolizei spots you.