Ninety feet above the cobbled square of the infamous Colditz Castle, the spirit of heroic ingenuity soared freely once again. Earlier this afternoon a full-size glider built in the castle’s loft space was launched off a makeshift wooden runway, so executing an audacious escape plan hatched – but never realised – more than 65 years ago.
Back in 1945 British troops held in the supposedly escape-proof prisoner-of-war camp had spent more than 18 months designing and building the original glider under the noses of German guards. It would have been the Second World War’s most ambitious escape bid, but liberation denied them the chance to see if it would fly.
Today a team from Channel 4 proved that it might have done, though air safety regulations meant that instead of two would- be escapees in the cockpit they had a dummy codenamed Alex and the demands of TV budgets and the absence of any guards saw them build it – to the exact specifications it should be stressed – in only five days.
So in bright sunshine and with much of the small village of Colditz gazing skywards the original launch method was employed;a bath filled with one ton of concrete was dropped down the side of the castle beneath the runway, providing the pulley-driven propulsion that catapulted the 19ft long and 33ft wide glider off the runway and into the air.
It was a glorious, though it has to be said short-lived, flight lasting just 15 seconds before the glider crash-landed and crumpled in the target field, flanked by houses on either side.
“I was running out of space and getting too close to the houses, so I had to bring it down,” said Patrick Willis who was controlling the flight of the glider through a remote-control transmitter linked to three receivers on the glider.
Tony Hoskins, who led the team building the glider, had admitted before the flight that he was concerned about it gaining the necessary speed off the runway to allow it to fly. Seconds after its abrupt landing he admitted to feeling sick but proud. “We proved the concept worked. We got it off the roof and into the field. It’s here and not in anyone’s house.”
Hoskins and his team had built the glider in the loft space directly beneath where the original one was made in 1945. But to get it onto the roof at daylight this morning they had to break it up into five key pieces, including the two wings and the fuselage, carefully transfer it onto the runway platform through a hole made in the roof and then reassemble it.
The Mayor of Colditz, Matthias Schmiedel, was among dozens of locals who waited for several hours to see the glider fly. He said he hoped it would renew interest in the castle and bring tourists to the town. But did he think it was a slightly madcap idea? “No I don’t think it is crazy. The people here are open-minded and very positive. The story of the castle is an important part of this town’s history. It is important for us to have this story told.”
But last word to the youngest member of the whole project, 24-year-old Jess Nyahoe from Horsham in Sussex who helped with the glider build. “If we got it wrong, then the world would have thought that they got it wrong. For them and their memory we wanted to get it right.”
The Channel 4 documentary will be shown in early summer.