In the cake shop in the sleepy German town of Colditz, the teenage Saturday assistant considers the question, screws up her forehead and gives a puzzled shake of her head. Does she know why a group of British engineers are about to launch a huge glider off the roof of her town’s fabled castle? Polite bewilderment hangs heavy in the air. Even those old enough to understand the historical significance of what’s happening can’t quite grasp the relevance. Didn’t the war end 67 years ago?
For the experts who’ve been working for the past two weeks high up in the roof space of the castle, no such doubts arise. Colditz is a story like no other: a prison fortress that was meant to crush the spirit of PoWs, instead giving rise to amazing examples of belligerent ingenuity. And, today, the most outrageous escape story of all is about to have its unfinished final page signed off.
A glider 20 feet long and with a wing-span of 34 feet will be launched off a makeshift runway built over the ridge of the roof as imagined, but never quite realised, by a group of PoWs at the end of the Second World War. Back then, toiling behind a false wall in the castle attic, 16 prisoners had spent 18 months building a glider – nicknamed the Colditz cock – under the noses of German guards using whatever they could scavenge. Floorboards, bed sheets and door hinges were all crucial bits of kit. Amusingly, they took inspiration from two volumes of a book they found in the prison library… Aircraft Design.
The arrival of liberating American troops meant it never flew, but at the crack of dawn on this sun-blessed Saturday the castle roof has been opened up and the five component parts of the reconstructed glider winched onto the runway to be reassembled.
“We have all become very emotionally attached to this,” says Tony Hoskins, the aircraft engineer who’s in charge of preparing this glider for its maiden flight, under the glare of Channel 4 lights and cameras. “A lot more people know about Colditz in the UK than in Germany. Most locals want to forget about it, or don’t want to talk about it at all. We are here re-creating a bit of history and you realise the pressure that’s on you to get this right.”
Getting it right means sticking rigidly to the PoWs’ design and sourcing materials as close to the originals as possible. For instance, the gingham fabric covering the wings is sealed in exactly the same way as it was in 1945 – boiling up vats of millet and extracting the starch from it. “We tried all different methods,” says Hoskins. “It took us days of experimentation to get it right.”
The town’s mayor hopes that the exposure given to the castle by today’s flight – German TV cameras are present – will generate interest in its past and bring in the tourist Euros. “The story of the castle is an important part of this town’s history,” says Matthias Schmiedel. “It is important for us to have this story told.”
And it doesn’t need a vivid imagination to see what a compelling attraction it could become. The tunnels dug by the PoWs are still there as is the theatre stage under which Airey Neave made his getaway. The brickwork (though today painted in subdued pastel shades) seeps courage, heroism and derring do – qualities in evidence today 112 feet above the cobbled courtyard as men on ropes dangle precariously moving the glider pieces into position.
Of course, no humans will be hurt in the making of this film – aviation regulations mean the plane can only be “piloted” by a polystyrene dummy so its flight is controlled remotely from the ground by a man with a radio transmitter.
Propulsion, though, is strictly circa 1944: a bathtub filled with one ton of concrete is dropped down the side of the castle and, through two pulleys, provides the necessary acceleration off the runway. At least that’s the plan. “Three things can go wrong,” says designer Hoskins. “We can break it as we come out of the roof. We have insufficient air speed off the roof, or the glider tail hits the castle as it leaves the runway.”
In the event – after hours of delays – the bath plummets, the glider flies for a glorious 15 seconds then is brought to earth rather dramatically in the target field in a manner perfectly described by Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story: “This isn’t flying, this is falling with style.” But for the team who made it possible, it’s an unqualified success. “We proved the concept worked. We got it off the roof and into the field. It’s here and not in anyone’s house,” says Hoskins.
For engineer Hugh Hunt, who presents the programme and whose uncle spent most of the war imprisoned in the castle, it represents an overdue salute to the ingenuity of the men of Colditz.
“It was difficult for them because they had to work in total secrecy. We didn’t have to keep anything secret and it was still bloody difficult. He believes that despite the dummy losing its head in the crash, the escapees would have made it out safely. “I think they’d have been able to do it. They were a brave and imaginative band of men. It would have been a risky endeavour but I’m sure they’d have done it.”