Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Soul Is In The Sky

The Colditz Cock was a glider built by British prisoners of war for an escape attempt from Colditz Castle in Germany, which was used as Oflag IV-C.

Following the execution of 50 prisoners who had taken part in the "Great Escape" from Stalag Luft III, the Allied High Command had discouraged escape attempts. However the plan to build a glider was encouraged to divert the energies of the prisoners. The idea for the glider came from Lieutenant Tony Rolt. Rolt, who was not even an airman, had noticed the chapel roof line was completely obscured from German view. They realised that the roof would make a perfect launching point from which the glider could fly across the River Mulde, which was about 60 metres below.

The team was headed by Bill Goldfinch and Jack Best. Goldfinch and Best were aided by their discovery in the prison library of "Aircraft Design", a two-volume work by C.H. Latimer-Needham which explained the necessary physics and engineering and included a detailed diagram of a wing section. The glider was assembled by Goldfinch and Best and 12 assistants known as "apostles", in the lower attic above the chapel. The runway was to be constructed from tables and the glider was to be launched using a pulley system based on a falling metal bathtub full of concrete, using a gravity-assisted acceleration to 30 mph (50 km/h).

The officers who took part in the project built a false wall, to hide the secret space in the attic where they slowly built the glider out of stolen pieces of wood. Since the Germans were accustomed to looking down for tunnels, not up for secret workshops, they felt rather safe from detection. However, they still placed many lookouts, and created an electric alarm system, to warn the builders of approaching guards.

Hundreds of ribs had to be constructed, predominantly formed from bed slats, but also from every other piece of wood the POW's could surreptitiously obtain. The wing spars were constructed from floor boards. Control wires were made from electrical wiring in unused portions of the castle. A glider expert, Lorne Welch, was asked to review the stress diagrams and calculations made by Goldfinch.

The glider constructed was a lightweight, two-seater, high wing, monoplane design. It had a Mooney style rudder and square elevators. The wingspan, tip to tip, was 32 ft (9.75 m), and it was 19 ft 9 in (6 m) from nose to tail. Prison sleeping bags of blue and white checked cotton were used to skin the glider, and German ration millet was boiled and used as a form of dope to seal the cloth pores. The materials they had to work with caused it to weigh a mere 240 lb (109 kg).The take-off was scheduled for the spring of 1945 during an air raid blackout but by then the Allied guns could be heard and the war's outcome fairly certain. The British escape officer decided that the glider should be available for use in case the SS ordered the massacre of the prisoners as a way to get a message out to approaching American troops. The glider was approaching completion when the American Army liberated the camp on 16 April 1945.

Although the Colditz Cock never flew in real life, the concept was fictionalized, depicting a successful flight and escape, in the 1971 TV movie The Birdmen starring Doug McClure, Chuck Connors, Rene Auberjonois and Richard Basehart.

The fate of the glider is not known but the castle was in the zone controlled by the Russians who did not co-operate with its reclamation. The only evidence of its completion was a photograph, said to have been taken by an American soldier. However Goldfinch, had kept his drawings, which enabled a one-third scale model to be constructed. This was eventually launched from the castle roof in 1993.

Six years later a full-sized replica of the Colditz glider was commissioned by Channel 4 and was built by Southdown Aviation Ltd at Lasham Airfield. The glider was flown successfully by John Lee on its first attempt at RAF Odiham with Best, Goldfinch and about a dozen of the veterans who had worked on the original more than 55 years earlier proudly looking on. Jack Best died later that year. The replica is now housed at the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton.

The programme was shown in 2000 by Channel 4 in the UK as part of a 3-part documentary series called "Escape from Colditz". The Channel 4 material was edited to 60 minutes and shown in the US in 2001 as "Nazi Prison Escape" on the NOVA television series.


Anonymous said...

UNC link

Colditz Glider

M.Christian said...

Thanks! I tried to find a clip of the replica glider flying but couldn't find one (alas).