Excerpt from “They Have Their Exits” by Airey Neave ~~Escape~~

picture-TheyHaveTheirExits-NeaveOn the morning of 5th January 1942, Luteyn and I were ready to escape. We held a conference with Pat Reid and Hank Wardle and decided to try immediately after the nine o’clock Appell that evening. Our compasses, maps, and a small bundle of notes were ready for hiding inside our bodies. The uniforms were now intact beneath the stage and our civilian clothes had so far escaped detection in their ‘hide’. In a moment of supreme confidence I collected the addresses of relatives of my companions. Then, flushed and excited, I lay down to sleep throughout the afternoon and early evening.
A few minutes before nine I went down to the courtyard, when the snow was falling lightly. The turrets cast long shadows in the light of the moon and the steep walls enfolded me for what I believed to be the last time. There was once more the eternal sound of hundreds of men taking their meagre exercise in their clogs. I stood waiting for the Appell, eyeing the Dutch contingent where Luteyn was waiting ready to join me. We wore cardboard leggings painted with black polish. I wore my usual combination of battle-dress and sweater, and my Army boots, being brown, were also darkened with black polish. Underneath I had my civilian clothes with a pair of R.A.F. trousers. I had an overpowering sense that this was my last evening in the castle. The certainty grew with every minute, making me composed and determined.
There was a sharp order of dismissal, and mingling with the dispersing prisoners Pat Reid, Hank Wardle, Luteyn, and I hurried quickly into the senior officers’ quarters. In the darkness of the theatre, we felt our way beneath the stage, then carefully prised up the loose floorboards. Pat Reid lifted the trap called ‘Shovewood’, which, on its under-side, was whitewashed, disguising the hole in the ceiling of the passage below. I could see the strong, determined lines on his face as he worked in the glow of a cigarette-lighter. The trap removed, the mattress-cover rope was let down through the hole in the ceiling. Cautiously we climbed down, holding the boxes of uniforms, and landed with soft bumps on the floor of the passage.
The bright lights from the courtyard shone through the cobwebbed windows in the outer wall of the passage. Treading softly in our socks, we reached the door of the gate-bridge. Pat Reid, shining his lighter on the lock, swiftly picked it. It opened without a sound, for he had oiled the hinges earlier in the week. We were in the half-light of a narrow corridor. We walked quietly across it and stopped at the door that led to the guard-house.
The German uniform overcoats were unpacked in silence and we put them over our workmen’s clothes, leaving our battle-dress in the boxes. As we pulled on our boots there was no sound except the grating of Pat Reid’s wire searching in the lock. A minute passed, and suddenly came fear and exasperation. The door would not open. Beneath our feet we could hear the creaking of the gates and the voices of sentries changing guard. We stood motionless, fully dressed as German officers, and waited with pounding hearts.
Pat Reid spoke in a hoarse whisper: “I’m afraid I can’t get it open!”
He continued turning the wire in the lock. I could hear the wire rasping against the rusty metal as he tried again and again to open it. Ten minutes passed in terrible suspense. Through the cobwebbed window I could see the snow falling. I folded my arms and waited. Suddenly there was the noise of old hinges creaking. A quick snap and the door swung open, showing us the dim interior of the attic.
“Good luck,” said Pat Reid, and shook hands.
We waited till the door was locked behind us and we could no longer hear his muffled steps. Then we crept carefully to the top of stone spiral stairs at an open door on the other side of the attic. A wireless in the guard-room on the ground floor was playing organ music. It was the moment to go down the first flight of stairs, past the door of the officers’ mess on the first floor, where a light showed beneath. We waited, then stepped confidently down through darkness into the passage beside the guard-room. The guard-room door was half-open, and I caught a glimpse of German uniforms inside, as we marched smartly into the blinding whiteness of the snow under the arc lights.
The testing time had come. I strode through the snow trying to look like a Prussian. There stood the sentry, the fallen snow covering his cap and shoulders, stamping his feet, just as I had pictured him. He saluted promptly, but he stared at us, and as our backs were turned I felt him watching. We walked on beneath the first archway and passed the second sentry without incident. Then, between the first and second archways, two under-officers talking loudly came from the Kommandantur. They began to march behind us. I felt Luteyn grow tense beside me. I clasped my hands behind my back with an air of unconcern. I might have been casually pacing an English parade-ground. In a moment of excitement I had forgotten my part. “March with your hands at your sides, you bloody fool,” came a fierce, sharp whisper from my companion.
Again I saw the bicycles near the clock-tower. Could they be ridden fast in this thick snow? We passed beneath the tower, saluted by the sentry, and came to the fateful wicket-gate. As Luteyn opened it I watched the under-officers, their heads bowed to the driving snow, march on across the moat-bridge. Down we went into the moat, stumbling and slipping, until we reached its bed. A soldier came towards us from the married quarters. He reached us, stopped and stared deliberately. I hesitated for a moment, ready to run, but Luteyn turned on him quickly and in faultless German said crossly, “Why do you not salute?”
The soldier gaped. He saluted, still looking doubtful, and began to walk up the side of the moat towards the wicket-gate. We did not look back but hastened up to the path on the far side, and, passing the married quarters, came to the high oak paling which bordered the pathway above the Park. We were still within the faint glare of searchlights. Every moment that we stayed on the pathway was dangerous. Lifting ourselves quickly over the paling, we landed in thick snow among the tangle of trees. My cardboard belt was torn and broken and with it into the darkness vanished the holster.
Groping among the trees, we struggled through frozen leaves down the steep bank and made for the outer stone wall. It was five minutes before we were at the bottom of the slope. Helped by Luteyn, I found a foothold in the stones of the wall and sat astride the coping. The wall, descending steeply with the tree-covered slope, was shrouded in snow and ice. Each time that I tried to pull Luteyn on top, I lost my foothold and slid backwards through the steep angle of the wall. Then with numbed hands I caught him beneath the armpits and, after great efforts, hoisted him up beside me. For a minute we sat breathless in the cold air clinging to the coping, and then jumped a distance of twelve feet. We fell heavily on the hard ground in the woods outside the castle grounds. I was bruised and shaken and frightened. I stood leaning against a tree looking at Luteyn. Another minute passed in the falling snow.
“Let’s go,” I said, and we began to climb towards the east, seeking the direction of Leisnig, a small town six miles away.

“They have their exits” is a phrase from a scene in “As You Like It” by Shakespeare, which begins with the line “All the world’s a stage.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Military, Non-Fiction

One response to “Excerpt from “They Have Their Exits” by Airey Neave ~~Escape~~

  1. Airey Neave was born in Knightsbridge, London, England on 23 January 1916, and died on 30 March 1979, aged 63 years.
    He was the first British officer to successfully escape from Colditz Castle, and after the war was involved in the war crime trials at Nuremberg. He entered into politics and became Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He was assassinated by a means of a car-bomb for which the Irish National Liberation Army admitted responsibility.

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