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'Reid's Cellar'

In the extreme south-eastern corner of the Kommandantur yard, there is a shallow pit leading to a cellar under the southern Kommandantur building. It was through this pit and cellar that Pat Reid, 'Hank' Wardle, Ronnie Littledale and Billie Stephens escaped on the night of 14/15 October, 1942.

Here is how Reid describes the cellar in his book 'The Colditz Story':

"The pit was not deep.... A brick tunnel from the pit ran underneath the veranda.... we felt our way along the tunnel.... and after eight yards came to a large cellar with a low arched ceiling supported on pillars.... at the far end of the cavern-like cellar, a chimney flue. I had previously noticed a faint glimmer of light from this direction. Examining the flue, I found that it was an air-vent which led vertically upwards from the ceiling of the cavern for about four feet, and then curved outwards towards the fresh air. Hank pushed me up the flue. In plan it was about nine inches by three feet. I managed to wriggle myself high enough to see around the curve. The flue ended at the vertical face of a wall two feet away from me as a barred opening shaped like a letter-box slot. The opening was at the level of the ground outside, and was situated on the south side of the building, the moat side for which we were heading...."

For many people, this is the only data they have to go on in order to visualise the cellar and flue. On my last visit to Colditz, we tried to work out exactly how the cellar lies with respect to the buildings above, in order better to allow our virtual tourists to appreciate its position.

The following sequence of pictures shows our logical process in working this out, as we try to build up a picture from the position of the pit, the position of the exit flue, and the positions of these features with regard to the buildings of which they are a part. An especially important clue is the position of the 'step' in the roof ridge on the southern Kommandantur building.

Try to build up a mental picture of the buildings as you go through the process!

Firstly, here is where the pit lies with respect to the Kommandantur buildings [see red arrow]:

The view is towards the south-east corner of the courtyard. Note that the pit is slightly to the right of the two columns of windows on the taller buildings to the left of the photo. The 'step' in the roof height corresponds to the edge of the terrace, just below which is the pit. The importance of this will become apparent later on.

This is the pit in close-up. The door is kept locked nowadays:

Now here is a view of the pit as viewed from the inside of the cellar: [Photo Credit: David Ray]

The tunnel from the pit passes to the east, under the terrace. Now, on the southern [moat] side of the buildings, we see the exit of the chimney flue [the letter-box shaped slot towards the bottom right of the picture]:

....although the opening is no longer barred, it is obvious that this is the flue Reid wrote about. Note that the flue exit is more or less directly under the right-most column of windows on the building.

A view now, from across the moat to the southeast and looking northeast, shows those windows in context with the rest of the buildings and, importantly, the 'step' in the height of the roofs [the position of the flue exit is indicated by the red arrow pointer]:

It follows then from the discussion above that the cellar runs across the buildings on the south side of the Kommandantur yard, running from north to south. This means that a visitor to the pit would proceed along the passageway for a few feet, and then turn right, and the flue will be on the facing wall as you look south. Reid's account, summarised above, misses out the right turn; this is why the 'directions' are unclear.

Here then is a schematic showing the position of the cellar, as a summary of the discussion so far:

Discussions with people who have actually been in the cellar bear out our logic here; apparently the 'real-life' pit, cellar and flue arrangement is exactly as we have described here.

All we need now is a picture or two of the interior of the cellar, hopefully showing the position of the flue, and the study will be complete. Any such pictures would of course be more than welcome, and all pictures used on this site are always properly credited to their owners.

Update. Via Mr. Dave Windle, Mr. Ken Pratt has kindly donated the next three photos of the cellar, two of them being taken from the inside. The pictures were taken around 2004....

The first of these is shown below, taken from the south end of the cellar and looking north towards the pit:

The pit is located at the far end of the cellar, beyond the pillar.

The next picture shows the flue exit from below. This is the way that the escapers got out of the cellar!

And finally, here is another view of the flue from the outside; this photo was taken before the last of the bars were removed.

In Reid's account of his excape, he says that he removed only one bar here. Could the bar in this picture be the original bar that was left unremoved during the escape? If so, then it just shows you what a narrow gap the escapers had to squeeze through in order to effect their exit!

Article credits: Concept, discussions, photos and original research by Tony Cutcliffe, Melvyn Lawes and Gavin Worrell, with contributions from Andy Russell. Written by Tony Cutcliffe. Photos of the pit, cellar, flue and tunnel by David Ray and Ken Pratt, credited specifically above, and used with their kind permission.

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