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The Dutch Buttress Tunnel

Security Officer Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers referred to it as 'the most dangerous tunnel of all'. It is easy to see why - one of the Germans' principal defences against the prisoners tunnelling out of the Castle was the solid, massive medieval Castle foundations. These foundations were so formidable that the French Tunnel under the Chapel had to go under them before turning to the outward, horizontal direction once more.

However, the Dutch Buttress Tunnel was so 'dangerous' precisely because it began effectively outside the Castle walls - on the outside of the massive foundations. For this reason, the tunnellers would have been able to complete their tunnel much more quickly without having had to dig through or under those foundations.

A bit of background here - the 'tunnel' began, in a similar way to the French tunnel [which began at the top of the clock tower!], well above ground level. In this case, it began on the second floor of the Furstenhaus, the block forming the Eastern side of the prisoners' courtyard, and housing the Dutch and British contingents. The entrance to the tunnel gave into the top of a hollow buttress which had been a medieval lavatory [in Britain, our ancient monuments have these and they are known as 'garderobe pits']. The top of the buttress used to be crowned at second floor level with a balcony, but this has been removed some time after 1999. The actual top of the buttress, therefore, is just below second floor level. Here are photos of the hollow buttress from the eastern side of the Castle.

[Photo credit: Melvyn R. Lawes, taken May 2007]

[Taken March 2008]

[Taken March 2008]

The hollow shaft inside the buttress extended to below external ground level, and the idea was that the buttress gave the Dutch tunnellers access to the easier tunnelling site at the bottom of the shaft - and, of course, outside the foundations.

[Image credit: Winston G Ramsay, After the Battle no. 83, 1989]

Granted there was still a bit of hard digging to be done, but this was as nothing compared to the task facing tunnellers planning on digging through or under the foundations. Sadly, history records that the tunnel was discovered in early 1942, before it really got going, or at least before the section outside the walls got going.

Such is the recorded story of the Dutch Buttress Tunnel at Colditz.

Recently, however, re-examination of the site of the Dutch Buttress Tunnel, made possible by the renovation work going on at the time on the Eastern side of the Castle, has revealed that perhaps this tunnel was even more dangerous than Eggers realised - or perhaps he did realise, and that was part of why he referred to the tunnel as 'the most dangerous of all'.

This assertion rests on the observation that there was already - and indeed still is - a pre-existing tunnel or passageway that extends under the terraces of the Eastern side of the Castle, that could easily have been accessed by the Dutch prisoners had they been able to continue their dig.

When I went to Colditz in March 2008, renovation work was being carried out on the Eastern side of the Castle, and the wooden lattice door which had closed the passageway on my previous visit in May 2007 had been removed. The passageway in question was being used by the workmen as a cement store, and we could see in:

The passage extended back from the terrace, and under the upper causeway, by about 8 - 9 feet, or about 2.5 - 3 metres. The passage is positioned directly adjacent to the Dutch Tunnel Buttress, and extends far enough back so that the passageway itself could easily pass under the buttress itself. The causeway outside the buttress is only about eight feet wide at that point.

The following three pictures illustrate this; the first of these is a composite image taken in 1999 and shows the position of the entrance to the passage relative to the buttress [red arrow is mine]:

This picture looks south along and down the causeway; the buttress is just visible to the right of the picture and the fence at the edge of the causeway to the left. Also note the steps going up to the lawn outside the Canteen area:

...and this picture shows the same general area but looking northwards up the slope from below the Canteen lawn steps - the buttress is just visible on the left:

These photos illustrate exactly how narrow the causeway is at this point - easily narrow enough for the 'cement store' passage to reach as far as under the Buttress Tunnel site.

All three of the above images were obtained from this site and I have been unable to contact the owner of that site for permission to use the pictures.

As for the vertical alignment of the buttress with the cement store passage, the next pic illustrates this very nicely. The buttress is easily visible in the background:

The cement store was later emptied and this picture was taken in May 2008, through the lattice door which had been replaced by the workmen [Photo Credit: Gavin Worrell]:

...and this is another great photo showing the vertical alignment of the buttress and 'cement store', this time with the door replaced and the scaffolding removed [Photo Credit: Gavin Worrell]:

It is easy to see, therefore, that there is a very good chance that, had the Dutch tunnellers dug down just a couple of metres, they would have had the perfect reuseable exit from the Castle - camouflaged at both ends and with easy access. My visualisation of the completed tunnel would look something like this:

A dangerous tunnel, indeed!!

So, is this possible? Could the Dutch POWs have planned on using this passage as their exit, or did they not know about it? I would hazard that they did indeed know about the passageway; the outer door would have been easily visible to them as they walked up from their exercise sessions in the Park.

Any comments on this research would be most welcome, via my contact page. As far as I know, this is the first time that anyone has publicly suggested that the Dutch could have completed their tunnel in this manner; as such, it is really 'new' research and I would be very grateful if anyone had any comments.

In particular, if any reader is going to Colditz sometime soon, it would be appreciated if they could take some measurements of these areas and report back to me. A laser rangefinder such as used by builders and estate agents would be suitable to measure the depth of the passageway without having to open the lattice door! All such work will of course be fully credited where due.

Credits: Concept, discussion and research by Tony Cutcliffe, Melvyn Lawes and Gavin Worrell, March-July 2008.

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