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Updated March 6, 2000

ISSUE 1714
Thursday 3 February 2000

Replica proves Colditz glider was a winner

By Michael Fleet

AS maiden flights go it was 55 years late and lasted barely three minutes but a little plane made of wood and cotton yesterday proved that one of the most ingenious wartime escape plans could indeed have succeeded.

Watched by seven Colditz veterans, a replica of a glider which was made in a secret room inside the prisoner of war camp, soared into the sky over Hampshire. The plane completed a circuit and then made a perfect landing on the grass at RAF Odiham.

The original glider had been made from old bed slats, metal salvaged from German cupboards and cotton sheets stiffened with boiled millet. It was designed to take two prisoners out of Colditz, across the River Mulde and far enough to get a head start on the prison's guards. In the event, the war ended before the plan was ready to be put into action.

Since 1945, the question of whether the plane would really have flown remained unresolved. There is no longer any doubt. A glider made to the original plans drawn up by Bill Goldfinch on a single sheet of paper was yesterday towed on to a grassy area of RAF Odiham. John Lee, a lifelong glider pilot and manufacturer of several home-made planes, climbed into the tiny cockpit and the signal was given to power up a 1,200-yard long cable attached to the glider.

It hurtled across the grass and then almost immediately into the air. Mr. Goldfinch, now 83, was elated as he watched the glider reach 150ft before Mr Lee released the cable and it climbed to 500ft, its wings perfectly level. He showed the plane's maneuverability with a few deft turns before making a wide left arc and then coming in to land just a few feet from where he had taken off.

"That was beautiful," said Mr. Goldfinch. "I always thought it would fly. There can't be any doubt now." His face was fixed in a broad smile as he savoured the moment when the Colditz glider took to the air.

Jack Best, who had been another member of the four man team that built the original glider over nine months was also thrilled to see the replica fly. "Seeing this one actually take off and fly was incredible," said Mr. Best, 87. "It was fabulous for all of us, but particularly for Bill, who had designed it."

For years there had been debate about whether it would have been Mr. Best or Mr. Goldfinch, both Pilot Officers, who would have flown the glider with a single passenger had the war not ended in 1945. However, Mr. Best said yesterday that he would have stepped aside.

"I had already escaped from Colditz once by shinning down a rope out of a window and getting under the wire so it would have been right that I let someone else have a go. I would have just loved to have seen anyone get out." Building the glider had been only one part of the problem facing the Colditz escape committee.

It was constructed inside a compartment of a loft above the chapel after a false wall was erected, cutting the original room by a few feet. On the day of the flight, a hole was to have been made in the west wall of the attic and the glider moved on to the roof of the chapel. The wings, measuring 16ft each, would then have been attached to the body and preparations made for the launch.

One plan had been to fill a metal bath tub with concrete and attach that to the plane by a series of pullies. Dropping the tub 60ft to the floor would have propelled the glider into the air, 300ft above the surrounding countryside, allowing it to fly for about a mile. Mr. Goldfinch said: "Although we had made the glider, we had not worked out the best way to get it into the air."

In the last months of the war, the message was received that there were to be no more escapes and when the conflict ended the glider was discovered still in its compartment. It was then shown to astonished guards who had been totally unaware of what had been going on above the chapel. It is thought that the original glider was destroyed after Colditz became a part of East Germany. But an American photographer with the liberating troops had taken a photograph to prove its existence.

A television company making a series on Colditz for Channel 4 commissioned Southdown Aero Services to make the replica years later. Helped by Mr. Lee, they made the full-scale copy in just six weeks, using Baltic pine for the frame, covered in German cotton made to the same gingham design as the Colditz sheets.

"We had to use modern materials to get a certificate of airworthiness," said Mr Lee. "I have no doubt that the original would have flown just as well. It is a very good glider and gave me a perfect flight. It has no vices and moves in whatever direction you ask it to. I feel privileged to have been a part of this."

After the first flight, the Colditz veterans shared champagne with the plane's builders and the television company. Mr. Goldfinch said he felt humble rather than proud as he watched the glider make a total of four short flights. "I cannot believe that after all these years so many people have worked so hard to see if this little plane really would fly," he said.

The glider's flight can be seen on the Channel 4 series Escape from Colditz.