Updated March 6, 2000
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
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