Colditz Castle, in Saxony in Germany, is of course most famous for housing Oflag IV-C, the supposedly escape-proof prisoner of war camp during WWII. The prisoners held there all had a demonstrated history of escaping from their previous camps and so describing their new home as escape-proof surely had the same effect as would waving a red rag at a bull. Consequently the prisoners had in place significant secret ‘escapist’ infrastructure and numerous attempts were made to abscond – some 30 of them successful.
Playing an important part in that escaping effort was an unassuming Australian man named Jack Millett, a Lieutenant of the 2/11 Battallion who had a knack for drawing maps. His talent was considered so valuable that the Escape Committee wouldn’t let him escape himself. I was alerted to his story in an article by Tony Wright in yesterday’s The Age newspaper here in Melbourne.
Millett’s wartime adventures inspired another Australian man, 51-year-old Mike Druce, to attempt a modern-day walk from Colditz to Switzerland, retracing as much as possible one of the routes used by escaping prisoners. He walked more than 600km over 17 days in September and October this year, and last Tuesday crossed the Swiss border at Ramsen, just as escapers Airey Neave and Pat Reid did, aided by Jack Millett’s maps, some seven decades ago. Mike had a copy of one of the maps with him as well on his journey.
Mike wanted to use the walk to raise funds for the Fred Hollows Foundation, a non-profit aid organization based in Australia that focuses on treating and preventing blindness and other vision problems, particularly in less-advantaged parts of Australia and the world. He wanted to raise $15,000 – enough money to save the sight of one person per kilometre that he walked.
At the time of writing he has just cracked $10,000 (up $2000ish since Wright’s article was published yesterday).
Mike’s just finished an inspiring walk. The physical challenge was not insignificant. The Fred Hollows Foundation is a very worthy cause. And, by walking across Germany unassisted he has experienced, at least in a limited way, some of the difficulties that faced wartime escapees, alone in a strange and hostile land, and ensured that their exploits are not forgotten. At least the locals were friendlier this time.