Friday 17 July 2009 by Dianne Rutherford. 2 comments
Collection, Military Heraldry and Technology, Personal Stories, Prisoner of War

Shrapnel from an American ranging shell, Colditz Castle 1945. Shrapnel from an American ranging shell, Colditz Castle 1945.

This 8 cm piece of shrapnel is a souvenir from the liberation of the infamous prisoner of war camp, Oflag IVC - Colditz Castle. It was collected by an Australian soldier, Lieutenant Jack Millett. Millett was an 'incorrigible', one of the prisoners held by the Germans at Colditz for making repeated escape attempts from other camps. In 1942, Millett was caught trying to dig a tunnel out of Oflag VIB at Warburg with another prisoner. In 1943, he took part in a mass escape from Oflag VIIB at Eichstatt. Millett was on the run for five days before he was finally captured by two Hitler Youths with large dogs. After his recapture, he served 14 days detention as punishment and was then sent to Colditz Castle, where he remained until April 1945.

In April 1945, US forces reached the town of Colditz. As they advanced, members of the Schutz Staffel (SS), soldiers and civilians established and reinforced defences in anticipation of an attack. The Americans sent out reconnaissance planes and began ranging shells on the town as preparation for a bombardment.

Meanwhile, in the prison camp, the 'Prominente' prisoners (those with prominent connections who could be used as hostages) had been taken from Colditz on 13 April and were moved towards Austria. On 14 April the German Commandant received an order to also remove the British prisoners from the castle. The Senior British Officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Tod, refused. The inmates knew the end of their captivity was near and did not want to be moved. As neither the Commandant nor his superiors were willing to take responsibility for forcing the prisoners to leave at gun point, they remained in the camp. That afternoon, the shelling of the town began.

Items from the Jack Millett collection Items from the Jack Millett collection

The prisoners in the castle laid out a huge homemade Union Jack in the courtyard and spelt out POW with sheets, in the hope the American reconnaissance aircraft would spot them, and the castle would not be shelled. Another Union Jack, and the French flag, were also hung in the camp.

Oflag IVC Colditz Castle Oflag IVC Colditz Castle

Unfortunately, the Americans did not initially see the flags or makeshift signs. On 15 April their artillery ranged on Colditz Castle and let off some small rounds. They believed the castle housed the remainder of the German garrison and did not realise it was a POW camp. The castle's windows gave excellent views of the battle, and the prisoners cheered as they watched events unfold. However, with the Americans ranging on the castle, the prisoners were ordered to the cellars for safety.

Jack Millett ignored the order, and remained upstairs, watching events unfold. This piece of shrapnel came through a window into the room he was in. Luckily, before the shelling began in earnest, an American soldier spotted the French flag, and upon enquiries discovered the castle was a POW camp.

On 16 April, at 8 am, the Americans advanced towards the castle, crossing the bridge, and liberating the prisoners of Colditz. The inmates were not completely free, however. For their own security they remained in the camp until arrangements could be made to evacuate them safely.

A few days later Jack Millett was flown from Germany to England, arriving on 19 April. He embarked from England for Australia in July, arriving in Sydney in August 1945.


John Scott Palmer

Very interesting article! I read Pat Reid's books in the 1960's, along with "Privileged Nightmare", so this is an interesting addition to the stories. Jack was very lucky to escape being hit - there are other stories of the forced marches made by Allied prisoners in the last month of the war with some dying just short of freedom. Staying put seemed to have worked! Was Jack taken in Greece or Crete?

Di Rutherford

Hi John, Jack was taken in Crete. The following is extracted from one of our collection records (many of his items have been catalogued and can be found on our collection search: /database/collection.asp ), which gives more information about him. he had a very interesting service: WX3383 Lieutenant John Robert 'Jack' Millet, was born on 19 February 1912, the son of Richard and Amelia Millett. Before the Second World War he worked in a variety of jobs, including assembling cars for General Motors at Cottesloe, until the Great Depression caused the factory to close, and later as a miner and a panel beater. In 1937 he joined the 11th Battalion (City of Perth Regiment), a militia unit. The following year he married Irene 'Rene' Cary. A son, Bob, was born before Millet enlisted in the Second AIF on 17 July 1940, when he was allocated to the 2/11th Battalion. Millet joined his unit in North Africa and went into action for the first time at Bardia on 5 January 1941. As part of the Allied advance into Italian-occupied Libya, 2/11 Battalion subsequently fought at Tobruk on 21-22 January, and to secure Derna airfield on 25 January. The battalion was advancing to the south of Benghazi when the Italians surrendered on 7 February. At Bardia and Tobruk, Millett was responsible for organising the movement of Italian prisoners behind the lines. Together with his battalion and other 6 Division units, Millett was sent to Greece, arriving near Athens around 13 April 1941. They travelled to Larissa by cattle truck, and then by truck to defensive positions at Kalabaka. There they held the position while troops evacuated the area, destroying tunnels and bridges in the area behind them. One was done too soon and the troops had to be withdrawn over pontoons. The battalion fell back to Bayliss before advancing 15 miles to hold a defensive position while more troops were withdrawn, before evacuating Greece themselves by sea on 25 April 1941. The battalion landed on Crete the next day and were sent, with 2/1 Battalion, to defend Retimo airfield on the north of the island. German paratroopers landed on Crete on 20 May. Allied troops began leaving Crete on 28 May, but not all troops could be evacuated. Retimo airfield was held for ten days before the 2/11th and 2/1st Battalions were forced to surrender on 30 May. Millett was taken prisoner by the Germans and was transported in a Junkers 52 aircraft to Athens, and then moved by train and on foot through Greece to Salonika, where he spent three weeks. Millett organised an escape attempt with another prisoner, Fred Roberts but they decided against the attempt when some Cypriots attacking the wire of their compound were shot dead. The prisoners were then taken through Austria to the camp at Oflag XC at Lubeck. From here Millett was eventually transferred to Oflag VIB at Warburg. At Warberg he was caught trying to dig a tunnel out of the camp from his hut with another prisoner. He was transferred to Oflag VIIB at Eichstatt in Bavaria. Here he began producing maps for escaping prisoners. Millet also took part in digging the tunnel that was used in the first mass escape of prisoners during the Second World War. On 3 June 1943 65 men escaped through the tunnel, including Millett, who was on the run for five days before he was recaptured. In response to this escape attempt he was transferred to Oflag IVC at Colditz Castle. This was the camp for the 'incorrigibles', those who had continually attempted escape, and for the 'Prominente' (people with prominent connections who could be used as hostages). Colditz Castle, situated on the side of a cliff and surrounded by a dry moat, was thought to be escape proof. However, incarcerating so many dedicated escapers together led to a number of further escape attempts, some of them successful. In response to these German guards eventually outnumbered prisoners at the castle. At Colditz Millett continued his escape committee career, becoming the map maker. Oflag IVC was liberated in April 1945 and Millett eventually made his way home. After the war Jack and Rene had another son, Barry. Jack worked in a number of metal trades. He died on 1 December 1999, aged 87.