Australia's link to Colditz
Unknown to their captors, eight prisoners were huddled in a small office, waiting for the moment when they would finish the tunnel and escape from Colditz. They had been planning for this moment for over a month. But now their chance was slipping. It was midnight, 9 September 1942 and an alarm echoed throughout the castle. They could hear the footsteps of German officers approaching.
One of the eight prisoners attempting to escape Colditz in September 1942 was Flight Lieutenant Headley Nevile 'Bill' Fowler. Born in June 1916 in London, Bill Fowler was the son of Commander Maxwell Thomas Bourne Fowler, a Paymaster in the Royal Navy and his South Australian wife, Florence Ayers. The Fowlers moved back and forth between Britain and Adelaide during Bill Fowler’s childhood and adolescence. After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide, he enlisted with the Royal Australian Air Force in January 1936. Fowler won the Mannock Cup for the best flyer of his course at Point Cook. In February the following year he transferred to the Royal Air Force as a Pilot Officer and was an experienced pilot by the time war broke out. Fowler was placed in 615 Squadron, Fighter Command. On 15 May 1940, Fowler was forced to bail out of his Hurricane fighter plane after it was hit by Messerschmitt fighters five miles north of Fumay, France. Germans captured him the following day and he was placed in Stalag Luft I internment camp. He attempted to escape the camp on 5 November 1941 but was discovered later that day and returned to the prison. The following month he transferred to Oflag IV C which was a prison camp at Colditz Castle.
Colditz was a camp reserved for officers who had escaped from other camps or who had caused enough problems for their German captors to necessitate their removal from the standard camp system. Although the numbers varied during the war, there were approximately 600 prisoners, mostly British, French, Polish, Belgians and Dutch.
Most of Bill Fowler’s fellow internees at Colditz had attempted to escape from internment at least once. Despite being recaptured, their enthusiasm for freedom had not quelled and they spent a greater part of their spare time forming plans to escape. They collated information on previous successful escapes from Colditz and shared their knowledge and skills in hopes of succeeding. The prisoners had also established the position of Escape Officer who assisted escape attempts by facilitating collaboration amongst the internees.
British Captain ‘Lulu’ Lawton and Dutch Captain Damiaen Van Doornick had been planning their escape for weeks when they recruited four other internees to join them. They included Bill Fowler, British Lieutenant Wardle, and Dutch Lieutenants Donkers and Bates. By this stage of the war the German guards had sealed off most possible avenues of escape. However, this group of prisoners discovered a way of accessing one of the most secure areas of Colditz – the Stabsfeldwebel’s office. The Stabsfeldwebel was the German equivalent of a Warrant Officer Class 2 and Stabsfeldwebel Gephard held this post at Colditz. Van Doornick was a watch repairer before the war and as an internee he had a small trade in repairing German officers’ watches in return for equipment. This enabled him to make a set of skeleton keys to unlock the Stabfeldwebel’s office as well as other locks the escapees would need. Over three nights Captain Patrick Reid and Lieutenant Derek Gill assisted the escapers by digging a tunnel between the office and the clothing storeroom. The storeroom opened to the external wall of Colditz. From the storeroom there were a series of gates and sentries the prisoners needed to figure out how to get past.
After the last roll-call of the 8th September 1942, Kenneth Lockwood, another prisoner, locked the eight prisoners into the Stabsfeldwebel’s office using one of Van Doornick’s keys. There they waited, having planned to open the last part of the tunnel later and leave the storeroom just after 0700 hours the following day. This was timed to coincide with the sentry changeover at 0700 hours. The escapees hoped that the new sentry overlooking the storeroom would assume the men exiting had entered the storeroom whilst the previous sentry was on duty, and therefore not arouse suspicion. The escapees were waiting in the office when an alarm sounded at midnight.
They could hear German officers approaching the office.
‘Shall I open this door…?’
The escapees heard the sound of keys being handled.
‘Ah! Of course Herr Gephard has many locks on his door. I had forgotten. Do not open, it is safe.’
The prisoners could breathe easy again. At 0300 hours Reid and Gill removed the last part of the tunnel to the storeroom. Van Doornick, Lawton, Fowler, Wardle, Donkers and Bates eased themselves down the 45 degree tunnel into the storeroom. They took with them bottles of plaster, collapsible wooden boxes and clothing. Reid and Gill wished them good luck and covered the entrance of the tunnel with blankets and floorboards. Van Doornick plastered the hole to the tunnel from within the storeroom.
After weeks of observing the storeroom activity, the escapees had devised a plan to disguise themselves as a team of four Polish prisoners and two German officers. Such teams were observed regularly taking clothes from the storeroom. The German uniforms had to be perfect because they would be passing within metres of the guards in daylight. The prisoners had spent weeks constructing the forged uniforms. Van Doornick and Donkers dressed as the officers because they were both fluent in German. The other four dressed as Polish prisoners.
As anticipated, the sentries changed at 0700 hours. At 0715 hours the six prisoners donned their disguise, carried one box between two and emerged from the storeroom. Van Doornick lead the group through a series of gates and past several sentries who saluted the disguised officers Van Doornick and Donkers. The group reached the last gate uninterrupted. Van Doornick had not anticipated how large the lock would be and the keys he prepared were too small. The escapees had to act quickly. They had just decided to give away their disguise and climb over the gate when a German guard rushed over to them.
The guard asked Van Doornick if he would like him to open the gate. Van Doornick indicated he would, and the guard apologised for not getting there sooner. The guard opened the gate, handing the prisoners their freedom.
The escapees went to a nearby wood, destroyed their uniforms and put on civilian clothing. They separated into three pairs of one English speaker and one Dutchman. Wardle, Donkers, Lawton and Bates were captured within five miles of the Colditz. Fowler and Van Doornick successfully made their way to neutral Switzerland and from there they returned home.
For security reasons, Bill Fowler was unable to divulge the details of his escape. When his father asked him how he did it, he simply replied ‘I dug a hole’.
For his escape, Bill Fowler was awarded a Military Cross in 1943 and by then he had been promoted to Squadron Leader. He was placed with the Armament Test Squadron as a test pilot which kept him from the dangers of the front line. Despite this, Bill Fowler was killed on active service, testing a Hawker Typhoon on 26th March, 1944. He was 27 years old.