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Lieutenant Mike Sinclair

Lieutenant Michael Sinclair

 

Camps : Oflag IVC

Died : 25th September 1944

 

Mike Sinclair was one of the most prolific British escapers of the Second World War. In mid-1942, he was sent to Colditz for this very reason, having previously made four attempts to escape. His most recent expedition had resulted in his recapture in Bulgaria, after escaping from a camp in Germany and proceeding along a route which took him through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. The time he spent in Poland was not a happy one. He was sheltered by a family in Warsaw and, with the aid of their resistance contacts, set him on his path to Bulgaria. By this time, however, the Gestapo had infiltrated the Polish underground, and the family was soon arrested and sent to their deaths at Auschwitz concentration camp.

 

Sinclair made his first escape attempt from Colditz after he was sent to a hospital in Leipzig to receive treatment for sinusitis. On the 2nd June 1942, he escaped through a hospital window and made it as far as Cologne, however good fortune was not with him and he was taken into custody once more. The RAF had recently made its first one-thousand bomber raid on the city, causing massive devastation and loss of life, and so it was that he arrived to find the local population intensely alert and roused by reports that a bomber had been shot down and that the crew had parachuted into some nearby woodland. Sinclair was first taken to a nearby Stalag before he was to return to Oflag IVC, however his bid for freedom was not finished and, on the 8th June, he escaped once more but was again recaptured.

 

His second attempt to get out of Colditz was not made until the 26th November 1942, when he and a Dutchman, Charles Klein, successfully got out of the castle by simply walking through the German kitchens shortly after the guards had taken their lunch break. Quite how they achieved this remains a mystery, passwords were changed on a daily basis, yet all the security checks which lay between the kitchens and the outside world failed to stop them. Two days later, the pair were caught in Immendingen. Once more Sinclair managed to escape again before he was returned to Colditz, however he was recaptured on the 30th November.

 

Sinclair was an individual in every sense of the word, he kept his own counsel and seldom welcomed company. He was driven by a desire to personally cause as much damage to Germany as possible, this was his duty and one to which his own safety was entirely secondary. So single-minded was he that he had few friends and was certainly not an easy man to talk to, although everyone greatly respected his ability. A fellow prisoner, Mike Edwards, said, "For Mike Sinclair, there was God - then the Sixtieth {Regiment}, and that was it. His only aim in life was to get back to his Regiment." Pat Ferguson remarked, "The only times I ever spoke to him in the Colditz yard he just wanted to get out and kill as many Germans as possible. He seemed to be on a personal crusade between himself and the whole of Hitler's occupied Europe." His brush with the Gestapo in Poland contributed much to his determination.

 

Although prone to making an improvised escape whenever he spotted the opportunity, Sinclair was also a ruthless planner who considered even the finest of details. He had been noticed to stare out of his window for long periods of time, at all hours of the day and night, thoroughly absorbed in learning the routine of the guards in the hope of spotting a weakness which could be exploited. No other escape that Sinclair attempted demonstrated his thoroughness more than his plan to impersonate Stabsfeldwebel Rothenberger who, with his enormous moustache, was probably the most distinctive guard in the camp.

 

Sinclair noted that each night, Rothenberger carried out an inspection of the sentries on the road that ran alongside the camp and down to the exercise park. Sinclair's plan was to disguise himself as Rothenberger and, accompanied by two German-speaking prisoners dressed as guards, inspect the sentry positions himself and dismiss each of them in turn, replacing them with his own guards. With this accomplished and that side of the castle left completely unguarded, twenty men were to abseil out of a window and disappear into the night. It would be a race against time as the dismissed sentries would return to the guardroom and here the alarm would be raised because there before them would be the real Rothenberger. It was hoped that a further ten men could escape during this time, and Sinclair hoped to capitalise upon the inevitable confusion, first by maintaining his disguise and pretending to give chase to the escaping prisoners, and if any guards caught up with him he planned to order them back to the castle to fetch reinforcements. Every moment of delay would allow the escapers to increase the distance between themselves and the castle. It was amongst the more outrageous schemes that Colditz inspired, but the entire plan, however, hinged upon whether Sinclair could "become" Rothenberger.

 

There were a number of factors in Sinclair's favour. Firstly he spoke excellent German and, like Rothenberger, he had red hair. It had been noted that the German guards held Rothenberger, a veteran of the First World War and holder of the Iron Cross, in very high esteem and were inclined to obey him without question. Sinclair decided to rely upon this and, with great care taken over his costume and appearance, it was hoped that the poor light and make-up would obscure the fact that the twenty-five year old Sinclair was thirty years younger than Rothenberger. Sinclair devoted every moment of the day to trailing Rothenberger, studying his movements and his manner so that he might copy them precisely. He also developed a thick Saxon accent to his German. The men who were to play his sentries, meanwhile, studied and practiced the standard guard drill so that at a glance there would be nothing suspicious about them.

 

The full machinery of the escape industry was put to work on the plan, with no fewer than fifty men involved in constructing the necessary materials. The material for the uniform and great coats that Sinclair and his men were to wear were made from bed sheets and dyed to the precise shade of field grey that the German military used. Wooden rifles were carved for the sentries to carry, the dimensions of which were accurately obtained from the rifles that the guards carried, and measurements quickly taken whilst the guards were distracted. A study was made of the hat that Rothenberger wore and a felt and string replica was created by the theatre's prop department. For the finishing touches to Sinclair's disguise, an imitation Iron Cross was cast from zinc, which a prisoner had climbed onto the roof to collect. The most striking feature that Rothenberger had to offer, his handle-bar moustache, was made from shaving brushes and carefully crafted to the right size and shape. Meanwhile the prisoners who were to abseil out of a window chose to base themselves in the old Polish quarters, and here they worked the bars on the window and made them so that they could be removed in an instant while, to the casual eye, appeared to be undisturbed.

 

The escape took placed on the 4th September 1943. After the 9pm Appell, the prisoners returned to their quarters, except for Sinclair and his two sentries, Lance Pope and John Hyde-Thomas, who disappeared into the room above the sick bay to put on their costumes. The prisoners who were to escape were locked inside their quarters but, naturally, let themselves out using a skeleton key and proceeded towards the old Polish quarters. Stooges kept a close eye on the movements of the guards and reported that they were in place as usual and that Rothenberger had retired to the guard house. Sinclair and his accomplices were lowered down through the floor and into the sick bay below. The window here had been similarly modified so that it could be removed, which the three men quickly did and climbed out onto the terrace.

 

Sinclair, Pope and Hyde-Thomas formed up and then boldly walked towards the first sentry. Sinclair said a few words to him in German, the guard suspected nothing and left his post as Sinclair had instructed. They then approached the second sentry and Sinclair dismissed him, explaining that there had been an escape on the other side of the castle. Once again nothing was suspected, the sentry saluted Sinclair and returned to the guard house. The same story was successfully repeated to the third sentry, and all that now stood between the men and freedom were the two guards at the gate, one of which walked above on the catwalk. This proved to be the most stern test of Sinclair's disguise as the lighting in this area was more prominent. Climbing up and on to the catwalk, Sinclair dismissed the sentry with his usual ease and then approached the final guard on the gate.

 

The two men saluted each other and Sinclair asked the man to hand over the keys to the gate. Presumably spotting an irregularity in this request, the guard made no move to do so. Sinclair repeated his demand and was consistently told, "Nein, Herr Stabsfeldwebel. Nein". Rothenberger had trained his men to suspect absolutely everything, however Sinclair did not falter but instead raised his tone and gradually the exchange became more heated. The guard asked to see Sinclair's pass, whereupon his voice grew even louder and more intimidating as he proceeded to scream at the guard in fluent German. Precious time was being wasted and Sinclair realised that the guard was not going to give in, and so he presented his pass. By a cruel twist of fate, the colour of the passes appeared to have been altered that very night and the pass that Sinclair offered was the old one. Up until now the guard had merely had his suspicions about Sinclair, but with an incorrect pass he had definite cause to resist and struck the alarm bell. Sinclair was furious and ranted further at the poor sentry and was still in full flow when other guards reached the gate. A German officer name Pilz was amongst the first on the scene and he in turn proceeded to shout at Sinclair. What happened next is described by Sinclair himself:

 

 "His whole attitude was one to provoke and increase the tension and excitement instead of taking charge. Pilz drew his pistol and brandished it in a reckless and gleeful manner and obviously enjoying the possibility of using it. He screamed at me, "Hands up." I put my hands up. He screamed at me again, "Hands up," and I shouted back at him, "My hands are up, they are high enough." He then repeatedly shouted a word which sounded like "absehnalen" to which I replied, "I do not understand." Owing to the state of confusion I do not remember exactly when I was shot, but I do remember being extremely surprised that the shot should be fired, there being no reason for it. The shot was fired into my chest from a yard in front of me, and slightly to the left."

 

Sinclair collapsed amidst sounds of German disbelief that Rothenberger had just been shot, whilst the British prisoners waiting above erupted with rage, assuming that Sinclair had been executed, shouts of "Murderers" rained down. Very soon the real Rothenberger appeared, and needless to say he was as surprised as anyone to see his double lying on the floor. The bullet that hit Sinclair had pierced his left lung but missed his heart by three inches. He was not dead but was taken to hospital and recovered. During which time he was visited by a number of German soldiers, Sinclair felt that he was being regarded with a circus-freak type of curiosity. Back at Colditz, however, feeling was still running high. The prevailing attitude amongst the prisoners at Colditz had always been one of utter contempt for their captors, and in view of the likelihood of trouble, fifty guards were ready at Appell the next morning with fixed bayonets. The British were not particularly intimidated by this and hurled abuse. For his trouble, one man was sent to solitary confinement. The Senior British Officer demanded that Pilz be court-martialled for having needlessly shot and unarmed prisoner. Officially, this was refused, however a month later, Pilz was sent to the Russian front and was never heard of again.

 

Upon his return to Colditz, Sinclair immediately began plotting his next escape. Through his usual painstaking study of the German sentries and the timing of their regular movements, he had found a weakness on the terrace below the British quarters on the western side of the castle. The positions that the guards kept here during the day were altered slightly during the night so that their vision would not be obscured by the activation of search lights. It took sixty seconds for this movement to be completed, during which time guards were either being changed or not paying adequate attention. Sinclair believed that in these sixty seconds before the lights came on, he could jump from a second storey window and climb down from the terrace on a 90 foot rope, whereupon he would cut a hole in the wire and proceed down the 100 foot slope from the castle and into the town. It was believed that two people could escape by this method. The first man out was to be Sinclair, the second was Jack Best. A lot of Best's time at Colditz had been spent as a ghost, technically disappearing from the camp by hiding beneath the floor boards. After a time the Germans assumed that Best had escaped, however his real purpose was to hide under the floor and come out whenever there was an escape in order to take the place of the missing man at Appell, so that the escaper should have as long as possible to make his escape before the alarm was raised. Best's chance to escape was a reward for his work in this most undesirable task.

 

With only sixty seconds to reach the wire, the plan depended on the utmost speed. In order to make their descent as efficient as possible, a special technique for exiting the window was devised and practiced constantly so that it should become second nature to all involved. In essence, the plan was for Sinclair to be lie on a polished table and be launched feet-first through the window, quickly followed by Best who proceeded head-first and abseiled down after Sinclair. A practice area was created for the pair and their helpers to hone their technique on. This consisted of a trapdoor, which was an accurate replica of the window through which they were to drop, placed at the top of a spiral staircase, beneath which was a 15 foot drop.

 

The escape was attempted at dusk on the 19th January 1944. Both men were dressed entirely in black, complete with balaclavas. Sinclair lay back on the table and waited for the signal. He was ready to go at a moment's notice, the 90 foot rope, made from bed sheets, was in place under his elbow and around his waist. At the windows, stooges watched the movements of the three guards below, regularly reporting their position and, when they were all in place, the signal, "Go!" was given. Two men pulled the bars from the window and the next instant Sinclair was out and fell with the rope around him. After he had gone down thirty feet, the rope was seized and braced by two strong men in order to deaden the noise of his landing. Within a few seconds, Jack Best was with Sinclair on the ground and they rushed over to the balustrade. Sinclair, still attached to the rope, threw himself over it and descended a further thirty feet. Best quickly followed him, but as he did so he heard the sound of the guardhouse door opening, leading out on the terrace. As had been planned, the rope was quickly detached and hauled back into the window at speed, however the bespectacled guard amazingly failed to notice the rope as it flew across the terrace in the gloom. The pair received a signal from prisoners back in the castle that all was well, and so they ran across the garden and to the lower terrace.

 

Sinclair then crawled to the wire and proceeded to create a hole with the large cutters that he had strapped to his leg. It was not an easy business to cut the wire because it was strung in such a way that the "ping" of it being cut would reverberate along the entire length. Noise was unavoidable and so Sinclair cut the first wire, the resulting "ping" of which made a nearby sentry turn around and look towards where the men lay, but they remained absolutely still and the guard, assuming he must have imagined it, carried on walking. Giving thirty seconds for the reverberations to stop, Sinclair cut the next wire, and after another half a minute cut the last one. Beyond the fence was a 45 shale slope which Sinclair began making his way down, cutting through the wire down its length. Best remained behind to dress the hole in the fence with shoelaces, so that at a distance the wire would appear uncut. As he was in the process of doing this a sentry spotted movement and called, "Hullo?". Best immediately dropped away and ran after Sinclair, who cursed his rashness until it was explained what was happening. The two men ran down the slope, the barbed wire tearing their clothes to pieces. Their descent made so much noise that an elderly lady looked out of her window and saw the two men, but inexplicably made no effort to cry out. The escape had been a success.

 

Sinclair and Best dropped into the back yard of a cottage, and here they stopped to dispose of their black escape outfits and put on their civilian clothes, Sinclair wearing a brown coat and hat. They then walked out into the street and made their way into Colditz Forest. Here they again came to a halt and, working from the light of Sinclair's cigarette, made some patch repairs to their clothes which had been torn during the descent. They successfully reached the Dutch border but encountered difficulties in the town of Rheine, where they had to wander the streets at night while waiting for their train. As a consequence of this a member of the Gestapo became suspicious and arrested the two men. Best blamed himself for this because his clothes were black and these were considered to be an un-German cover, also he had been living under the floor boards for so long that his skin was extremely pale. Fortunately they were able to convince the Gestapo that they were escaping Prisoner of War officers and not, as was a very possible reaction to their civilian outfits, spies.

 

During the summer of 1944, the Allies in Italy invaded Anzio in an attempt to outflank the German defences at Monte Cassino. Sinclair learned that his brother had been killed at Anzio. He had always been an intensely private man, but this news, together with his continued confinement, had an effect on him that did not go unnoticed. His friend, Gris Davies-Scourfield, commented, "He wore an almost perpetual frown, looked well beyond his years, and I particularly recall the stems of his pipes were always quickly bitten through." At about the same time a notice was distributed amongst Prisoners of War stating that escapers may be shot, "Escaping from prison camp has ceased to be a sport!" it said. Davies-Scourfield said of Sinclair, "I might have guessed that this threat to shoot escapers would merely act as an additional spur to his endeavour, an extra challenge which he would almost certainly accept, indeed one he would be unable to resist."

 

On the 4th September, Sinclair joined the exercise party and walked down to the park with civilian clothes underneath his uniform, clearly he was about to make an attempt to escape. These clothes, however, were spotted and he was sentenced to fourteen days in solitary confinement. When compared with the elaborate nature of his previous escapes, an attempt to simply climb the wire in the park in broad daylight might seem somewhat crude, however escapes had been made from the park on many occasions and it was still considered a vulnerable area. Even so, by late 1944 an end to the war was in sight and so, with the threat to kill escapers, many experienced escapers had decided it would be sensible to give in. Sinclair did not agree.

 

On the 25th September, a week after his release, Sinclair was again with other officers walking down to the park. He wore a large French khaki cloak about his shoulders. His friend, Gris Davies-Scourfield, saw that Sinclair was about to walk off on his own and so he offered to keep him company. Sinclair rather rudely refused, saying "No, I'd rather be alone." Davies-Scourfield persisted but got an equally flat reply, after which he gave in and walked off, not in the best of moods. He had no idea, but Sinclair was about to try another escape attempt. The only person who had an inkling that he was about to try something was Kenneth Lockwood, the treasurer, whom Sinclair had approached for some of the escape money, which he was given without any questions asked. He had not informed the Escape Committee, probably because the new conditions under which Prisoners of War lived may have led them to refuse consent for the attempt on the grounds that it was too dangerous. 

 

Once in the park, the guards took up their positions and the prisoners, as usual, began a game of football. Sinclair walked away by himself and was noticed to be close to the fence, pacing back and forth. After a few moments he took several steps back, removed his cloak and revealed civilian clothing underneath. He had a pair of large black gloves on, and with these he ran to the wire and quickly climbed over it. He was spotted by the guards and from all sides shot were being fired at him. Lance Pope, who had been one of Sinclair's sentries on the Rothenberger escape, cried out "Nicht schiessen! Nicht schiessen!", but the shots continued. Sinclair was over the wire and, keeping low, sprinted into the cover of some trees. In all, twenty shots were fired at him. One of these bullets hit his elbow and ricocheted into his body, through his lung and into his heart. Sinclair died instantly.

 

What was going through Sinclair's mind before he climbed the wire is open to speculation. Some regarded his final bid for freedom as little short of suicide. His friend, Gris Davies-Scourfield, wrote, "To him escape was a military operation and every factor had to be examined and thought through. He knew it would take a good shot to bring him down, and it was bad luck that it ricocheted into his body. He was just a person, braver than the rest of us, who was prepared to take a greater risk. He was too brave; if one can be too brave." Two days later, Davies-Scourfield was going through Sinclair's possessions to pack and return them to his parents. He found a note that read, "I take full responsibility. Safe home to all you good chaps."

 

Unlike the incident when Sinclair was shot and wounded whilst posing as Stabsfeldwebel Rothenberger, no blame was put upon the German guards for his death. Regardless of the threats by the authorities to shoot escaping Prisoners of War, prison guards had always been fully entitled to open fire on men who were in the process of escape. Sinclair, aged 26, was buried in the town cemetery. A Union Jack had been prepared for him and ten British officers were allowed to attend the funeral.

 

The British regarded Sinclair as their best escaper, but he also won respect from the German guards who, in reference to his cunning and hair colour, christened him The Red Fox. Captain Reinhold Eggers, one of the most successful security officers in Colditz, later wrote, "If there is indeed a Valhalla for the heroes of whatever nation, if the men who go there are men of courage and daring, if their determination springs from one true motive alone and that motive is love of their country - then in our own German tradition, Valhalla is the resting place of Lieutenant Mike Sinclair."

 

For his dedication to escape, Lieutenant Mike Sinclair was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the only subaltern of the Second World War to posthumously receive the award for actions as a Prisoner of War.

 

This biography has largely been compiled from the book "Colditz", by Henry Chancellor.

 

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