Colditz clue

We’ve uncovered the fascinating story of the only Green Howards soldier to spend time as a Prisoner of War at Colditz during the Second World War.  As volunteer researcher, Steve Erskine, explains, it’s amazing how far you can get if you just keep digging…

“We hold an extensive archive of Prisoner of War records from the Second World War which contain information on the camps in which an individual was held.

Many such records distinguish between camps in which officers were held (Oflag) and those which held other ranks (Stalag) and individual camps are identified by number rather than location.  In the case of Italian camps these are identified by letter and number, such as PG66.

In researching camps in Austria (there are 5 in which some 196 Green Howards were held) we spotted the record for 63689 Lt EGP Harrison, which identified his camp as Oflag IV-C, or Colditz.  Harrison is the only Green Howard we can find who was held there.

Colditz was the camp where those allied prisoners who had made several escape attempts were eventually put together.  The idea being that the design and location of Colditz; four hundred miles from any frontier; outer walls that were seven feet thick and perched on a cliff with a sheer drop of 250ft to the River Mulde below – made it practically escape-proof. Like all good theories, it would be famously put to the test.

All about Ernest

Ernest George Peter Harrison was born at Chaddesley Corbett, Wiltshire on 31st March 1913. He was commissioned into the Green Howards on 29th January 1927. He appears in the India General Service Medal Roll as eligible for the clasps for 1936 and 1937-1939.  In the Army List of 1937 he is a 2nd Lt. with effect from 29th January that year then serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Green Howards.

Harrison in 1938

In the regimental history, written by Synge, Ernest is mentioned as being with the 1st Battalion in Norway where, on 28th April 1940 at Otta, “On the east bank of the river light tanks were seen advancing along the road from Kringen in front of ‘Y’ Company at about 1.30pm. As they appeared, the leading tank was knocked out by Lt EG Harrison with an Anti-Tank Rifle and this successfully blocked the road. Lt Harrison was wounded in the early hours of next morning.”

The evacuation of the British forces was confused and in many cases the wounded, including Ernest, had to be left behind in the hope that the Germans would look after them.

Once he had recovered from his wounds, Ernest was first sent to Stalag XXA at Thorn in Poland.  This was also the original camp for Wing-Commander Douglas Bader who, like Lt Harrison, would eventually be moved to Colditz . The camp was spread across a number of late-18th Century forts and, as an officer, Ernest was never destined to stay here for long. He was subsequently transferred to Oflag VIIDD at Tittmoning Castle in Bavaria. This transfer gave Ernest his first chance to escape by jumping from a moving train. The National Archives hold the details of this first attempt.

Ernest passed through Oflag VIB at Dȍssel in north-west Germany before, finally, arriving at Oflag IVC, Colditz Castle.

His first attempt to escape from Colditz came on 21st January 1942 when he and five other officers dug a snow tunnel on the canteen roof.  A second attempt on 9th June involved Harrison and 5 others hiding out in attics above British quarters.  Both attempts presumably were preliminaries to gaining access to other parts of the castle which offered a chance to get beyond the walls. Both attempts were detected by the Germans.  Amongst the group was Captain Pat Reid, who famously made a British ‘Home Run’; a successful escape to neutral Switzerland in October 1942.

In total 16 British Officers escaped from Colditz during the war.  The then Lt Airey Neave had made the first British Home Run from Colditz on 5 January 1942.  Neave later became the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  He was killed by an Irish National Liberation Army bomb in 1979.

Ernest’s repeated attempts to escape led to a post-war Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) which was published in the London Gazette on 6th June 1946. He reached the rank of Major and retired in December 1951.

He died on 13th April 1969, and was remembered by one who served with him as, ‘….a big amiable man with a very placid temperament who never seemed to get fused about anything…..his enormous height and muscular burliness was bound to attract the nickname ‘Jumbo’ and it suited him admirably.’

Being so big as to be known as ‘Jumbo’ cannot have made escaping through tunnels easy, but his patient temperament would have stood him in good stead.

So, next Christmas, when The Colditz Story is sure to be shown again, remember Ernest and his small part in making life for his German captors as onerous as possible.  And when you see Desmond Llewelyn as Q in one of the 17 James Bond films he starred in, remember that he was in Colditz with Ernest too.  Llewelyn was a 2nd Lt with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It’s amazing what you find out when you start digging!”

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