103-year old veteran recalls time as a prisoner of war

Malcolm Colquhoun. Right: Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Colquhoun during the Second World War.

Malcolm Colquhoun. Right: Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Colquhoun during the Second World War.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

The 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) came and went quietly this year due to fear of COVID-19 spread.

But memories of the final days of the Second World War will never be forgotten by those old enough to remember, including 103-year-old Malcolm Colquhoun.

He lives at Veterans Memorial Lodge, and through the aid of his daughter Rhonda and son Ross, has detailed life as a prisoner of war.

He spent two years, three months, and 10 days at the infamous German prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III. For those too young to know, the camp had two major prisoner escapes made famous in the movies: The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape.

“It was our duty and job as officers to confound the guards and use up their time during the escapes,” says Colquhoun. “It still amazes me that so many made it home alive without a scratch while so many others died.”

The camp was built in 1942 in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), 160 kilometres south-east of Berlin. The site was selected because its sandy soil made it difficult for prisoners to escape by tunnelling.

Shot down over Germany

Colquhoun was born and raised on a family farm near Maple Creek, SK. In September 1939, when war was declared on Germany, he was 21 years old; less than a year later he travelled to Regina to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

After passing aptitude tests and basic training, he was enrolled in a bombing and gunnery course at Jarvis, ON, in 1941. He honed his navigation skills aboard small planes at Pennfield Ridge, NB, before training in larger aircraft in Scotland and Wales the following year.

In August 1942, as a newly-minted Flight Lieutenant, Navigator, Colquhoun was posted for duty in Royal Air Force Squadron #102 in Yorkshire on a four-engine Handley Page Halifax bomber.

During a bombing mission on the night of Jan. 27, 1943, his plane was shot down over the North Westphalia valley shortly after his squadron had completed a bombing mission on a German industrial complex.

His plane took disabling anti-aircraft fire, says Colquhoun. He was the third man to parachute out of the plane’s tiny escape hatch, and was the only survivor.

“Fortunately I had my flying boots over my new leather shoes, plus I had my air force issue white wool sweater when I parachuted out. It was cold at 9,000 feet and not much warmer on the ground.”

He landed uninjured on a ploughed field.

Facing frigid sub-zero temperatures, his optimistic plan was to travel only at night and make his escape across the border to the Netherlands. He spent three days trying to find a way out of Germany, surviving by eating frozen turnips and ice crystals, but by day three he was captured by the Germans near a heavily guarded border crossing near the Rhine River.

“My capture provided me with a certain amount of relief because after three days in the cold with little to eat or drink I was pretty much at the end of my stamina. I thought I was lucky to go to a POW camp because the alternative was being shot.”

He was first sent to a jail 40 miles away from his point of capture before his eventual transfer to Stalag Luft III in April 1943.

A Trojan Horse style first escape

Staalag Luft III was built in 1942 for captured Western Allied airmen. It had numerous security features to make escape difficult, including sandy terrain and raised barracks that were under close scrutiny by the camp’s guards. Colquhoun was imprisoned in the East Officers Compound.

Prisoners had very little news from the outside world; life in the camp was far from comfortable and they relied on relief packages to keep morale up. 

“We really depended on weekly Red Cross packages for real food,” he said. “The camp bread was sawdust and was the same dark bread the Germans were also forced to eat.”

Time was passed by brainstorming escape plans. Colquhoun was at the centre of a successful escape akin to the Trojan Horse Greek legend.

They built a wooden horse that looked like a gymnastics vault and placed it near the barbed-wire perimeter of the camp. Inside were two prisoners who slowly and meticulously dug the tunnel. The other prisoners vaulted the horse and made plenty of noise to drown out the sound of digging.

“The soil was distributed by men walking the perimeter, scuffing in the sand from bags suspended inside their trousers. Gardens, established outside the cabins to grow vegetables and add to their diet, had the sand dug in.”

It took five months to complete the 100 feet of tunnel 30 feet below the surface with a diameter of three feet. Three men were chosen to escape – those men had worked in Germany prior to the war and had good orientation, spoke the language, and knew the country well, says Colquhoun.

Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams, and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot made their escape on the night of Oct. 29, 1943. All three men made it to freedom. Williams and Codner then stowed away on a Danish ship, while Philpot caught a train to Stockholm, pretending to be a Norwegian margarine manufacturer.

The Great Escape – #2

Colquhoun and other prisoners in the East Compound were also involved in supporting the prisoners of the adjacent North Compound in their more grandiose escape plan. 

It involved three tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry, and, unlike the East Compound tunnel, it involved a massive amount of material to build and fortify the tunnel.

In total, 90 beds, 4,000 bed boards, 52 tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 1,000 feet of electric wire, 600 feet of rope, 3,244 towels and 1,700 blankets disappeared into the tunnel for its construction.

Seventy-six prisoners escaped through the tunnel, but only three made it to freedom.

“Camp life was much better prior to the Great Escape in 1944 as 50 of the men who were captured were murdered [by the Germans] contrary to conventions of warfare.”

Less than a year later, in January 1945, with the Russians advancing on the camp, the 2,000 prisoners were marched out. Their journey led them to Stalag XIII-D at Nürnberg on Feb. 2, and eventually to freedom.

This exhausted and diminished group of men were liberated by British tanks in the last corner of Germany freed by the Allies. Instead of “hanging around while the Brits decided what to do with us”, Colquhoun and four pals, New Zealanders, slipped away, borrowing an automobile which they drove on a deserted autobahn for a couple of hours south to Hannover.

At the U.S. air force base there, they dangled the car keys in front of the manifest officer saying, “We’ll trade this vehicle of questionable ownership for a lift to England.” They were on a plane in 20 minutes, enabling Colquhoun and his friends to attend the May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe celebrations in London the next day. It was a celebration tinged with a great deal of relief and sadness.

“A cousin and close friends were killed in the war along with my youngest brother, Carmen, a pilot, killed in action at age 21 when I was a POW,” said Colquhoun. “We still felt very lucky to be alive with showers, shaves, new uniforms, and food in our stomach.”

He returned to Maple Creek a month later where he said, “I’ve been born twice, once on March 1, 1917, and once when my ‘chute opened.”

He would later become a partner in a General Motors dealership before moving to California where he bought a motel. While managing the motel he studied accounting and auditing and eventually returned to Canada to work at Revenue Canada for 25 years before retiring.

His wife of 68 years, Jean, died in 2008. He moved into Veterans Memorial Lodge five years ago.

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Filed Under: Top Stories

About the Author: The Lookout Newspaper can trace its history back to April 1943 when CFB Esquimalt’s first newspaper was published. Since then, Lookout has grown into the award winning source for Pacific Navy News. Leading the way towards interactive social media reach, we are a community resource newspaper growing a world wide audience.

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