Book Review From Calais to Colditz by Philip Pardoe

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Jonathan Ball, May 10, 2019.

  1. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    First off, a disclaimer.

    I’m lucky enough to occasionally guide Battlefield Tours so I love memoirs like these. Concise, detailed, rich in anecdote and best of all, names are named so in terms of the old maxim that every grave in every cemetery has a story to tell Philip Pardoe produced a gem.

    He spent 5 years in captivity and used that time to produce extensive notes which formed the basis of this book, first published some 30 years after his death. As the title suggests it starts with the dispatch of 30th Infantry Brigade to Calais. Pardoe enjoyed his breakfast on boarding the ship to take him across the channel. No major revelation here except his observation that it was the last decent meal he would enjoy for weeks and the last time he would have bacon and eggs for years. The story of the Brigade is well known, with the decision not to evacuate taken for ‘the sake of Allied Solidarity’ the order was given to fight to the last man and the last round. The fighting was intense and is described beautifully. Pardoe, with a small group of men under command was ordered to try and break out and reach British lines, north or south. His choice of destination was Dunkirk. Surrounded, they never made it out of Calais never mind along the coast and his decision to surrender, with the sound reasoning he offers meant the start of 5 long years in the bag.

    So began a march of 180 miles to Bastogne and from there to Poland and the first of a series of camps. Food and the thought of food became the major preoccupation. Some camps were squalid and poor; others are described by Pardoe of having the atmosphere ‘like a London club on a Sunday afternoon’
    Of course there were the escapes, those successful and those which never made it beyond the wire. It’s fair to say Philip Pardoe was more than up for trying. His first major success was during a mass breakout by 29 men, using ladders disguised as shelves in a hut and used to storm the fences. So started a 14 day odyssey northwards towards Lubeck with the intention of finding a ship bound for Sweden. He almost made it. Close but not quite. Back in to the confines of another camp and this time escape by tunnel. Pardoe described the claustrophobia of being in that tunnel in as compelling a style as you could wish for before he finally went forward to emerge in to the cool night air and the start of another trek, this time to the Swiss border. Between 30-60 men got away that night. All of them were recaptured.

    Pardoe had form so his next destination was to be his final one. Colditz, or as he called it, ‘The Bullingdon Club’ given the number of Old Etonians in residence. The atmosphere within the Castle could best be described as competitive, given the remarkable escape record from the place. There was even a Roll of Honour on the wall noting the successes. The British competing with the Czechs, Poles, Belgian and French to get their men away. Of the French Pardoe noted the tensions of the Petainist and De Gaullist factions, the latter forever threatening to have the former hung after the war. Then came the Great Escape and the shooting of the 50. In its aftermath the Senior British Officer at Colditz forbade his men from trying to escape knowing the consequence of capture. Those final months dragged interminably for Pardoe but still he wrote. Time was spent with the Prominenti in the castle. Charles Upham, Douglas Bader, David Stirling and Dawyck Haig amongst them.

    The amount of refugees streaming past the Castle told the inmates that the war was drawing to its murderous conclusion. Gunfire from the approaching Americans rattled the windows. Each day the men wondered if they would be left to be liberated or shot. Fortunately it was former and a makeshift Union flag, flown from a window informed the approaching G.I’s of the nationality of some of the occupants. For Pardoe it was the end of 5 years of incarceration and the beginning of a swift repatriation.

    I bet the Bacon and eggs were good.

    From Calais to Colditz

    von Poop, Lindele, kopite and 2 others like this.
  2. Markyboy

    Markyboy Member

    I've just finished this and found it a bit up and down. Having been written in 1947 and only very lightly tidied up in the 80s, I was struck by how most of the parts he heard secondhand are factually incorrect. Obvious examples are the numbers involved in mass escapes, the fate of the fifty shot after The Great Escape and the reasons for Bader ending up in Colditz. Another sticking point is the absence of virtually any info regarding the planning of the Warburg Wire Job and the Eichstatt tunnel.
    Having said that, we're then on to the massive positives, namely that we get a first hand account of the actual escapes themselves and in particular the very detailed almost journal like description of time spent on the run. The description of the mental strain at Colditz during the final few months is very honest and vivid, not shying away from his own feelings as well as how he dealt with his friends during this time. There is also a tantalizing line in regards to Mike Sinclair, saying the verdict was suicide but about ten people knew his real reasons for his actions on that fateful day. If anybody has an inkling what this refers to, please let me know!
    My overall view is that this is an essential POW book due to the experiences the author had over five years, but it needs some serious fact checking.
    Lindele and Chris C like this.

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