It is difficult to compare Raikeswood Camp in Skipton with the notorious Colditz Castle in eastern Germany. Historian Alan Roberts share the link.

THE two camps of Raikeswood and Colditz housed captured enemy officers, but in two different world wars. Common to both was the need to involve the young inmates in suitable projects in order to stave off lethargy and possible mental illness.

For the Germans at Skipton the First World War had been lost, a ceasefire had been agreed and the officers were being held as virtual hostages. German politicians had reluctantly signed the peace treaty at Versailles. Almost a year had gone by since fighting had ceased. Prisoners of war now called themselves prisoners of peace. How could they secure an early release?

Tensions were mounting and the officers were reaching breaking point. A group of hotheads argued for overwhelming the ageing British guards. Thankfully these proposals were soon rejected – the consequences would have been too horrific to contemplate. Meanwhile one officer had somehow walked through the busy streets of Skipton to the railway station, and reported that Mr Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, required him to leave at once. An older officer had asked the British commandant to shoot him as he felt he was an imbecile and would be a burden to his family. Another officer intent on revenge had run amok through the camp threatening to kill the commandant Lieutenant Colonel Ronaldson. Thankfully there was no loss of life at Skipton.

At Oswestry in Shropshire, Private Maycock was confronted by several hundred German officers and men throwing large stones and using foul language. A riot threatened. Maycock warned that he would shoot if things did not calm down. He duly fired over the heads of the prisoners, but unfortunately shot and killed a German prisoner who had climbed onto the roof of a latrine to ‘secure a sack of biscuits’. The inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death.

The German officers at Skipton had to rely on their own ingenuity. They wrote a letter to The Guardian outlining their plight and explaining that Churchill had said that 100,000 guards were needed to look after prisoners of war. In fact this figure was ten times too high.

Two editorials in the same newspaper argued for their release: ‘One is glad to think that the time is not far off when a country walk may no longer be spoilt by the sight of a German uniform or by sympathy for its wearer’.

At Oswestry huge banners were displayed on the barrack roofs with messages like ‘Let us go home’ and ‘Give us peace’, but Skipton went one better as the German officers’ diary records: ‘A huge “Ahh!” went through the camp. The prisoners rushed out of their barracks and strained their necks to see the wonder in the air: a red bell-shaped balloon (2 metres tall) climbed out of the camp powered by the hot air from burning gases and made its way jauntily over the town of Skipton.’

The balloon landed in the garden of John Biggin, a Sheffield silversmith and ferrule manufacturer. A number of messages written in excellent English were attached to it. ‘Our children write, “Daddy, why do you not come home, there is peace?”’ With a touch more subtlety: ‘30,000 German Prisoners of War are working in England depressing the wages on your labour market. Therefore let us go home’, and an emotional appeal: ‘What would an English mother say, had her son been in Germany after [the] signing of the peace? Send the prisoners home.’

Where had the balloon come from? Suspicion fell on a nearby prisoner-of-war camp. It had in fact travelled 45 miles as the crow flies. The Skipton officers’ wacky stunt was duly reported in the national press.

At Skipton there had been a craze for constructing homemade kites. One officer even built a two-metre long aircraft, presumably a glider, which was quite an achievement in those early days of aviation. Unfortunately the glider crashed after attempting a flight during bad weather.

The most famous glider constructed by prisoners of war was at Colditz. The mighty castle had become Oflag IV-C, a camp for serial escapers during the Second World War which was made famous in many books and two epic television series. The two-man glider was designed to be launched from the roof of the lofty fortress, and safely descend through a height of 220 feet to land on a meadow on the opposite side of a river. Constructed from beds, floorboards and mattress covers, the glider took ten months to build. It was never used. Adolf Hitler had issued orders that escaping prisoners should be shot, and by this time it was becoming clear that the war would be won. No fewer than 52 prisoners had been involved in the project. Only one photograph of the glider survives. The plans used in the glider’s construction are in the Imperial War Museum in London while a full-size replica made a successful ‘escape’ for a television documentary.