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This French general escaped an 'inescapable' Nazi prison

When the Nazi forces captured French Gen. Henri Giraud in World War II, they knew they had to put him somewhere truly secure. So they took him to Konigstein Castle, a prison they were sure was completely inescapable. He broke out in two years. In broad daylight. Wearing a comical hat and glasses as a disguise. On Hitler's birthday weekend.


Gen. Henri Giraud conducts his daily walk while a prisoner of the Third Reich. Photo: National Archives and Record Administration

Giraud was a popular general when World War II broke out. He was a hero of World War I for leading a bayonet charge against machine guns at the Battle of St. Quentin in Aug. 1914. He was wounded in the battle and left for dead before being captured by the Germans. It only took the severely wounded officer two months to escape that time, a feat he pulled off by acting like he was a laborer in a traveling circus.

Between the wars, he upped his notoriety factor by earning France's Legion de Honneur in combat with Moroccan rebels and holding a series of high-profile military positions through the French empire.

In World War II, he fought the Nazis in a string of battles in an attempt to keep his country free. In May 1940, he led a reconnaissance patrol in Northeastern France and was captured at a machine gun nest after a heavy exchange with German artillery.

The Nazis knew they had a problem. Capturing a general is great, but then you have to hold him, and this general was famous for being a hero in two wars and had already escaped a German prison camp once. So they took him to Konigstein Castle, a prison with on a high hill that featured tall walls, few windows, and constant nighttime patrols. The Germans called it inescapable.

Festung-Konigstein-castle-prison Konigstein Castle looms over the surrounding countryside. Photo: Creative Commons/Fritz-Gerald Schröder

In the castle, Giraud quickly began a long-term plan to escape. He learned German by convincing the prison to offer classes. Then he stole a map and began studying potential routes and pitfalls. He also figured out a method of communicating with his wife and others through coded messages that would get past the censors. For an entire year, he slowly built a rope out of twine.

The Germans had good reason to believe that Konigstein was inescapable. Between the high walls and the fact that the prison was built on a hill, Giraud would need to descend 150 feet of wall and cliff face before reaching the ground. The twine was to help with that.

Because the prison was patrolled at night and not during the day, he descended hand-under-hand to the ground in broad daylight on Apr. 17, 1942, and jumped onto a passing train. He put on some glasses and a hat he acquired and shaved his mustache.

For those who don't know, Hitler's birthday is Apr. 20 and he was not happy that his weekend was spoiled by Giraud's escape. He immediately ordered that Giraud be recaptured and assassinated.

The train took Giraud to the border between France and Germany and he was able to get in touch with resistance forces. Since Germany had held France for nearly two years at this point, Giraud had to stay one step ahead of Vichy officials who were eager to hand him over to the Nazis.

Gen. Henri Giraud hangs out with President Franklin D. Roosevelt after his successful escape. Photo: Roosevelt Library

Wearing women's garb, he escaped Vichy France to the southern coast where a submarine was waiting for him. Because Giraud really hated the British, he had demanded an American sub.

Since there were no American subs nearby, the British had loaned the U.S. the HMS Seraph, redubbed the USS Seraph. An American officer temporarily took command and the crew faked American accents.

The general quickly saw through the ruse but allowed himself to be taken to North Africa anyway. As a five-star general, he had hoped to take over all French and possibly all Allied forces but accepted command of a division of Free French Forces instead. He fought on the side of the allies until retiring to private life after the liberation of France in 1944.