Jack Best Dies at 87; Plotted Daring Escape From Nazis

 

By William H. Honan, , April 30, 2000

 

Jack Best, one of the last survivors of the audacious group of British prisoners in World War II who constructed a glider under the noses of their Nazi captors in order to fly from the roof of their prison to freedom, died April 22 in a hospital in Herefordshire, England. He was 87.

Before the glider could be put to the test, the notorious Colditz prison, a huge Saxon castle near Leipzig in eastern Germany where Mr. Best and many other British airmen were imprisoned, was liberated by American forces in 1945. But because the plan was so daring and its secrecy so effective, it has become one of the legends of World War II.

Last winter, Mr. Best was a consultant for Channel Four, a British commercial television channel, when it constructed a full-scale replica of the glider with its 32-foot wingspan and flew it for a documentary called "Escape From Colditz." The original glider had been broken up and used for firewood at the war's end.

Later this year, the glider replica, together with some of the actual tools Mr. Best made to help construct it, and other memorabilia, will go on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The plan to build the glider was hatched by Mr. Best and two of his fellow British prisoners at Colditz Castle. Their plan was to construct a two-man glider in a secret workshop in one of the castle's attics. When completed, the glider was to be taken to the roof and launched by a catapult, which consisted of a series of cables and pulleys.

The planners reckoned that their captors would be looking for tunnels and underground escape routes, nothing as audacious as a leap to freedom. The catapult was to be given its impetus by a massive counterweight -- a bathtub filled with concrete that was to be dropped to the ground, flinging the glider into the air.

If all went well, said Kenneth Lockwood, the secretary of the Colditz Association, a survivors' group, the glider would soar for about a mile from a height of about 100 feet down over the town of Colditz, over farmland and finally over the River Mulde, landing on the far side of the river.

"The key thing was to cross the river," Mr. Lockwood said in a telephone interview on Friday. "If they could clear that they could reach a nearby railroad station, board a train and make it to Switzerland, which was neutral."

The glider was basically made from wood taken from bed slats and floorboards. Its skin was fashioned from cotton sleeping bags. It took nine months to construct.

Mr. Lockwood, who had been captured in Belgium, said he was part of the "stooging system" in which he would serve as a lookout to warn those constructing the glider to cease their work if a guard approached.

It was only after liberation that the Germans learned that the glider had been constructed.

The survivors of Colditz were especially pleased by the success of the replica glider almost half a century later because it proved to them that their plan was a smart one and that they could have soared away from the supposedly escape-proof Colditz Castle.

John William Best was born in Vivod near Llangollen in North Wales. As a young man, he moved to Kenya to learn farming. It was from Kenya that he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1939.

Mr. Best was captured in 1941 after he was forced to ditch his plane off the coast of Greece. He was held at the Stalag Luft III prison -- known from the film "The Great Escape" -- but tunneled his way out with a fellow prisoner. They made it 125 miles to Szczecin, Poland, before being recaptured. They were then sent to Colditz.

After the war, Mr. Best returned to farming in Kenya, but in the 1960's he returned to England, where again he went into farming.

Mr. Best's marriage to Constance Otter ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Elisabeth Bunting of Leominster, Herefordshire; a son, Bob, and a daughter, Tanda Wilson-Clarke, both of North Wales; and five grandchildren.

"Jack Best had a most wonderful sense of humor," Mr. Lockwood said. "If we hadn't had a sense of humor about all this we would have gone around the bend."


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov