Schloss Colditz is an imposing edifice, near Chemnitz in Saxony. It is famous because in World War II it was used as a maximum security prisoner of war camp – to house POWs who had repeatedly made escape attempts from other Nazi camps. This was a triumph of flawed thinking because concentrating the talents of escapers in one place created expertise that led to a constant stream of daring and clever escapes. The prisoners of Colditz would later become famous because of a series of books and a TV series about their exploits.
The ultimate achievement of these extraordinary men was the construction of a glider, in the roof of the castle’s chapel, designed to be launched from the roof top and carry two men away from the castle, across the river below and into the valley, from where they could set off for Switzerland. The glider was nearly completed when the American Army liberated the camp on 16 April 1945.
The idea of the glider came not from an airman, as one might expect, but rather from a 26-year infantry subaltern, who had served with the Rifle Brigade in the vicious battle for Calais in 1940.
The son of a Brigadier, Anthony Rolt was educated at Eton and at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He started competing in cars at 16 in speed trials and at 20 won an impressive victory in the British Empire Trophy at Donington Park in 1939, driving an ERA.
His nascent career as a racer was cut short by the war, but he was soon in the thick of the action, with the British Expeditionary Force in France. When the German attack began, he found himself as part of the small force defending Calais against the 10th Panzer Division. Their job was to delay the advance on Dunkirk, giving the Allies more time to evacuate large numbers of troops. Those who survived the Battle of Calais were taken prisoner.
Rolt dedicated himself to escaping and causing as much trouble as he could. After seven escapes – one of which got him to within sight of the Swiss border – he was finally sent to Colditz. When he returned to Britain after the war he discovered that he had been decorated with a Military Cross in Calais and a second for his escape activities. He had also been promoted to the rank of Major.
He was 26 and immediately began working with engineer Freddy Dixon on four-wheel drive systems, forming Dixon Rolt Developments, which pioneered the viscous coupling. This soon attracted backing from the tractor magnate Harry Ferguson and the business became FF Developments. Rolt continued to race and took part in the very first F1 World Championship race at Silverstone in 1950. This led to an opportunity to drive a factory Jaguar sports car and in 1953 Rolt and his team-mate Duncan Hamilton shared victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours in a C-Type.
Later FF Developments built a 4WD F1 car to demonstrate the possibilities of four-wheel drive technology. Rolt drove the car himself, but the Ferguson P99 car would go on to win the non championship Gold Cup at Oulton Park in the hands of Stirling Moss. It is the only 4WD car ever to win an F1 race. FF Developments sold its technology into the motor industry in the years that followed and Tony Rolt became a very wealthy man.
He died in 2008, at the age of 89, one of the last surviving drivers of the first World Championship Grand Prix.
It was a life well-lived.