Longtime Rockwood resident recalls husband’s brave escape from Colditz Castle POW camp

ROCKWOOD – Though she turned 100 earlier this year, Sytske Drijber’s memory remains remarkably sharp.

The longtime Rockwood resident can vividly recount her experiences as a Dutch Intelligence mapper during the Second World War, a story that has in the past been documented in detail in this newspaper.


This year, which marks the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, she wanted to re-tell the story of her late husband, Oscar, an officer in the Dutch military.

Born into a military family in Holland, Oscar’s career was legendary, though Sytske admits much of it is unknown, given his secret agent status behind enemy lines.

“Oscar was one of the new young graduates of the Dutch Military College when the German blitzkrieg suddenly arrived in Holland,” she wrote.

Oscar was captured and escaped from three different prisoner of war (POW) camps in Germany and Poland.

He was renowned for escaping Colditz Castle (Oflag IV-C) in Germany on Sept. 20, 1941, a feat that is still discussed in historical research today.

“Oscar was young and fit. He was an Olympic contender,” she explained in a previous Advertiser article.

“He stood in a well, with him in the water and a man (Major Cornelis Giebel) standing on his shoulders, with a wooden lid on top. It was very difficult to get out.

“The distraction, to keep the German guards busy, was that the POWs held a soccer game between the prisoners. Oscar and his friend got into the well unnoticed.”

After nightfall, the pair climbed out of the well and over the facility’s wall to freedom.

From there, with a fake train ticket in hand, Oscar boarded a train to Switzerland, then Spain, and finally England to begin his work with the Dutch Intelligence.

“It was about the buddy system,” said Sytske. “It was amazing how the artistic people used their skills to make those fake train tickets to help get others out. They gave their friends their freedom.”

Oscar’s escape was made possible by fellow POWs, who not only helped create the distraction allowing Oscar and Giebel to get into the well, but also constructed two decoy soldiers – heads and busts made of ceiling plaster affixed to broomsticks – to take the place of the escapees.

“These ‘soldiers’ were hidden in the central row of marching men and luckily were not noticed when the guards made their “head count,” Sytske told the Advertiser.

The men kept up the ruse for some time, using the “puppets,” as Sytske calls them, during several more head counts after the men escaped.

According to published accounts of the escape, the scheme helped Oscar and Giebel get a 36-hour head start before their absence was discovered by Colditz guards.

After the war

The Drijbers were married in 1946, and Oscar would later immigrate to Canada, where the pair would end their military careers.

In 1954 they moved to Rockwood and raised six children. They were married for 50 years.

“He was a military career person, so it was hard for him to leave. He had to become a civilian again,” Drijber said. “He was a highly honourable man.”

Oscar first tried his hand at selling life insurance. He was posted in what is now Mapleton Township as he spoke Dutch and many Dutch immigrants settled in the area following the war.

But that didn’t last long.

“His people were so poor and had so many children, he felt guilty selling them anything,” Sytske recalled.

So Oscar went to teachers’ college in Hamilton and for the next several decades taught high school math in Fergus, Guelph and Acton.

Sadly, Oscar passed away in 1995.

“That’s when I got into community work,” said Sytske. She got involved in Rockwood “wherever help was needed for betterment: at church, or school, or in the community.”

Drijber still lives in the Mary Street home where she and Oscar moved in 1954.

She is a member of the Legion in Acton and has participated for decades in the Remembrance Day ceremony in Rockwood.

This year, she will miss the local ceremony for the first time in a long time.

“I just don’t want to (risk it),” she said. “We are told that anyone over 70 better watch out.”

But she will keep connected on Nov. 11 as she has over the last several months: with the help of neighbours and close friends and family.

“Everyone’s been so good to me,” she said.

– With files from Kelly Waterhouse and Phil Gravelle