Sinclair, Albert Michael
He was the second son of Colonel Thomas Charles Sinclair CBE, RA, of Winchester, and of Lucy Iris Sinclair, the sister of Lieutenant-General Sir Otto Marling Lund KCB, DSO (I1905-1909). He followed his brother Christopher (I1929-34) and preceded John (I1934-39), all arriving in Hopper’s from the Reverend P.C. Underhill’s school (Wellington House, at Westgate). They covered just ten years between them. John Sinclair was killed in action at Anzio in February 1944; Christopher Sinclair commanded a battalion of the Rifle Brigade, and won two MCs in 1941, one at Beda Fomm and one at Sidi Rezegh.
Mike Sinclair was a strong character, and left as a Commoner Prefect, for Trinity College, Cambridge where he gained a good Second in Modern Languages and History. He got a Regular University Commission in 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In May 1940 he was sent out to France with his battalion in 30 Infantry Brigade to defend Calais.
30 Brigade contained at least ten Wykehamists. The Brigade commander was Brigadier Claude Nicholson (G1912-1915), who was captured and died in German captivity. In 1RB, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Chandos Hoskyns (A1909-1912), and 2nd Lieutenant Edward Bird (E1929-1934) were mortally wounded; Lieutenant Anthony Gerard Hugh Bampfylde (G1933-1938), 2nd Lieutenant Richard Wood (I1923-1929) and Lieutenant Frederic Athony Vivian Parker (E1926-1931) were all captured, though Parker was repatriated in 1943. In 1QVR, 2nd Lieutenant Richard Raikes (H1922-1928) was killed in action.
From 2KRRC, apart from Sinclair, Wykehamists included Major Oswald Segar-Owen (K1913-1918), known as ‘Puffin’, who was killed. Also captured and eventually sent to Colditz (though he went on the run at one point for ten months) was 2nd Lieutenant E. Grismond (‘Gris’) B. Davies-Scourfield MC (B1932-1936), in ‘B’ Company. Sinclair was in charge of the Bren-gun carriers of A Company scout platoon company.
Calais was in chaos, with the town already reeling from enemy air attacks with the Germans planning on occupying the town, along with Boulogne and Dunkirk. 2KRRC arrived in Calais on the afternoon of 23rd May. At 6 a.m. on 24th May Davies-Scourfield recorded that “Mike Sinclair’s scout platoon from ‘A’ Company was sent up to cover the area between ‘B’ and ‘D’ companies. I saw Mike as he came up to check our positions: always methodical, he was carrying a huge mapboard, scrupulously marked up in chinagraph with the latest battle situation.”.
During the afternoon of 24th May, Airey Neave, who had been wounded, met Sinclair and recalled: “A scout car of the 60th came towards us in the command of a young officer who was to become famous in the history of the regiment. This was Michael Sinclair of ‘A’ Company, shot dead in 1944 while trying to escape from Colditz prison camp… Sinclair, although busy with his battle plans, smilingly drew my attention to a van flying the Red Cross. This was an improvised ambulance smelling strongly of stale vegetables. I was bundled into it and driven at high speed as far as the centre bridge over the canal… He was about to move to the support of Lord Cromwell, where he held on to a very exposed position until dusk. That evening, Sinclair did much to prevent the Germans from breaking through on the south-west. His success was also due to Sergeant Bennett, who led a section of carriers… When I think of these fine men, I am able to measure how small was my own contribution to the defence of Calais. (Airey Neave, “The Flames of Calais”).
As the day progressed it became clear that the defensive line employed by Nicholson, who was using the series of 19th century ramparts and moats that ran for some 8 miles, could not be held for another day and a withdrawal to the line of canals surrounding the Old Town was ordered. Three bridges led across these canals and were to be the scene of some of the bitterest fighting.
Calais was eventually surrendered by Nicholson on the morning of 26th May. Sinclair was one of those taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans.
Sinclair was hard to get to know and had few close friends in captivity. Davies-Scourfield was probably his closest friend. Another prisoner, Mike Edwards, recalled “For Mike Sinclair there was God, then the Sixtieth (the KRRC) and that was it. His only aim in life was to get back to his regiment”. Yet another prisoner, Pat Fergusson, said “The only times I ever spoke to him in the Colditz yard he just wanted to get out and kill as many Germans as possible. He seemed to be on a crusade between himself and the whole of Hitler’s occupied Europe”.
Davies-Scourfield, himself an outstanding escaper, was impressed by Sinclair’s determination: “I would wake up in the middle of the night, as we were usually in the same room. Mike would be standing at the window just watching the sentries patrolling below, counting the number of seconds it took them to turn around and walk back on their beats. He was constantly looking for any information that might be useful to him”.
Sinclair made many attempts at escape, but ultimately all failed, and he was returned to prison each time. The first attempt was made shortly after Christmas 1940 from Laufen, near Salzburg but the German guards got to hear of the tunnel the prisoners were digging. Both Davies-Scourfield and Sinclair were sentenced to 42 days solitary confinement.
Early the following year they were transferred to Posen in Poland. By this time the Germans were treating prisoners quite badly, in reprisal for alleged poor conditions for Germans held in Canada. Almost exactly a year after their capture, together with another prisoner, Ronnie Littledale, they escaped from Posen in carts of rubbish. They had arranged to meet some Poles who had agreed to help them and, after abandoning their original aim of getting to Russia, walked to Warsaw where they stayed in hiding for two months. Sinclair and Littledale went on to Krakow by train, leaving Davies-Scourfield in Warsaw. Eventually arriving in Budapest they stayed for a month before travelling to Yugoslavia by train and then across the River Danube by ferry to Belgrade. They then crossed the Yugoslavian-Bulgarian border in a horse-drawn cart. Stopped by a Bulgarian customs officer they were handed over to the police and moved to Sofia, and after interrogation, handed over to the Germans. They were transferred to Vienna and held in a military prison from the beginning of December to 17th January 1942. Taken by train towards Dresden, they both managed to escape via a lavatory window but Sinclair was seen, and having injured his leg jumping from the train, was soon recaptured. Littledale avoided capture but was caught on 29th May. Both were interviewed by the Gestapo before being sent to Colditz.
In June 1942 Sinclair made the first of seven attempts to get out of Colditz. On being sent to Leipzig to have his sinuses treated he jumped out of his hospital window and headed for Cologne, but was recaptured and sent to a Stalag, from which he escaped again, and was sent back to Colditz.
Almost immediately he made another attempt and was taken to Leipzig for court martial, managing to escape again whilst in the lavatory at the Leipzig barracks. He was recaptured a few days later in Cologne. In October, Littledale and three others escaped successfully, making it to Switzerland. On November 26th 1942 Sinclair tried again, simply walking out (dressed in German uniform) through the German garrison’s kitchens after lunch with a French fellow prisoner, Captain Charles Klein; the Germans were baffled as to how this had been possible. The pair made their separate ways as far as the Swiss border at Immendingen before being recaptured.
In April 1943 Sinclair came up with one of the most audacious escape plans ever devised, intending to stage a mass break-out. One of the senior German guards, a man called Rothenberger, was of very distinctive appearance and known to all as “Franz Josef” because of his bushy moustache. Franz Josef made nightly rounds of the German sentries. Sinclair hoped that by impersonating the man he could dismiss the guards on the gate, and substitute them with two British prisoners disguised as Germans. They would then open the gate leading into woodland, enabling as many of the British prisoners to escape as possible. The attempt took place on 2nd September 1943 but the sentries refused to co-operate and insisted on staying put. Sinclair became increasingly annoyed and started yelling at them, which brought the German guards, including the real Rothenberger, to the scene.
In the confusion Sinclair was shot through the chest at point blank range, the bullet passing through his left lung and missing his heart by three inches. Luckily, the wound, though nasty, was not dangerous and Sinclair recovered quite quickly. The senior British officer asked that the sentry who shot Sinclair be court martialled for shooting an unarmed prisoner. This was refused although a month later the guard was sent to the Russian front.
His next attempt was from the western side of the castle and involved manufacturing 90 feet of rope from bedsheets, and being launched out of a window. After several false starts the attempt was made on 19th January. Davies-Scourfield recalled the escape vividly: “At last, on the night of Wednesday 19th January, all went well… I cannot describe the tension in the room the actual night of the launch. I remember standing in the darkness by the doorway, seeing my friend Mike Sinclair lying face downwards on the table. He gripped the rope under his elbow, and round his waist he had the second part of the rope for the descent from the upper terrace. He was dressed head to foot in black, wearing a Balaclava and socks over his shoes. He had a large pair of wire-cutters strapped to the inside of one leg, then all the paraphernalia he needed for crossing Germany – a compass, maps, money, some train timetables, and everything else. One could almost feel the intensity of his fierce and single-minded concentration, remembering all the things he would have to do the moment he was projected through the window… Anchored to a bed-post was the first rope, made of sheets tied carefully together, ready to be lowered down two stories to the terrace some thirty feet below.” “Get ready, OK, launch,” from Tom to Dick. The rope of sheets was rolled out of the window and lowered, and away they went, one after the other. For several moments all was silent. Then we heard someone come out of the guard room and shout something followed by more silence, and eventually the floodlights were switched on. Meanwhile Mike and Jack (Jack Best – another British prisoner of war) had reached ground level by the second descent from the terrace, crossed the orchard, cut the wire and were away.”
It had taken them less than a minute to break out of Colditz.
“We heard nothing of them for several days, and our hopes were just beginning to rise when, on 24th January the Germans came for uniforms in which to bring them back. They had got as far as Rheine aiming for Holland, like I had, when they were arrested and, as in my case, their papers declared to be false.”
In April Sinclair heard that his younger brother had been killed in action at Anzio. Davies-Scourfield recalled the effect this had on him: “Mike had been very strange, ever since he had learnt of his brother’s death at Anzio in February… This affected him profoundly and, from this moment, he became extremely moody and difficult… He wore an almost perpetual frown, looked well beyond his years, and I particularly recall the stems of his pipes were always quickly bitten through… Our comradeship became strained, and I failed him, really, just when he most needed my help. Any attempts I made in that direction were rebuffed…”
By September 1944 prisoners of war were being warned not to try to escape; in the aftermath of the ‘Great Escape’ – when fifty escapers were executed out of hand – it was simply too dangerous, and the war was won. All the prisoners had to do was await liberation. The Germans agreed; escapes cost them too much in energy and resources. On September 23rd they put up warning posters: Escape from prison camps is no longer a sport.
“It began to look as if the war might suddenly end. Mike Sinclair dreaded that this would happen while he was still a prisoner of war; a failure after all the efforts he had made. He became even more morose and introspective than before. Even I, his old friend and comrade, just could not get through to him at all, and, to be frank, after a number of rebuffs I ceased to try very hard.”
On 25th September he made his last escape attempt by climbing over the fencing in the park at Colditz. He was spotted very quickly and immediately the guards started shouting warnings but Sinclair continued climbing, and fell down on the other side of the wire. Although he got up and ran, at first the guards seemed reluctant to shoot but then “at least three of the sentries and the machine-gunner positioned half-way up the slope towards the castle immediately opened fire. Just as Mike reached the cover of the trees, a bullet struck his elbow and glanced off into his heart.” He had been shot dead.
He was buried with full military honours in the cemetery at Colditz. The Catholic prisoners held a mass for him. His coffin was draped with the Union flag made by the German guards and he received a seven gun salute. Later that day, 27th September, there was a memorial service in the Castle chapel.
Sinclair’s parents placed the following obituary notice in The Times on November 3rd 1944:
Passed into the Greater Life on September 25th 1944, whilst a prisoner of war in Germany, Lieutenant Albert Michael Sinclair, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, very dearly loved younger son of Colonel and Mrs. T.C. Sinclair, aged 26. Undaunted in the service of his country.
His grave had been marked with a wooden cross painted white, his birth and death dates, inscribed with the words ‘Leutnant Michael Sinclair’.
Colditz was liberated on April 16th 1945, and the following day Davies-Scourfield visited Sinclair’s grave again. The inmates left the castle on April 18th.
Twenty-six when he died, Sinclair was afterwards twice mentioned posthumously in despatches: in April 1945 for his record as prisoner of war, and in September “for the defence of Calais”. He was finally awarded the posthumous DSO for his persistent escape attempts in October 1946.
Lieutenant Sinclair now lies in grave 10.L.14 of the Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery.Sources: Davies-Scourfield: “In the Presence of my Foes” Pen & Sword 2004 Airey Neave: “The Flames of Calais” Pen & Sword 2003 Henry Chancellor: “Colditz: The Definitive History” Hodder & Stoughton 2001 Memoirs of other prisoners and of the German guards.
- Surname: Sinclair
- Forenames or initials: Albert Michael
- House: I
- Years in School: 1931-1936
- Rank: Lieutenant
- Regiment: King's Royal Rifle Corps
- Date of Birth: 26th February 1918
- Date of Death: 23rd September 1944
- How Died: Killed as a Prisoner of War
- Location in War Cloister: Inner G2
- Decoration: DSO
- Burial Site: Charlottenburg War Cemetery, Berlin: Grave 10.1.14