Major Skelly Ginn

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The Independent Online

Benjamin Dennis Skelton Ginn, soldier, electrician and mechanical engineer: born Cambridge 22 January 1910; married; died Trumpington, Cambridgeshire 11 September 2001.

From the moment "Skelly" Ginn left school he wanted to be a farmer. But with the depression in the industry in the late 1920s, he decided to study electrical engineering. It was his mastery of this craft and his seemingly unlimited ingenuity that helped him to contribute to many of the Second World War escape attempts from the forbidding Colditz Castle and other prisoner-of-war camps in Europe.

At his prison camp at Warburg, he spotted that the main overhead electric feeder supplying the perimeter lights also supplied the cobbler's shop. Situated in a hut in a separate compound, it could be reached at night by the one or two athletic prisoners. The supply entered the shop where there was a double-pole knife switch with bare terminals. Ginn worked out that a heavy spanner, attached to a string and pulled across the terminals from a window close by, would black out the camp. This ingenious piece of thinking enabled 41 prisoners, using homemade ladders and Ginn's wire cutters – made from a pair of ice skates – to escape. Three of them made it home.

Moved to Eichstätt in Bavaria, he helped dig the tunnel from which 60 escaped. The eighth to leave, he grew a moustache and, having removed his artificial eye (he had lost his eye before the war, when a hot metal fragment flew up from a blacksmith's anvil), he attempted to pass as a German on sick leave. Moving only at night, he remained free for a week. After recapture and a period of solitary confinement, he was sent to Colditz in June 1943.

Keen to escape, he joined one of the groups exploring the exit routes of the sewers. This grim task led nowhere. He then became part of the team involved in the making of the famous glider which was secretly housed in the attic above the chapel. He was responsible for the vital aileron hinges and any metal work. As the castle had previously been a psychiatric hospital, there were plenty of cupboards with hinges. These were tried, but the best were found to be the brass hinges on the piano in the theatre. For forging the metal, he devised a cunning way of supplying the heated air to the concealed forge, by welding together empty food tins which passed through an existing chimney.

An important task was to keep the radio operating so that the inmates knew how the war was progressing. The radio had been cleverly connected to the castle's DC mains, but this was switched off during air-raids. To overcome this frustration, Ginn and another inmate converted the DC motor that powered the chapel organ into a generator, which was driven at speed via a rope belt. Not satisfied with this, he connected a lamp across the terminals to show the correct voltage.

On his release from Colditz by the advancing American forces, he returned to England. Although promoted Major and now with REME, he could see no future in the Army.

Benjamin Dennis Skelton Ginn came from a family of solicitors. His father, who had served in the First World War, met his mother on the hunting field. Even at a young age he developed an interest in Meccano and built a model of a grandfather clock. Working in a windowless attic he built a radio set for his family. On his grandparents' farm he maintained and repaired binders and tractors. He also worked on the farm's forge, where he did welding.

He was one of the original 99 boys at Stowe School when it was founded in 1923. He was disappointed with his education, but his inventiveness came to the fore when he organised the school zoo – a few ferrets and rabbits; he charged sixpence-a-week membership. To further his pocket money, he snared rabbits and sold them in the village. He left school at 18 and undertook a four-year sandwich course in Electrical Engineering at Faraday House in London. Between 1931 and 1936 he worked for GEC, mainly at night, in order that he could pursue his passion for motorcycle trials and car rallies.

During this period he took the front half of a front-wheel-drive BSA three-wheeler and added the back-wheel drive from a Morgan three-wheeler to create a car that had three-wheel drive in low gear. He used this car, which he christened "Menace", in a number of rallies including the London to Land's End Rally in 1937.

In 1936 firms were being encouraged to release their employees to join the Territorials and Ginn joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a sergeant pilot and trained on Tiger Moths. To his amazement, he found pilots could not take the cover off the engine. Little interested in just flying, he was persuaded to join the Royal Ordnance Corps as an engineer. It was during his training that he lost his eye.

He was in charge of a detachment of the Lothian and Border Yeomanry when he was captured in the German advance across northern Europe in June 1940. With thousands of other men, he was forced to march hundreds of miles, sleeping in fields. On the first day of the march, he spotted an open truck on which stood a number of senior German officers, surrounded by a large armed guard. In his pocket he still had a hand grenade left over from those he had been using for booby-trapping vehicles. As he approached the truck he was caught in a terrifying dilemma, for if he threw the grenade he would certainly kill a number of the enemy, but also his own men. He decided against it. After the war he was to learn that one of the officers on the truck was Erwin Rommel.

On leaving the Army Ginn farmed in Cambridgeshire and continued with his love of cars. With his wife, Joyce, navigating (they had married just before he was sent to France), he rallied his Allard and other cars throughout Europe until 1962. When not at the wheel, he indulged his other passion, sailing.

Max Arthur