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Tony Rolt, who died on 6 February, 2008, was a driver in the inaugural Formula One World Championship. He was also a veteran behind one of the most audacious attempts to escape from Colditz Castle prisoner of war camp.He was the longest surviving participant of the first ever World Championship Grand Prix in 1950. He competed in a further two Grand Prix and was a regular driver in the Le Mans 24-hour race, winning in 1953.During the Second World War he served with Rifle Brigade in France where he earned the Military Cross. After being taken a prisoner of war he used his skill as an engineer to spearhead a plan to clear the castle walls in a glider.Anthony Peter Roylance Rolt was born on 16 October, 1918, in Hampshire and raised in North Wales. His father was a brigadier-general and his mother came from a rich brewery family. He attended Eton and Sandhurst Military Academy.He began racing cars as a schoolboy and competed in Le Mans at 18, finishing fourth in his class in a Triumph Southern Cross with Jack Elliott. One of the most promising drivers of the era, he won the Coronation Trophy at Donington Park two times and the British Empire Trophy – a gruelling 200-mile race – in 1939.Like so many promising youngsters, Mr Rolt’s ambitions were put on hold when he was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1940 he took part in a defence of Calais that successfully repelled a Panzer division, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.After the invasion of France in 1940, Lt Rolt was captured. For the remainder of the war he would be a continual headache for German officers by fulfilling his obligation to attempt to escape prisoner of war camps. After trying to break out of several camps, he was sent to Colditz from which escape was supposedly impossible.Famously Colditz, home to the most troublesome prisoners under German control, became an international ‘escape academy’, packed with determined experts who would concoct elaborate plans to get free of the castle grounds. In total there were 31 ‘home runs’ from the German prison.Lt Rolt’s most famous plan came when he noticed the roof above the chapel was out of the sight of the German guards. He and Flight Lieutenant Bill Goldfinch began work constructing a glider, working in secret with other POWs to construct the aircraft out of bits of bed, floorboards, cloth, wire and anything else they could lay their hands on. The glider, nicknamed the ‘Colditz Cock’, was built in a hidden ‘workshop’ behind a false wall in an attic with 12 lookouts to warn of approaching guards.The glider was due to be launched in early 1945 but with Allied forces approaching, the escape committee decided instead to keep the glider ready to use in case the order came to massacre prisoners – it would be used to send someone to alert the nearby troops.In the end the glider was not needed as the camp was successfully liberated that spring, though it did become part of World War II folklore. Lt Rolt was promoted to the rank of major and awarded a bar to his MC.After the war he resumed his racing career with new vigour. He competed in the British Grand Prix of 1950, 1953 and 1955, but was forced to retire from each one due to mechanical problems. He raced in Le Mans between 1939 and 1955, winning the 1953 race with Duncan Hamilton.According to legend, the two drivers made their winning drive with terrible hangovers, having expected to be disqualified on a technicality and heavily drowning their sorrows the previous night. However, with typical gravity, Mjr Rolt vehemently denied these rumours.He took his racing as seriously as he had taken his military service, but in 1955 he witnessed the death of 80 people at the 1955 Le Mans when a car lost control and crashed into a bank of spectators. Having already risked his life during the war, he decided that enough was enough and retired to concentrate on his engineering career.He continued to be involved with motor racing, establishing his own firm which went on to build F1 cars for the likes of Stirling Moss. In the 1970s he developed ways of converting vehicles to four-wheel drive and became an important partner to several major car-makers, providing him with a comfortable retirement.A modest, solemn but charming man, Mjr Rolt was married to Lois Allan (née Blomfield) between 1945 and her death in 2005. He was survived by three children, having already lost one of his daughters. He died at the age of 89 in Warwick.
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Published in: Online.
Published from: February 06, 2008.
Region: National
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