World War Two: The Legend of Colditz

This is my account of the truly remarkable, but notorious high-security German castle used as a prisoner of war camp in World War Two, that bore witness to numerous Allied escape attempts and daring MI9 rescue missions.

Colditz Castle
Colditz Castle

The Escape Proof Castle?

Colditz Castle was supposed to be the German prison that nobody was meant to be able to escape from. The very mention of it's name invoked thoughts of confinement and incarceration and stories of daring escape attempts capture the imagination to this day.

The very first British prisoners of war to be sent to the castle, arrived on the cold winter's afternoon of November 7th 1940. They had travelled by train for three long days under armed guard. They were nicknamed 'the laughing six', after they had all been recaptured after tunnelling out of the previous POW camp where they had been held. They had been sent to the prison where no one supposedly could escape from, Oflag 4C....Colditz.

From a distance, the castle lokked like a beautiful scene from a fairytale, but those thoughts slowly turned to cold fear the closer they got to it. These men would be the first of 300 British prisoners of war that would be interned at Colditz over the next 5 years. It was a very large dominant structure and no one as yet knew what it was like or what to expect.

Colditz Castle was an imposing 16th century medieval fortress, situated over 400 miles from neutral territory and guarded by 200 German troops. It's outer walls were six feet thick and although initially built to keep people out, it was now going to be used to keep people in.

On entering the castle, a sense of total enclosure and claustrophobia hit the prisoners, as the battlements towered above them, a feeling of hopelessness insued.

Colditz Inner Courtyard
Colditz Inner Courtyard

We Will Get Out!

In addition to British officers , there was also French, Dutch and Polish prisoners of war interned at Colditz. They were all of officer class and most of them had escaped from previous POW camps on at least one other occasion. These men had no intention of sitting out the war quietly and comfortably and so as soon as they were brought to the castle, they were sizing it up in the search for escape routes.

The five storey fortress was an absolute maze of corridors and rooms and the men would be allocated a dormitary (mess). There could be up to ten inmates to a dorm, but generally there was around six. The courtyard lights would light up the rooms at night, so the prisoners felt that they were under constant surveillance, especially when a German guard could enter the room at any time, day or night.

All the prisoners, of every nationality were trying to escape at every opportunity in an attempt to annoy and irritate their German captors. Throughout the entire second world war, the prisoners of Colditz would do everything humanely possible to try to break out, and they saw this as a soldier's duty.

Colditz, 1941
Colditz, 1941

The First Home Run & The Kantine Escape

In April 1941, the French contingent at the castle were jubilant, as one of their prisoners becomes the first man to escape from Colditz and make it all the way home to France. The British meanwhile were working on their own escape plans and had began digging tunnels in the January of that year.

A trap door had been found in the floor of the Kantine (canteen) and the British officers decided to use it to tunnel their way out through the outer walls of the castle. Working solely at night they tunnelled gradually, but then disaster struck. two Polish prisoners attempting to escape via a room directly above the British tunnel exit were stopped in their tracks when the Germans decided to floodlight the area, as well as this they also posted a sentry in the same area. This meant that the British escape route was blocked, putting an end to their own escape plans.

The British were furious with the Poles, but they nevertheless still attempted to bribe the German sentry posted in the vicinity of the tunnel exit. Unfortunately, the guard betrayed them, just as 12 of the British officers were exiting the tunnel. Although this demoralised the men, they never showed it to their captors and all 12 men simply burst out laughing in an attempt to unsettle and agitate their betrayer.

However, on a more serious note, the British escape committee felt something had to be done about the different nationalities getting in each other's way. So now, all escape plans had to be coordinated and liaised between high ranking committee members of all the nations.

Colditz Volleyball Tournaments
Colditz Volleyball Tournaments

Honing Their Skills!

The men became highly skilled at theivery, lock picking and the engineering of escape aids and devices.

It showed the amazing natural aptitude of a number of somewhat upper-class British officers for criminal activities.

But by July of 1941, only a handful of men had actually succeded in escaping from Colditz and for the prisoners, the war seemed like it would last forever.

The overwhelming feeling for many of them was boredom and the tediousness of day to day living was unbearable.

Being of officer class meant, as stated in the laws of the Geneva convention, that the men were given no work detail by the Germans.

This was not always seen as a blessing as there was literally nothing for the men to do to occupy their minds.

So the prisoners had to find other things to occupy themselves with, such as painting, studying and making things. They even had volleyball tournaments between the different nations.

British Officers at Colditz, 1942
British Officers at Colditz, 1942

More French Success!

In the July of 1941, the French escape committee had more reason to celebrate. They had identified an area in the prisoner's exercise garden for escape and a particularly agile Frenchman named Maurice Lebrun leapfrogged two assisting inmates and cleared a barbed wire perimeter fence surrounding the garden. Amazingly, as he sprints to freedom, the Germans who have begun firing at him, miss him completely and he disappears into nearby woodland.

Lebrun in fact made it all the way home to France and the French contingent at Colditz are jubilant once again.

Disheartened, but commendable of the French success, the British had to just keep on trying and with the help of a home-made still built in the castle, they drowned their own sorrows accordingly.

The castle theatre was seen as another potential escape route, the Germans allowed the men to stage productions and concerts, thinking that if they were putting their energy into these recreational pasttimes, then it would deter the prisoners from trying to escape. Of course this wasn't the case and in january 1942, the 'Theatre Escape' went into action.

The Colditz Theatre Escape, 1942
The Colditz Theatre Escape, 1942

A Daring Attempt

The British cut a hole in the floor of the theatre's stage which was above a deserted part of the German's quarters. One British officer Airey Neave and one Dutch officer Tony Luteyn were chosen as the escapees. They were to be dressed in faked German uniforms, drop into the deserted quarters, pick a locked door, descend some stairs and walk through the German part of the castle.

They did all this, exited the German quarters, crossed the German courtyard, exited through a gate and walked calmly down towards the castle's dry moat. It was only at this moment that they were approached by a German sentry. However, the Dutch officer Luteyn, who spoke fluent German, berated the guard for not saluting him.

This bold move incredibly paid off, as it convinced the guard that they were genuine and he let them proceed. They continued on to the castle's park, where they scaled the outer wall of Colditz and made their break for freedom.

A week later a coded postcard arrived for the British C.O. at Colditz, it was from the two escaped officers and they had made it all the way to safety in Switzerland. This was an extremely serious moment for the Germans however, and they called an emergency roll call to determine the extent of the breakout.

This was the hole that the 4 British officers managed to crawl out of during the 'Naked Escape' from Colditz in 1942.
This was the hole that the 4 British officers managed to crawl out of during the 'Naked Escape' from Colditz in 1942.

Fooling The Goons/The Naked Escape

The prisoners even tried to confuse the Germans in this task by continually moving around their own ranks of men, during the counting process. The Dutch even made a full size realistic human dummy, which actually worked on one particular occasion.

The prisoners would also hide other inmates to make the Germans believe that more men had escaped than actually had.

By October 1942, there had been more than 50 British escape attempts with 3 of these ending in success. Another daring venture saw four british officers exit a kitchen window and attempt to cross a courtyard being patrolled by German guards. It took them nearly 3 hours to achieve this by crossing the yard whilst the sentry's back was turned.

Once on the other side of the courtyard, the men then had to pick a locked door, which they subsequently found they could not. Their only option was to hide in a nearby storeroom in the castle's foundations.

Once inside they managed to locate a small opening which led out of the castle, but they could only squeeze through the gap by stripping naked. All 4 men make it out of the castle and incredibly manage to reach Switzerland less than a week later.

Red Cross Parcels of  WW2
Red Cross Parcels of WW2

Hard Times For All

It was however, a difficult time not only for the remaining inmates of Colditz, but also for their wives and girlfriends at home in Britain. They were having to endure bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, whilst waiting for any correspondance from their loved ones.

Although bhouyed by receiving any letters, these were of course heavily censored by the Germans, so filling these letters was a bit of a challenge. The inmates couldn't write what they were up to inside the castle and the women at home had little to write about other than the bombing of Britain.

Some men had children back home that they had never set eyes on as their partners had been pregnant when they had been captured. Some had to come to terms with the knowledge that their previous loves had met other people and new lovers, which they could do absolutely nothing about.

Not only letters from home, but also Red Cross parcels sent under the laws of the Geneva convention, helped to sustain the inmates. These supplemented their meagre rations which mainly consisted of a thin soup which only occasionally might contain traces of some undescribable meat.

The Red Cross parcels contained chocolate, tea, tinned meats, processed cheese and cigarettes. The arrival of these parcels were hugely welcomed by the prisoners and some of the men were visibly moved when they came.

The smuggled radio in the Colditz attic.
The smuggled radio in the Colditz attic.

In Touch With Home

By 1943, the prisoners could also satisfy their desire for news of life back home. A radio had been smuggled in to the castle and was secreted high in the eaves of the castle's roof. The excitement of putting on the BBC news each night and then recounting it all to the prisoners was seen as a triumph for the inmates over their German oppressors.

They were not only able to receive news on how the war was developing, but were also able to listen to the football and horse racing back home in England. This gave them an enormous comfort in the knowledge that life back home was at least trying to carry on as normal as possible.

By September 1943, a surprising number of 28 men had in total escaped from the castle and made it back to their home countries. The British now had an outlandish plan to get 30 men out in one go.

Franz Josef (left) and Mike Sinclair (right)
Franz Josef (left) and Mike Sinclair (right)

The Franz Josef Escape

A daring plan to preoccupy thousands of German troops to search for dozens of escaped prisoners in a mass escape was now set in motion. This would mean a British officer named Mike Sinclair would impersonate a highly distinguishable German sergeant named Franz josef, and simply walk out of the castle with dozens of men disguised as German troops.

Sinclair disguised himself as the German officer and marched out to the main gate with two prisoners dressed as guards. Two genuine German sentries are fooled by the disguises and are relieved of duty by the fake British ones. But as Sinclair approaches the last guard, he is asked for a password, which of course, he does not know.

Some confusion and arguments then ensued until a single shot rang out, Sinclair had been shot by the sentry and sank to his knees. Although he eventually recovered, the escape had failed.

By 1944, the fortunes of the war beyond the walls of Colditz were beginning to change. The British planes were now flying overhead and this was a bittersweet reminder for the prisoners of the many battles being fought outside the castle, without them. The men always had the feeling though that Britain and it's Allies couldn't possibly be defeated and would eventually win the day.

And it was that indomitable spirit that would lead the British to their most remarkable of schemes yet.

The Colditz Glider, 1944
The Colditz Glider, 1944

The Glider

In January 1944, the British escape committee came up with the extraordinary idea of building a glider and flying two of the prisoners out of the castle. They even saw it as a last resort in case the Germans, who they felt were losing the war, might turn on them, and so flying men out to tell the tale was seen as a justifiable plan.

In the very large attic space of the castle, the British set about building a false wall, covering it in cobwebs and dirt. This effectively left them with a small hanger to work in to be able to build a small two man glider. The glider took shape in the attic throughout 1944.

It was critical that the men working on the glider received advanced warning of any approaching guards, so a series of lookouts known as 'Stooges' were put in place. Although this was a relatively simple job, it was nevertheless a vital one.

The glider itself took more than a year to build, but played a big part in keeping alive the hopes of the prisoners, but it was never to fly. News of the Normandy landings on D-Day reached the inmates by way of the secret radio in the attic.

As the prisoner's hopes of liberation and the end of the war grew, conditions at the castle took a turn for the worse. Towards the end of the war, the Red Cross parcels stopped arriving and the prisoners became increasingly hungry.

Things became very oppressive and the men's morale became severely tested. There was to be one final attempt at freedom and Mike Sinclair, who had been shot in the Franz Josef escape attempt, decided that he wanted to leave Colditz by his own means. He was considered as the most prolific escaper and the Germans had nicknamed him 'The Red Fox', because of his red hair and desire to escape capture.

D-Day: Day of Days by Dave Harris
D-Day: Day of Days by Dave Harris
Mike Sinclair
Mike Sinclair

The Final Escape

On the 25th September 1944, in the same park that Maurice Lebrun had successfully escaped from three years earlier, Mike Sinclair attempted to jump the wire in just the same manner as Lebrun. But this time, the head of the castle's security detail was patrolling the other side of the fence.

In clearing the fence, Sinclair encounters the German officer and knocks him to the ground, but as he attempts to flee into the woods, the German raises his pistol and shoots. The bullet hits Sinclair in the elbow and ricochets into his heart, killing him instantly.

Mike Sinclair was in fact the only prisoner who was ever killed whilst trying to escape from Colditz and it would prove to be the last attempt to escape from the castle.

The Liberation of Colditz, 1945
The Liberation of Colditz, 1945

Going Home

On April 12th 1945, Allied forces surrounded the town of Colditz, but unaware that he castle was being used as a POW camp, the Americans began shelling it. In an attempt to make the Americans aware that they were there, the prisoners set about making a union jack flag. They then raced up to the castle's battlements and raised the flag.

Thankfully, their quick thinking saved the day and the Americans stopped shelling the castle, but the battle for control of the town raged on throughout the night. the prisoners klooked on as they had a grandstand view of the artillery battle raging in the town below the castle.

The next morning, an American soldier appeared at the main gate of the castle courtyard. He looked around nervously as cheers rang out from around the castle and he then found himself mobbed by the jubilant prisoners.

The men couldn't quite believe that five long years of incarceration had finally come to an end, Colditz had finally been liberated. After five years, more than 300 escape attempts, 32 of which had ended successfully (more than any other POW camp in World War Two), the men finally got to go home on April 18th 1945.

Colditz Castle and it's prisoners, 1940 - 1945
Colditz Castle and it's prisoners, 1940 - 1945

Never Forgotten

In the 65 years since their liberation, the personal accounts of the prisoners of Colditz have capture the imagination of people the world over.

In 1955, one of the prisoners, Pat Read, wrote a book about his experiences at the castle which was lateer dramatised into the film The Colditz Story, and in 1972, the BBC drama series Colditz, became a global success.

Colditz Castle was a unique place and it's prisoners were unique people, they represented perfect role models for the youth of today and are wonderful symbols of courage, endurance and ingenuity.

They exuded great comradeship and brotherhood and displayed what great spirit a human being can exhibit.

i believe their story should always be told and never forgotten.

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