Colditz Castle

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War

Colditz Castle in April 1945. Photo taken by a U.S. Army soldier.
Colditz Castle in April 1945. Photo taken by a U.S. Army soldier.

Colditz Castle is a castle in the town of Colditz near Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz in the state of Saxony in Germany ( 51°7′50.82″N, 12°48′26.94″E). Used as a workhouse for the indigent and a mental institution for over 100 years, it became notorious as Oflag IV-C a prisoner-of-war camp for "incorrigible" Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps. The Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) made Colditz a Sonderlager (high-security prison camp), the only one of its type within Germany. Hermann Göring — holder of the singular rank Reichsmarschall (" Field Marshal of the Empire") — even declared Colditz "escape-proof". This was in part because of its lack of escapes during its term as prison camp in World War I, but mostly due to it being the only German prisoner-of-war camp with more guards than prisoners. Yet despite this audacious claim, there were multiple escapes by British, Canadian, French, Polish, Dutch, and Belgian inmates.


The original castle

The Colditz coat of arms over the gate to the outer courtyard
The Colditz coat of arms over the gate to the outer courtyard

In 1046, Henry III of the Holy Roman Empire gave the burgher of Colditz permission to build the first documented settlement at the site. In 1083, Henry IV recommended Markgraf Wiprecht of Groitzsch to develop the castle site, which Colditz accepted. In 1158, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa appointed Thimo I "Lord of Colditz", and major building works began. Around 1200, the actual city around the market was established. Forests, empty meadows, and farmland were settled and organized next to the pre-existing slavic villages Zschetzsch, Zschadraß, Zollwitz, Terpitzsch and Koltzschen. Around that time the larger villages Hohnbach, Thierbaum, Ebersbach and Tautenhain also emerged.

In the Middle Ages, the castle played an important role as a watchtower for the German Emperors and therefore was the centre of the Reich territories of the Pleißenland (anti- Meißen Pleiße-lands). Around 1404, the nearly 250-year-old dynasty of the Lords of Colditz ended when Thimo VIII sold Colditz Castle for 15,000 silver marks into the possession of the Wettin family dynasty.

As a result of territorial politics in Saxony, the city and state of Colditz was officially established in the Margravate (county) of Meißen. In 1430, the Hussites attacked Colditz and set city and castle on fire. Around 1464, renovation and new building work on the Castle was carried out by Prince Ernst, who died in Colditz Castle in 1486. Under Frederick the Wise and Johann the Gentle, Colditz was a royal residence of the Electors of Saxony.

The rebuilt castle

The porphyry mannerist portal of the church house carved by Andreas Walther II in 1584.
The porphyry mannerist portal of the church house carved by Andreas Walther II in 1584.

In 1504, the servant Clemens the baker accidentally set Colditz on fire, and the city hall, church, castle and a large part of the city went up in flames. In 1506, reconstruction began and new buildings were raised around the rear castle courtyard. In 1523 the castle park was turned into one of the largest zoos in Europe. In 1524, rebuilding of the upper floors of the castle began. The castle was reconstructed in a fashion that corresponded to the way it was divided up — into the cellar, the royal house and the banquet hall building. There is nothing more to be seen of the original fortified castle, where the present rear castle is located, but it is still possible to make out where the original divisions were (the Old or Lower House, the Upper House and the Great House).

The structure of the castle was changed under the long reign of the elector Augustus of Saxony (1553 to 1586), and the complex was reconstructed into a Renaissance style castle from 1577 to 1591, including the portions that were still in the gothic architectural style. Architects Hans Irmisch and Peter Kummer supervised the further restoration and rebuilding. Later, Lucas Cranach the Younger was commissioned as an artist in the Castle.

During this period the portal at what is known as the church house was created in 1584, made of porphyry and richly decorated in the mannerist style by Andreas Walther II. It was at this time that both the interior and the exterior of "the Holy Trinity" castle chapel that links the cellar and royal house with one another were redesigned. Shortly thereafter, the castle became an administrative centre for the Office of Colditz and a hunting lodge. In 1694, its then-current holder, Augustus the Strong, began to expand it, resulting in a second courtyard and a total of 700 rooms.

The modern castle

Colditz bridge during in 1945 after the town had been occupied by the US Army
Colditz bridge during in 1945 after the town had been occupied by the US Army

In the 19th century, the church space was rebuilt in the neo-classic architectural style, but its condition was allowed to deteriorate. The castle was used by Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony as a workhouse to feed the poor, the ill, and persons under arrest. It served this purpose from 1803 to 1829, when its workhouse function was taken over by an institution in Zwickau. In 1829 the castle became a mental hospital for the "incurably insane" from Waldheim. In 1864, a new hospital building was erected in the Gothic Revival style, on the ground where the stables and working quarters were previously located. It remained a mental institution until 1924.

During World War I, the castle was used as a Prisoner of War camp (see POW). No escapes were made at this time. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they turned the castle into a political prison for communists, homosexuals, Jews, and other "undesirables". It was not until 1939 that allied prisoners were housed there. In April 1945, US troops entered Colditz town and, after a two-day fight, conquered the castle on April 16.

In May 1945, the Soviet occupation of Colditz began. Following the Yalta Conference it then became a part of East Germany. The Soviets turned Colditz castle into a prison camp for local burghers and non-communists. Later the castle was a home for the aged and nursing home, as well as a hospital and psychiatric clinic. For many years after the War, forgotten hiding spots and tunnels were found by repairmen.

In 2005, the scaffolding was visible from town.
In 2005, the scaffolding was visible from town.

The current castle

Today the castle and the church space require a significant amount of refurbishment and restoration. The last users moved out on August 1, 1996, and since then the castle has been almost empty except for the occasional visitor. The "Gesellschaft Schloss Colditz e.V." (the Castle Colditz historical society), founded in 1996, has its offices in a portion of the administration building in the front castle court.

As of 2005 portions of the castle are closed off to tourists due to renovation. In particular the chapel, portions of the attic, much of the interior, the tunnels, and at least one exterior face are undergoing refinishing.

Colditz Castle as a mental institution

For nearly a hundred years, between 1829 and 1924, Colditz was a sanitarium, generally reserved for the wealthy and the nobility of Germany. The castle thus functioned as a hospital during a long stretch of massive upheaval in Germany, from slightly after the Napoleonic Wars destroyed the Holy Roman Empire and created the German Confederation, throughout the lifespan of the North German Confederation, the complete reign of the German Empire, throughout the First World War, and until the beginnings of the Weimar Republic. Between 1914 and 1918, the castle was home to both psychiatric and tuberculosis patients, 912 of whom died of malnutrition.

Colditz Castle was also home to several notable figures during its time as a mental institution, including Ludwig Schumann, the second youngest son of the famous composer Robert Schumann, and Ernst Georg August Baumgarten, one of the original inventors of the airship.

Colditz Castle as Oflag IVc

After the outbreak of World War II the castle was converted into a high security Prisoner of War camp for officers who had become security or escape risks or who were regarded as volksfeindlich, or treasonous against the people. Since the castle is situated on a rocky outcropping above the Mulde river, the Germans believed it to be an ideal site for a high security prison.

The larger outer courtyard, known as the Kommandantur, had only two exits and housed a large German garrison. The prisoners lived in an adjacent courtyard in a 90 foot (27 m) tall building. Outside, the flat terraces which surrounded the prisoners' accommodation were constantly watched by armed sentries and surrounded by barbed wire. Although known as Colditz Castle to the locals, its official German designation was Oflag IVc and it was under Wehrmacht control.

Population changes

The first prisoners arrived in November 1939; they were 140 Polish officers from the September Campaign who were regarded as escape risks. However, later most of them were transferred to other Oflags.
In October Donald Middleton, Keith Milne, and Howard D. Wardle (a Canadian who joined the RAF just before the war) became the first British prisoners at Colditz.
On November 7, 1940, six British RAF officers, the "Laufen Six", named after the camp from which they made their first escape, arrived: Harry Elliott, Rupert Barry (later Sir Rupert Barry), Patrick Reid, Dick Howe, Peter Allen, and Kenneth Lockwood. They were soon joined by a handful of British Army officers and later by Belgian officers. By Christmas 1940 there were 60 Polish officers, 12 Belgians, 50 French, and 30 British, a total of no more than 200 with their orderlies.

On July 24, 1941, 68 Dutch officers arrived, members of the Dutch East Indies Army, who had refused to sign a declaration that they would take no part in the war against Germany. Afterwards a number of would-be-escapees would borrow Dutch greatcoats as their disguise. When the Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands they were short on material for uniforms, so they confiscated anything available. The coats in Dutch field grey in particular remained unchanged in colour, since it was similar to the tone already in use by the Germans, so these greatcoats would be nearly identical with very minor alterations.
Some of the French officers held at Colditz
Some of the French officers held at Colditz
In February 1941, 200 French officers arrived. A number of the French demanded that French Jewish officers be segregated from them and the camp commander obliged; they were moved to the attics. By the end of July 1941, there were more than 500 officers: over 250 French, 150 Polish, 50 British and Commonwealth, 2 Yugoslavian and the 68 Dutch officers who arrived in Colditz on July 24.
In May 1943, the Wehrmacht High Command decided that Colditz should house only Americans and British, so in June the Dutch were moved out, followed shortly thereafter by the Poles, the Belgians, and the French; with the final French group leaving July 12, 1943. By the end of July there were a few Free French officers, and 228 British officers, with a contingent consisting of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Irish, and one Indian.
Polish General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski.
Polish General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski.
On August 23, 1944 Colditz received its first Americans: 49-year-old Colonel Florimund Duke — the oldest American paratrooper of the war, Captain Guy Nunn, and Alfred Suarez. They were all counter-intelligence operatives parachuted into Hungary to prevent it joining forces with Germany. Population was approximately 254 at the start of the early winter that year.
On January 19, 1945 six French Generals — Lieutenant-General Jean Adolphe Louis Robert Flavigny, Major-General Gustave Marie Maurice Mesny, Major-General Louis Léon Marie André Buisson, Major-General Arsène Marie Paul Vauthier, Brigadier-General Albert Joseph Daine, and Brigadier-General René Jacques Mortemart de Boisse — were brought from the camp at Königstein to Colditz Castle.
On February 5 Polish General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, deputy commander of the Armia Krajowa (home army) and responsible for the Warsaw Uprising, arrived with his entourage. In March 1945, 1200 French prisoners were brought to Colditz Castle, with 600 more being imprisoned in the town below.

The "Prominente" and famous inmates

Among the more famous inmates were British fighter ace Douglas Bader; Patrick Reid, the man who made Colditz famous with his post war books; Airey Neave, the first British officer to escape from Colditz; New Zealand British Army Captain Charles Upham, the only combat soldier to ever receive the Victoria Cross twice; and David Stirling, founder of the wartime Special Air Service.

There were also prisoners called Prominente, relatives of Allied VIPs. The first one was Giles Romilly, a civilian journalist who was captured in Narvik, Norway who also happened to be a nephew of Winston Churchill. Adolf Hitler himself specified that Romilly was to be treated with the utmost care and that:

  1. The Kommandant and Security Officer answer for Romilly's security with their heads.
  2. His security is to be assured by any and every exceptional measure you care to take.
Members of the Prominente, under a U.S. guard, outside the Hungerberg Hotel on May 5, 1945, shortly after their release. L to R: John Alexander Elphinstone, Max de Hamel, Michael Alexander, unknown, George Lascelles, and John Winant Jr..
Members of the Prominente, under a U.S. guard, outside the Hungerberg Hotel on May 5, 1945, shortly after their release. L to R: John Alexander Elphinstone, Max de Hamel, Michael Alexander, unknown, George Lascelles, and John Winant Jr..

When the end of the war approached, the number of Prominente increased. Eventually there were Viscount George Lascelles, nephew to George VI; John Alexander Elphinstone, nephew of Queen Elizabeth; Captain George Haig, son of WWI field marshal Douglas Haig; Charles Hope, son of Victor Hope, the Viceroy of India; Lieutenant John Winant Jr., son of John Gilbert Winant, US ambassador to Britain; Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, commander of the Warsaw Uprising; and four German generals. British Commando Michael Alexander, claimed to be a nephew of field marshal Harold Alexander in order to escape execution, but was merely a distant cousin.

Micky Burn, another famous inmate of Colditz, was a British commando captured at Saint-Nazaire. Burn had been a journalist like Romilly before the war, working for The Times. Burn had briefly been an admirer of the Nazi Party and in 1936 had met Adolf Hitler, who signed his copy of Mein Kampf. After the war broke out Burn politically shifted to Marxism and gave lectures to prisoners at Colditz, however, due to his pre-war interest in Nazi philosophy he was widely regarded with distrust and scorn.

Lord John Francis Arundell, 16th Baron Arundell of Wardour (1907-1944) was an aristocrat held at Colditz who, despite his pedigree, was not awarded prominente status. Arundell made a habit of exercising in the winter snow, a habit which would lead to his contracting tuberculosis and to his eventual death in Chester Military Hospital.

At 1:30am on Friday the 13th, April 1945, while the battles approached the area, the Prominente were moved under guard and the cover of darkness. The Allies and prisoners became especially concerned that the Prominente might be used as hostages, bargaining chips, human shields, or that the SS might try to kill them out of spite; they prepared for resistance and, if possible, to take over the castle. The Germans moved all the Prominente out of the castle, over the protestations of the other prisoners. When US troops reached the area, prisoners convinced the leader of their guards Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger to surrender in secret, so as to save him from the revenge of the SS. With his aid they reached American lines a couple of weeks later. He would later receive a lessened sentence after his hearing in 1949 because of his actions regarding the Prominente.

The German staff and visitors

A group of the French orderlies from Colditz Castle poses for a picture in the inner courtyard.
A group of the French orderlies from Colditz Castle poses for a picture in the inner courtyard.

Keeping the castle running was a difficult task, the Germans maintained a larger garrison at the castle than at many of their other prison camps. Between the years of 1939 and 1945, more than 70 German officers and enlisted men worked in a wide variety of staff positions as well as overseeing prisoner's labour.

There was also a large contingent of civilians and local townspeople who would be on castle grounds. Some would be in maintenance ( electrician, carpenter, plumber, etc...), some in medical roles ( dentist, doctor, etc...), some would be there in a supervisory role ( Nazi Party leaders, Swiss Red Cross observers, etc...), others would be on grounds merely because they were family members of the military officers at the camp.

Life in the camp

In Colditz, the Wehrmacht followed the Geneva Convention to the letter. Would-be escapees were punished with solitary confinement, instead of being summarily executed. In principle, the security officers recognized that it was the duty of the POWs to try to escape and that their own job was to stop them. Prisoners could even form gentlemen's agreements with the guards, such as not using borrowed tools for escape attempts.

Most of the guard company was composed of WWI veterans and young soldiers not fit for the front. Because Colditz was a high security camp, the Germans organized three and then later four Appells ( roll calls) a day to count the prisoners. If they discovered someone had escaped, they alerted every police and train station within a 40 km (25 miles) radius, and all the members of the Hitler Youth joined the hunt.

Due to the number of Red Cross food parcels, prisoners sometimes ate better than their guards, who had to rely on Wehrmacht rations. Prisoners could use their relative luxuries for trade and, for example, exchange their cigarettes for Reichsmark that they hoped could later use in their escape attempts. Occasionally this turned to be a mistake as several of the bills they received were of the earlier Papiermark varieties that were no longer considered valid. There were also other currencies in circulation, these included the Registermark, utilized for travelling and investments in Germany; the Reisemark, for tourists; the Kreditsperrmark, for sales of property belonging to foreigners; the Effektensperrmark, arising from the sale of securities in Germany; the Reichskreditkassenschein in occupied territories; and the Behelfszahlungsmittel (Auxiliary Payment Certificates) for the German Armed Forces. The Kreditsperrmark and Effektensperrmark were consolidated into the Handelsperrmark in 1939. Due to the massive variety of currency types and uses, in several escape attempts, escapees with one of these various currencies printed before 1939 were told their money was no good — leaving them moneyless and easier to recapture.

Prisoners had to make their own entertainment. In August 1941 the first camp Olympics were organized by the Polish prisoners. Events were held in football (soccer), volleyball, boxing, and chess, but the closing ceremony was interrupted by a German fire drill. "The British came in last place in every event cheerfully, to the dismay of the other participants who took the competition deadly seriously," according to the British inmate John Wilkens in a 1986 interview. Prisoners also formed a Polish choir, a Dutch Hawaiian guitar band, and a French orchestra.

The British put on homemade revues, classical plays and farces including: Gaslight, Rope, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Pygmalion, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Several prisoners even intentionally grew their hair long so as to better portray female roles. Prisoner Jock Hamilton-Baillie even used to shave his legs, rub them in brown shoe polish, and draw a line down the back of his legs in pencil to simulate the appearance of silk stockings. This allowed him special "bath privileges" in the German guards washroom, since the prisoner's showers were unable to get the polish off his legs. Staging these plays even gained the prisoners access to "parole tools", tools which were used to build the sets and promised not to be used to escape. During the summer months, the theater's peak periods, there were new productions every two weeks. The biggest success of the theatre however would be the Christmas themed Ballet Nonsense which premiered on November 16, 1941 and ran until the November 18, 1941 show which Hauptmann Priem (the first prison warden of Colditz) attended.

Another pastime which occupied much of the prisoners' time was the production of moonshine alcohol. Initially started by the Polish contingent using a recipe of yeast, water, German jam and sugar from their Red Cross parcels, and then taken up by other prisoners, it did not take long for stills to be secreted all across Colditz (one of which remained undiscovered until a tourist trip in 1984). Prisoner Michael Farr, whose family ran Hawker's Gin (the sole purveyors of Sloe gin with a Royal Warrant), even managed to make a sparkling wine dubbed "Château Colditz". Some prisoners would get black teeth or even temporary blindness from consuming this beverage — a condition known as "jam-happy" — as it contained many impurities. Although the German guards despised the drunken prisoners, they generally turned a blind eye to the distilling.

Officers also studied languages, learning from each other, and told stories. Most popular of these stories were the embellished retelling of BBC broadcasts by Jim Rogers. Since mail was regularly screened by censors, and the German newspapers received by prisoners contained much Nazi propaganda, the only reliable information prisoners could obtain on the progress of the war in Europe was through BBC broadcasts received via one of two radios which were secreted in the castle. These radios were smuggled in by French prisoner Frédérick Guigues and named "Arthur 1" and "Arthur 2". The first radio was quickly discovered due to a mole, but the second would remain secreted away until Guigues returned and removed it during a tour of the castle in 1965. The radio hide would not be permanently exposed until 1992 during repairs to the roof. .

Later the most popular way to pass the time was stoolball, a particularly rough version of rugby, where there were two stools at either end of the prisoners' courtyard and goals were scored by knocking off the goalie who was sitting on the stool. This game served as an outlet for pent-up aggression, and also provided noise to cover the sounds of tunnel-digging.

In addition to escape attempts, prisoners also tried to make the life of their guards more miserable by resorting to "goon-baiting", making nuisances of themselves by harassing the guards. For example, they would drop water and excrement bombs on the guards. Douglas Bader even encouraged his junior officers to do that. British Flight Lieutenant Pete Tunstall especially tried to cause havoc by disturbing the roll call even if nobody was trying to escape, so that the guards would not become suspicious when somebody was. He went through a total of five courts martial and suffered a total of 415 days in solitary confinement.

"Thou shalt escape if you possibly can"

Prisoners contrived a number of methods to escape. They duplicated keys to various doors, made copies of maps, forged Ausweise ( identity papers), and manufactured their own tools. MI9, a department of the British War Office which specialized in escape equipment, communicated with the prisoners in code and smuggled them new escape aids disguised in care packages from family or from non-existent charities, although they never tampered with Red Cross care packages for fear it would force the Germans to stop their delivery to all camps. The Germans became skilled at intercepting these.

There was also a form of black market whereby the prisoners used items from their Red Cross parcels to buy information and tools from the cooperative guards and townsfolk. Since the Germans allowed Douglas Bader to visit the town, he took chocolate and other luxuries with him for trading. Flight Lieutenant Cenēk Chaloupka traded goods for information and even had a girlfriend in the town. David Stirling later took control of the black market operations.

There was only one fatality during the escape attempts: British Lieutenant Michael Sinclair in September 1944. The Germans buried him in Colditz cemetery with full military honours — his casket was draped with a Union Jack flag made by the German guards, and he received a 7 gun salute. Post-war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the only one to receive it for escaping during WWII. He is currently buried in grave number 10.1.14 at Berlin War Cemetery in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district of Berlin.

Unsuccessful escapes

Most of the escape attempts failed. Pat Reid, who later wrote about his experiences in Colditz, failed to escape at first and then became an "Escape Officer", charged with coordinating the various national groups so they would not ruin each other's escape attempts. Escape Officers were generally not themselves permitted to escape. Many tried unsuccessfully to escape in disguise: Airey Neave twice dressed as a guard, French Lieutenant Boulé disguised in drag, British Lieutenant Michael Sinclair even dressed as camp Kommandant Rothenberger, when he tried to organize a mass escape, and French Lieutenant Perodeau disguised as regular camp electrician Willi Pöhnert ("Little Willi"):

On the night of December 28, 1942, one of the French officers deliberately blew out the fuse on the lights in the courtyard. As they had anticipated Pöhnert was summoned, and while he was still fixing the lights, Lieutenant Perodeau, dressed almost identically to Pöhnert and carrying a tool box, walked casually out of the courtyard gate. He passed the first guard without incident, but the guard at the main gate asked for his token — tokens were issued to each guard and staff member upon entry of the camp guardhouse specifically to avoid this type of escape — with no hope of bluffing his way out of this, Perodeau surrendered.

Dutch sculptors made two clay heads to stand in for escaping officers in the roll call. Later, "ghosts", officers who had faked a successful escape and hid in the castle, took the place of escaping prisoners in the roll call in order to delay discovery as long as possible.

Camp guards collected so much escape equipment that they established a "Kommandant's Escape Museum". Local photographer Johannes Lange took photographs of the would-be escapees in their disguises or re-enacting their attempts for the camera. Along with the Lange photographs, one of the two sculpted clay heads was displayed proudly in the museum. Security officer Reinhold Eggers made them a regular part of Das Abwehrblatt, a weekly magazine for the German POW camps.

There were also several rather inventive escape attempts:

The Mattress

In late 1940, British officer Peter Allan found out that the Germans were moving several mattresses from the castle to another camp and decided that would be his way out. He let the French officers moving the mattresses know that one would be a little bit heavier. Allan, a fluent German speaker due to his schooling in Germany before the war, dressed himself up in a Hitlerjugend ( Hitler Youth) uniform, stuffed Reichsmark in his pockets, and had himself sewn into one of the mattresses. He managed to get himself loaded into the truck, and unloaded into an empty house within the town. Cutting himself out of the mattress several hours later, when all he could hear was silence, he climbed out of the window into the garden and walked down the road towards his freedom. Along the 100 mi (161 km) way to Vienna via Stuttgart he got a lift with a senior SS officer. Allan recalled that ride as the scariest moment of his life, "To be vulgar, I nearly needed a new pair of trousers." Allan had been aiming to reach Poland, but soon after reaching Vienna he found he was out of money. At this time the Americans had not yet entered the war, so Allan decided to ask the American embassy for assistance; he was refused. Allan had been on the run at this point for nine days; broke, exhausted, and hungry, he fell asleep in a park. Upon waking he discovered he could no longer walk due to his starvation. Soon after he was picked up and returned to Colditz, where he spent the next 3 months in solitary confinement.

The Bed-Sheet Rope

May 12, 1941 in a scene seemingly straight out of a film, Polish officers Lieutenants Miki Surmanowicz and Mietek Chmiel, attempted to rappel down a 36 m (120 ft) wall to freedom on a rope constructed out of bed sheets. In order to get into position, both men put themselves into solitary confinement. After forcing open the door and picking the locks, they made their way to the courtyard where they climbed up to a narrow ledge. From the ledge they were able to jump to the guard house roof, and climb through an open window on the outer wall. Reusing their bed sheet rope they lowered themselves to the ground, where they were caught by a German guard.

The Canteen Tunnel

Early in 1941, the British prisoners had gained access to the sewers and drains which ran beneath the floors of the castle. Entrance to these was from a manhole cover in the floor of the canteen. After initial reconnaissance trips, it was decided that the drain should be extended, and an exit made in a small grassy area which was overlooked from the canteen window. From here, they had planned to climb down the hill, and drop down below the steep outside eastern wall of the castle. Knowing which sentry would be on duty during the planned night of the escape, they pooled their resources and collected 500 Reichsmark for a bribe (100 of which were paid up front). This plan took 3 months of preparation. On the evening of May 29, 1941, Pat Reid hid in the canteen when it was locked up for the night. He removed the bolt from the lock on the door, and returned to the courtyard. After the evening meeting, the chosen escapers slipped into the canteen unnoticed.

They entered the tunnel and waited for the signal to proceed. Unknown to the prisoners, they had been betrayed by the bribed guard. Waiting on the grassy area was Hauptmann Priem and his guard force.

Pat Reid recalls:

"I climbed out on to the grass and Rupert Barry, immediately behind me, started to follow. My shadow was cast on the wall of the Kommandantur, and at that moment I noticed a second shadow beside my own. It held a gun. I yelled to Rupert to get back as a voice behind me shouted, Hände hoch! Hände hoch!. I turned to face a German officer levelling his pistol at me."

Behind him were 7 British and 4 Polish officers. On his order the remaining men backed up the tunnel to evade detection, but the Germans were waiting for them outside the canteen. Not wanting to give their captors the satisfaction the British burst into laughter as they came out, much to the bemusement of the guards.

Hauptmann Priem ends the story:

"And the Guard? He kept his 100 Marks; he got extra leave, promotion and the War Service Cross."

The French Tunnel

Nine French officers organized a long-term tunnel-digging project, the longest attempted out of Colditz Castle throughout the war. Deciding that the exit should be on the steep drop leading down towards the recreation area, outside the eastern walls of the castle, they began to scout for a possible location for the entrance. The problem was solved by Lieutenants Cazaumayo and Paille, who had gained access to the clock tower in 1940.

Their tunnel began at the top of a chapel's clock tower and descended 8.6 meters (28.2 ft) into the ground using an old dumbwaiter shaft. They found that the weights which used to hang down the shaft, and the chains, had been removed. This left an empty shaft which extended from the clock to the cellars below. After the previous escape attempts of Cazaumayo and Paille, the doors (one on each floor) which provided access to the tower had been bricked up in order to prevent further escape attempts. However, by sealing up the tower the Germans had in essence provided a secure location where escape tunnel work could be done without notice. The French this time gained access to the tower from the attics, descended 35 m to the cellars, and began work on a horizontal shaft in June 1941. This shaft work would continue for a further eight months.

The horizontal shaft towards the chapel progressed 4 m (13 ft) before they hit rock too hard to dig. They then decided to dig upwards towards the chapel floor. From here the tunnel continued underneath the wooden floor of the chapel for a distance of 13.5 m (44.3 ft). For this to be achieved, seven heavy oak timbers in the floor, measuring 0.5 m (1.3 ft) square had to be cut through. Homemade saws, assembled out of German table knives, were employed for this task. With this completed, the tunnel dropped vertically from the far corner of the chapel a further 5.2 m (17 ft). The tunnel then proceeded out towards the proposed exit with two further descents, separated by shafts in the tough stone foundations of the castle. The tunnel now ran a horizontal distance of 44 m (144 ft), reaching a final depth of 8.6 m (28.2 ft) below the ground.

Tunnelling continued well into 1942. By then Germans knew that the French were digging somewhere, based on the noise of their tunnelling reverberating through the castle at night. The French however were smug that its entrance was totally undetectable. However, on January 15 the Germans eventually searched the sealed off clock tower. Noises were heard below, and after lowering a small boy down the shaft three French officers were found. After searching the cellar thoroughly, the entrance to the tunnel was eventually discovered a mere 2 m (6.5 ft) short of completion. The French were convinced that they had been betrayed by one of their own countrymen but this was denied by the guards who demanded the French pay to repair the damage (estimated at 12000 Reichsmark).

The tunnel itself was a major engineering feat. It had electric lighting along its whole length spliced off of the chapel's electricity supply. Not only did this allow the tunnellers to see what they were doing, it was also used as a system with which to signal to them the arrival of any sentries. The entrance to the tunnel in the wine cellar was concealed by 5 large stones covering a small door, which left little trace of any hole. Debris was transported from the working area by means of several sacks hoisted up the clock tower and disposed of in the castle's attics. The wine cellar was regularly cleaned and redusted using dust harvested from the attic, so as to hide the reddish clay dust which was not present in the cellar ordinarily.

Successful escapes

Pat Reid claims in Colditz: The Full Story that there were 31 "home runs". It should be noted that he includes prisoners from the hospital and prisoners being transported, who were not directly under Colditz staff control. Henry Chancellor in Colditz: The Definitive History claims 32 escaped but only 15 were "home runs": 1 Belgian, 11 British, 7 Dutch, 12 French and 1 Polish. The difference is that Reid claims any successful escape by an "official" Colditz POW a "home run" where most other historians only consider escapes from the castle or castle grounds itself as a "home run". Also a subject of debate is whether or not Millar's escape should be considered a "home run", but since he is listed MIA (unofficially he is assumed deceased), Chancellor does not count him as such.

At the end of May 1943, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces High Command) decided that Colditz should hold only British and Commonwealth officers. Because of this decision, all of the Dutch and Polish prisoners and most of the French and Belgians were moved to other camps in July. Three British officers tried their luck by impersonating an equal number of French when they were moved out, but they were later returned to Colditz. German security gradually increased and by the end of 1943 most of the potential ways of escape had been plugged. Several officers tried to escape during transit, having first caused themselves to be transferred for that purpose.

Some officers even went so far as to fake illness and mental retardation in order to be repatriated on medical grounds. A member of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), Captain Ion Ferguson, wrote a letter to an Irish friend where he suggested that Ireland join the war; the letter was stopped by the censors but his wish to be moved elsewhere was granted. In Stalag IV D he certified a number of prisoners as insane, who were consequently repatriated, and then convinced the Germans of his own insanity and returned to Britain the same way. Four other British officers claimed symptoms of stomach ulcer, insanity, high blood pressure and back injury in order to be repatriated. However, there were also officers who went genuinely insane.

From Colditz Castle and Grounds
  1. French Lieutenant Alain Le Ray escaped April 11, 1941. He hid in a terrace house in a park during a game of soccer. First successful Colditz escapee and first to reach neutral Switzerland.
  2. French Lieutenant René Collin escaped May 31, 1941. He climbed into the rafters of a pavilion during exercise, hid there until dark and slipped away. Made it back to France.
  3. French Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun escaped July 2, 1941. He was captured trying Collin's method. Later vaulted over a wire in the park with the help of an associate. He reached Switzerland in eight days on a stolen bicycle.
  4. Dutch Lieutenant Francis Steinmetz escaped August 15, 1941. He hid under a manhole cover in the exercise enclosure, emerged after nightfall, took a train to Gottmadingen, and reached Switzerland in three days.
  5. Dutch Lieutenant E. Hans Larive also escaped August 15, 1941 with Steinmetz
  6. Dutch Major C. Giebel escaped September 20, 1941 using the same method as Steinmetz.
  7. Dutch Lieutenant O. L. Drijber escaped September 20, 1941 with Giebel.
  8. British Lieutenant Airey M. S. Neave escaped January 5, 1942. Crawled through a hole in a camp theatre (after a prisoner performance) to a guardhouse and marched out dressed as a German officer. He reached Switzerland two days later. Neave later joined MI9.
  9. Dutch Lieutenant Anthony P. Luteyn escaped January 5, 1942 with Neave.
  10. British Lieutenant H. N. Fowler escaped September 9, 1942. Slipped with four others through a guard office and a storeroom dressed as German officers and Polish orderlies. Only he and Van Doorninck reached Switzerland.
  11. Dutch Lieutenant Damiaen Joan van Doorninck escaped September 9, 1942 with Fowler.
  12. British Capt. Patrick R. Reid escaped October 14, 1942. Slipped through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandantur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. He took four days to reach Switzerland.
  13. Canadian Flight Lieutenant Howard D. Wardle (RAF) escaped October 14, 1942 with Reid.
  14. British Major Ronald B. Littledale escaped October 14, 1942. Slipped through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandantur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. He took five days to reach Switzerland.
  15. British Lieutenant-Commander William E. Stephens escaped October 14, 1942 with Littledale.
  16. British Lieutenant William Millar escaped January, 1944. He broke into the German courtyard and hid in a German truck intending to go to Czechoslovakia. He never reached home and is listed missing on the Bayeux memorial. There is speculation that he was caught and executed in Mauthausen concentration camp.

From outside Colditz Castle
  1. French Lieutenant J. Durand-Hornus escaped while on a visit to the town dentist December 17, 1941.
  2. French Lieutenant G. de Frondeville escaped while on a visit to the town dentist December 17, 1941.
  3. French Lieutenant J. Prot escaped while on a visit to the town dentist December 17, 1941.
  4. Polish Lieutenant Kroner was transferred to Koningswartha Hospital where he jumped out of the window.
  5. French Lieutenant Boucheron fled from Zeitz Hospital, was recaptured, and later escaped from Düsseldorf prison.
  6. French Lieutenant Odry escaped from Ehterhorst Hospital.
  7. French Lieutenant Navelet escaped from Ehterhorst Hospital.
  8. British Captain Louis Rémy escaped from Gnaschwitz military hospital. His three companions were captured, but he reached Algeciras by boat, and later Britain.
  9. British Squadron Leader Brian Paddon escaped to Sweden via Danzig when sent to his previous camp for a court martial.
  10. French Lieutenant Raymond Bouillez escaped from a hospital after an unsuccessful attempt to jump from a train.
  11. Dutch Lieutenant J. van Lynden slipped away when the Dutch were moved to Stanislau camp.
  12. French Lieutenant A. Darthenay escaped from a hospital at Hohnstein-Ernsttal, later joined the French Resistance, and was killed by the Gestapo on April 7, 1944.
  13. Indian RAMC Captain Birendra Nath Mazumdar M.D. was the only Indian in Colditz. He went on a hunger strike to have himself transferred into an Indian-only camp. His wish was granted three weeks later and he escaped from that camp to France and reached Switzerland in 1944 with the aid of the French Resistance.
  14. Royal Navy ERA W. Hammond campaigned for a transfer from Colditz, arguing that he was not an officer. He was transferred to Lamsdorf prison, escaped from a Breslau work party, and reached England via Switzerland in 1943.
  15. Royal Navy ERA D. Lister campaigned for a transfer from Colditz, arguing that he was not an officer. He was transferred to Lamsdorf prison, escaped from a Breslau work party, and reached England via Switzerland in 1943.

The "Colditz Cock" glider

The only known photo of the original "Cock" glider taken by an unknown American GI in April, 1945.
The only known photo of the original "Cock" glider taken by an unknown American GI in April, 1945.
A replica of the Colditz Glider as seen at the Imperial War Museum in London, England.
A replica of the Colditz Glider as seen at the Imperial War Museum in London, England.

In one of the most ambitious escape attempts from Colditz, the idea of building a glider was dreamt up by two pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch, who had been sent to Colditz after escaping from another POW camp. They were encouraged by two army officers, Tony Rolt and David Walker, who had recently arrived in the camp. It would be Tony Rolt who would recommend the chapel roof, since he noticed it was obscured from the view of the Germans.

The plan was to construct a two-man glider part by part. The glider was assembled by Bill Goldfinch and Jack Best in the lower attic above the chapel, and was to be launched from the roof in order to fly across the river Mulde, which was about 200 feet (60 m) below. The runway was to be constructed from tables and the glider was to be launched using a pulley system based on a falling metal bathtub full of concrete, using a gravity-assisted acceleration to 30 mph (50 km/h).

The officers who took part in the project built a false wall, to hide the secret space in the attic where they slowly built the glider out of stolen pieces of wood. Since the Germans were accustomed to looking down for tunnels, not up for secret workshops, they felt rather safe from detection. However, they still placed lookouts, and created an electric alarm system, to warn the builders of approaching guards.

Hundreds of ribs had to be constructed, predominantly formed from bed slats, but also from every other piece of wood the POW's could surreptitiously obtain. The wing spars were constructed from floor boards. Control wires were made from electrical wiring in unused portions of the castle. A glider expert, Lorne Welch, was asked to review the stress diagrams and calculations made by Goldfinch.

The glider constructed was a lightweight, two-seater, high wing, monoplane design. It had a Mooney style rudder and square elevators. The wingspan, tip to tip, was 32 ft (9.75 m), and it was 19 ft 9 in (6 m) from nose to tail. Prison sleeping bags of blue and white checked cotton were used to skin the glider, and German ration millet was boiled and used to seal the cloth pores. The materials they had to work with caused it to weigh a mere 240 lb (109 kg). However the war ended before the glider was finished.

A replica of the Colditz glider was built for the 2000 Channel 4 (UK) 3-part (150 minute total) "Escape from Colditz" documentary, and flew successfully on its first attempt with Best and Goldfinch in tearful attendance. It is currently housed at the Imperial War Museum in London. The Channel 4 material was edited to 60 minutes and shown in the US in 2001 as "Nazi Prison Escape" on the NOVA television series.

A list of tools used in constructing the Glider Source:
Side-framed saw
  • handle of beech bed board
  • frame of iron window bars
  • blade of gramophone spring with 8 teeth / in (3 mm teeth)
Minute saw for fine work
  • gramophone spring blade, 25 teeth / in (1 mm teeth)
5/8 in (16 mm) metal drill obtained by bribery
  • Drill bits for making holes made from nails
A gauge
  • made of beech, with cupboard bolt and gramophone needle
Large plane, 14 1/2 in (368 mm) long
  • 2 inch blade obtained by bribing a German guard
  • Wooden box (four pieces of beech screwed together)
Small plane, 8 1/2 in (216 mm) long
  • blade made from a table knife
Plane, 5 in (127 mm) long
  • made of beech with gramophone spring blade
Set of keys including:
  • universal door pick, forged from a bucket handle

Colditz Castle in popular culture

Colditz Castle has been the inspiration for both television and film due to the widely popular retellings by Pat Reid and Airey Neave. This started as early as 1955 with the release of The Colditz Story, followed by Escape of the Birdmen in 1971, continuing until 2005 with the Colditz mini-series. The escape stories of Colditz Castle have inspired several board and video games, such as Escape from Colditz.

Suggested reading

For a reasonably comprehensive list of books about Colditz Castle, its history as a POW camp, and many prisoners memoirs see the Suggested reading list.

Retrieved from ""