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Why is Colditz so famous?

During the Second World War, it was supposedly the duty of every captured Allied officer to attempt to escape from their captors. Many of these Allied officer prisoners of war [POW's] took this idea seriously enough to attempt escape, and some lucky ones were successful.

In order to escape successfully [a successful escape was known as a 'Home Run'] a POW had to accomplish several tasks. He would firstly have physically to get out of the camp in which he had been imprisoned; this would be no easy matter since the prisoners were surrounded by physical barriers such as walls or barbed wire and were guarded by armed sentries.

Secondly, he would have to travel across enemy-occupied territory to a neutral border or 'frontier', which would probably be guarded. In today's age of freely-available, fast travel in peacetime Europe, it is difficult to appreciate just how difficult it would be to travel across enemy-occupied Europe. During this journey he would of course have to walk or find transport; he would have to eat, drink, rest and evade capture. Clearly this was a supremely difficult task; the escaper would require money, identity papers, food, shelter, and all kinds of other things such as maps and compass, disguise, and of course he would not be able to communicate with people he met without either good German language skills or at least a good reason why he did not speak good German. Officials would almost certainly use the dreaded phrase, "Ihre Papiere bitte!" - "your papers, please!" Any people whom he met may well be suspicious of anyone and everyone; for several years before the War began, German society had been based on a corrupt system of government where citizens were overseen by secret police [the Gestapo], brown-shirted bullies [the Sturmabteilung or SA] and the SS, any of whom could simply shoot someone on suspicion of any offence, without trial, or carry them away for interrogation, often never to be seen again. It was common practice for ordinary citizens to 'denounce' one another; to act as informers, accusing other people of misdemeanours whether guilty or not, and the knock at the door in the middle of the night was a common occurrence. All of society was steeped in betrayal and suspicion; it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the ordinary German people to have lived in such times. Clearly, then, this was not the most friendly type of country for a lone young man to be escaping across!

Thirdly, and this is not often appreciated, there was no real precedent to what these brave men were doing. Granted, there had been a few books written about escaping from prison camps in World War 1, but these were not many and may not necessarily have been widely read by those unfortunates who were now in captivity. These men were therefore 'pioneers' of escaping; they escaped not really knowing what hazards they were going to face outside the camp, whether they would be shot at while attempting to escape, or even whether or not they would actually be shot if they were recaptured. Don't forget that they would not be in their uniforms, and could justifiably be shot as 'spies' by their captors. All this was unknown; they simply did not have the data available. They were brave men indeed.

It is now a matter of escaping legend that a camp Commandant at one prison said to his prisoners something along the lines of, "If you attempt to escape you will be shot! If you escape a second time, you will be sent to a special camp!"

As we now know, that 'Special Camp', or 'Sonderlager', was Oflag 4C, at Colditz. Officers who had escaped from their camp and been recaptured were sent here, as were officers declared to be 'enemies of the Reich', or 'Deutschfeindlich'. Also imprisoned in Colditz, because of its 'maximum security' status, were the 'Prominente'; 'special' prisoners such as relatives of Allied royalty or eminent leaders. It is virtually certain that Hitler and the ruling Nazis wanted to use these men as 'hostages' against the Allies should the war situation turn against them.

The idea, according to the German High Command, was to keep all these men out of trouble; to lock them into a prison from which it would be impossible to escape. Adolf Hitler himself approved the use of Colditz Castle as the Sonderlager for three main reasons: firstly, the walls were sixteen feet thick in places; secondly, there were two courtyards - this meant that the prisoners and the German garrison could be kept in separate accommodation; thirdly it was no less than four hundred miles from Colditz to the nearest neutral frontier. Clearly a daunting prospect for any would-be escaper.

Furthermore, the Castle stood upon a high rock promontory or steep hill overlooking the River Mulde and Colditz town itself. It was surrounded on three sides by very steep drops - not quite cliffs, but near enough - and was floodlit from every angle at night despite the blackout. The only side of the Castle that did not have a steep drop adjacent to it was the side that was inhabited by the German garrison. The guard contingent was well-armed and well-trained and, at the beginning of the war at least, was virtually incorruptible. It was a dull, grey, depressing place with the weird atmosphere of its former use as a mental hospital, calculated not only to keep the prisoners in but also to drain away their morale and spirit as well.

There were rumours [quite false] that the Castle had been used as a prison camp during the First World War; this may have been a 'demoralisation' ruse by the Germans, because the claim was supposedly that nobody had escaped from there during that conflict. Whatever the case, when Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering visited the camp early on in the War, he too declared it to be 'escape-proof'. Sadly for him, his prediction turned out to be exactly as accurate as one of his other famous quotes, namely, "No enemy plane will fly over the Reich territory". Thousands of Allied aircraft proved that quotation to be, shall we say, inaccurate, on a daily basis; the prisoners of Colditz proved his other prediction to be incorrect on something like 29 occasions, the exact number depending on what you count as an 'escape from Colditz', not to mention the many times the men actually got out of the Castle [known as a 'gone-away'] but were recaptured during their journey to the frontier. In fact, Colditz escapers clocked up more 'home runs' than any other prisoner of war camp in the Second World War.

The main reason for this is that, by putting all the proven escapers together in one place, the Germans had actually also combined all the escaping 'talent' in one place as well. They had brought in document forgers, tunnel engineers, tailors, ropemakers, lock-pickers, scroungers, black-marketeers, stooges [lookouts], mapmakers, compass makers, even aeronautical engineers who did their bit in making the famous Colditz Glider - do I need to make a list? Such a combination of escape talent, combined with the 'diehard' mentality of the more dedicated escapers, was a recipe for the success rate that was actually seen. And apparently the Germans were well aware of this point; quite often, prisoners were welcomed by one of the German officers saying, 'Welcome to the Escape Academy!'. However, we must appreciate the dilemma of the German captors, because if they had not put those men into Colditz, they would probably have spread their attitudes and talents amongst the captives in their own camps, had they been sent back there. So the Germans were in a no-win situation in my view.

But what possible effect on the outcome of the war could a mere twenty-nine escaped officers make, even if they got back to their own countries? Duty aside, why try to escape? Well, first of all, the officers did not know what would happen to them at the end of the War; should the War turn against the Nazis, the fate of the main group of officers could easily become the same as that of the Prominente hostages. Secondly, escaped officers could and did make a valuable contribution to the war effort on their return to Allied territory, not least by carrying messages and intelligence to their leadership in the UK. This was useful in carrying out the third, and, some would say, the most important part of attempting to escape, namely that of tying up German resources in guarding the prisoners and especially at those times when a prisoner was 'gone away' [escaped from the Castle] and the Germans had to turn out the equivalent of two or three divisions'-worth of men and materiel in order to attempt to recapture the escaped prisoners. This was certainly worthwhile from the Allied point of view.

On reading the books, one has the distinct impression that Allied morale in Colditz Castle was among the highest of any POW camp in the War. The German guards treated the prisoners with respect, partly because they did not tolerate bullying, partly due to the elite status of the prisoners, and partly because of the attitudes of some of the German officers in charge at the Castle. In addition, there was a knowledge among the prisoners that they were the escaping 'elite', and that by being so, they were causing the Germans a whole heap of trouble in guarding them, and in so doing they were still 'doing their bit' for the war effort even though they were in captivity. Hundreds of men were imprisoned here at any given time [after about 1941 anyway], the majority of whom were united in a common cause with others from all different walks of life, nationality and background, to give the Germans the best possible run for their money, in terms of causing them trouble.

The fame of Colditz Castle, and the legendary exploits of its inmates, unfortunately have the tendency to 'eclipse', as it were, the situations in other POW camps in occupied Europe. This should not be seen as setting at naught the exploits, sufferings and depredations experienced by the inmates of these camps; it is essential to acknowledge the bravery and ingenuity of the men who planned and executed escapes, some of them successful, from other German POW camps. A very well-known example of what could be termed a 'successful' escape, from a camp other than Colditz, was the 'Great Escape' from Stalag Luft III near Sagan in Poland. In one night, seventy-six men escaped from the Sagan camp by tunnel; of these men, only three made home-runs, fifty were shot by the Gestapo and the other twenty-three were returned to captivity, and some of those indeed came to Colditz. I refer to the escape as 'could be termed 'successful'' because of the executions of those fifty men. Remember then that Colditz was not of course the only POW camp run by Nazi Germany, but it is certainly the most famous.

Of course, probably the main reason why Colditz is so famous is because of the extensive book, TV and film coverage of the stories of Colditz. In the mid-fifties, Maj. P. R. Reid's books 'The Colditz Story' and 'The Latter Days at Colditz' were published; also of that era is the black-and-white film 'The Colditz Story', on which Reid was also a technical advisor. In recent years, there have been several documentaries [of varying quality] on the subject, and there seems to have been a resurgence of the popularity of Colditz in the general public awareness. Everyone has heard of Colditz; in the 1980's, CB radio users used to refer to their school as their 'Colditz' - as in 'What Colditz do you go to?'. Plus, of course, there was the immensely popular BBC television series 'Colditz', (which fortunately has now been released on DVD; buy it from here), still figures prominently in the memories of people of my generation, as well as the nearly 100 books that have been written on the subject.

The above reasons are why Colditz Castle is so famous, and why the exploits of its inmates have now gone down in legend. The morale, the ingenuity, the bravery, and the atmosphere of the Colditz camp were probably unique. I sincerely hope that you get a flavour of this fascinating place as you look through the material on this Website.

Postscript: For a somewhat longer treatise on this subject matter, take a look at this article at the Oxford University Press, an interesting document that I found a long time after writing this piece. In order to be able to read the document, you will require the 'Adobe Reader' program to be present on your computer. This program is on most modern computers; if it is not on yours then it can be downloaded and installed free of charge from Adobe's website.

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