Roaming Colditz Castle

A castle escape in Colditz, Germany

Hermann Goering called it escape-proof… he was badly wrong. Colditz Castle has been immortalised in films, books, TV shows and even in a board game, as a place where brave Allied prisoners kept guards on their toes with pretty much constant escape attempts during WWII. Part tactical distraction, part desperation to get home, it was a full-time occupation for the men held here. I visited the castle to see inside the prisoners’ world, right down to their tunnelling tools and forged documents.

First, a quick background: Colditz was built in 1083 by the colourfully named Wiprecht von Groitzsch. Over the centuries, it wasn’t just an aristocratic retreat – it was used as a workhouse in the early 19th century, and then as a sanatorium, whilst its grounds were home to a zoo for part of the 16th century.

In 1933 the castle held opponents to the Nazi regime in ‘protective custody’, then from 1939-1945 it became the famous POW camp, named by the Germans as Oflag IV-C. When you approach the town you don’t feel intimidated by the building, as it’s so beautiful (this, a prison? Never!), but up close it’s easier to appreciate the huge scale and notice the shadowy courtyards inside. You can see why it appealed to the Germans as something of a fortress.

Red Cross parcel box in museum
A harmless-looking crate was used in an escape attempt.

Who Was Held… And Who Ran Free

Taking a guided tour gives you the full picture of the POWS, as well as their surroundings. Polish inmates arrived in 1939, then the British in 1940, along with the French, Dutch, Americans and others in the following years. Men were sent here either because they were high-profile valuable captives (Prominente), or because they’d already tried to break out of other camps; the seven metre thick walls, and the rocky setting with a steep drop to the River Mulde beneath, seemed to convince the Nazis their prisoners would stay put.

Depending on who you believe, 186, 191, 300 or 320 attempts were made to escape from Colditz, either as one-man efforts or small coordinated groups. The number of ‘home runs’, or successful attempts, is also debated, because ex-POWs have their own views on what should be counted as a home run.

Fortunately, only one would-be escapee, Lieutenant Michael Sinclair, was actually killed in the process. The number is so small because prisoners were protected by the Geneva Convention, so their punishment – if caught – was a few weeks of solitary confinement, not execution.

Red Cross food package dating from WWII in museum
These tinned food supplies have been kept since the war. Prisoners often ate better than their captors.

Killing Time

Being held captive was hardly fun, but the men kept themselves occupied by practicing music in bands, performing plays, learning languages, getting involved in sport, and even brewing their own moonshine. They also received Red Cross food parcels, and you can see many of the original packaging preserved in the on-site museum, tins looking a little rusty and dented but mostly in one piece.

Two radios were smuggled in, allowing prisoners to secretly keep up to date with the latest war developments. In the castle attic you’ll find the spot where the radios were hidden (one was discovered, but the other lay undetected for years). Of course, a lot of time was spent hatching plans and making equipment for escapes. Disguises were sewn and fake guns were sculpted from cardboard. Passports were elaborately forged with mirror writing on glass, rubber stamps crafted from wellington boots, and photos taken with a makeshift camera. This might all sound a bit haphazard, but the end result is very convincing.

One French Lieutenant actually dressed himself as a woman and tried to leave the camp, but it was his suspicious behaviour, not his disguise, that got him caught. Photos of him in full costume were put in the Kommandant’s Escape Museum, which existed during the war to entertain the guards, and there’s also a giant cut-out of the Lieutenant in costume which you’ll see in the smaller courtyard outside.

Aerial view of wartime castle
POWs were up against tight security when they tried to make it home, as you can see from this map. Credit: VirtualColditz.com.

Escape Strategies

There were many other foiled plans, including hiding in a mattress and making a rope out of bed sheets, but 1941-42 was the peak time for successful break-outs. The first British home run was achieved in January 1942 by Airey Neave who, along with a Dutch officer, walked straight out of the grounds through the main gate, dressed as a German officer. The men had climbed under the stage and into another room during a performance in the camp’s theatre. The tour guide certainly helps to bring these stories to life as you explore the grounds.

Eight months after Neave’s triumph, five prisoners including Pat Reid (a notorious escape planner) dressed themselves as camp staff and left the castle by heading through a kitchen and a cellar to reach the moat. Reid later wrote several books about his experience as a POW, including The Colditz Story, which inspired the 1955 film.

Not everyone used the same tactics to get out; some made a run for it after being taken to hospital or to the dentist from Colditz. Once the men had left the area, they had a long journey through enemy territory to reach a neutral country such as Switzerland and there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be shot or recaptured on the way to safety.

POW camp interior with elaborate painted interior
A tunnel ran under this brightly decorated chapel.

Underneath and Up Above

Tunnels were built by teams of prisoners. The best example was a 44 metre French tunnel which was nearly complete when it was discovered in 1942. It began in the clock tower, ran down into the cellars and through the chapel, and had taken months of effort from over 30 volunteers. Walking into the chapel and seeing diagrams of the tunnel, as well as sections of it, felt totally surreal.

One of the later ideas was to make a full-scale glider, using everything from floorboards and bed slats to uneaten porridge, but the camp was liberated before the glider could be put to the test. A replica was built in 2012 for a TV documentary, and it did actually fly, so it’s likely a flying attempt in 1945 would’ve worked.

Plans for the glider, complete with technical notes, are proudly on display. I get the feeling my generation would never be able to come up with something this daring, or technically accurate, were we in the same position as the inmates of Oflag IV-C.

Colditz structure with windows overlooking courtyard
One of the castle’s two courtyards. Imagine what these walls have seen over the years…

The Colditz Story is an excellent book and film, but seeing the castle in real life puts things in perspective. It’s incredible to think of the risks these prisoners took, and the imagination they needed to dream up such elaborate escape plans. The museum and tour adds an important chapter to the intriguing history of the castle, staying true to the experiences of the POWs.

Visiting Notes: Colditz, in Saxony, is easily reached from Leipzig or Dresden. I visited during a group holiday with Riviera, which provided entry and a guided tour of the castle as part of the overall trip price.

For independent visitors, entry ranges from €3-4 per person, and 1 hour guided tours range from €5-7 per person (cheaper rates are for students and the disabled). Opening times are 10:00-17:00 between April and October, and 10:00-16:00 between November and March, with closures during Christmas and New Year.

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