In late July I was fortunate enough to travel Germany, taking in many of its cultural and historical sites. It is fair to say Germany did have plenty to offer in the famous cities and towns of Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Erfurt to name just a few. This post however will be about my recent visit to Colditz Castle, a place I was very keen on visiting upon my arrival to Germany. This post will mainly address the events of what happened during the Second World War but I will provide a basis of what occurred at Colditz Castle beforehand.
The castle is nestled on the outskirts in the small town of Colditz, approximately a fifty minute drive from Leipzig in the state of Saxony. Colditz Castle is mainly known as the German military prison Oflag IVC that held Allied soldiers. The original constructed castle was granted by Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor in 1046 and in 1083 the site was developed further by Wieprecht of Groitzsch. During the Middle Ages the castle appeared to be an important look out site for German Emperors as the location was close to Slavic territory. Eventually the old castle was destroyed by the Hussites, a Christian reformer group from Bohemia that sought for Czech national awareness and Protestantism.
Over time the castle design changed with the times as did the premise of the site. The site received a complete overhaul by the Elector Augustus of Saxony and it became a Renaissance style castle. The premise of the site too changed drastically in the 1600s the site was used as a hunting lodge, in the nineteenth century the area was completely transformed again to become a workhouse for the poor, a mental hospital and eventually a place where the Nazis sent those who they considered “undesirable” to the Third Reich; Jews, Gypsies and Homosexuals. As discussed the castle has a vast history and now it is time to address the events that took place at Colditz Castle during WW2.
Many readers will of course be aware of the events surrounding Colditz Castle during WW2 due to the BBC television series that first aired in 1972 and the Escape from Colditz board game that followed in 1973. Other popular means that depicted the basis of what happened at Colditz Castle during WW2 include a later television series that first aired in 2005 and a computer game that was released in 1991. Furthermore it is very possible that many readers have come across the events that took place at Colditz Castle through their own right. Although it should be noted that these mediums portray a basis on the events that occurred there.
Colditz Castle in spite of its large history, is often associated with the twentieth century, chiefly during the Nazi occupation of Germany from 1933 to 1945. The castle was converted into a Prisoner of War camp in 1939 for captured Allied men. These men came from many countries including; Britain, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Belgium, India (1), America and Canada. Given the fact that I toured Colditz Castle in a small group the ambiance seemed rather quiet and solemn. However life at Colditz for the captured was quite far from that. In actual fact the prisoners were permitted to make their own entertainment when imprisoned. Often they would play sports, produce moonshine alcohol, sing, draw, study, write and act in plays. Our guide told us that in August 1941 the Polish prisoners instigated their own Olympic games at Colditz these events included many pastimes such as; football, boxing and chess. The prisoners also invented a sport that they played in their designated courtyard. The game was a variant of rugby, it was called stoolball. The aim of the game was to score on the opposing teams stool. This sport was said to have drowned out the noise of other prisoners who were attempting to tunnel out of the castle. This leads me to explaining some extraordinary circumstances that happened at Colditz. In spite of Colditz being declared ‘escape proof’ by Hermann Göring, many famously attempted to escape and in some cases these were successful. Here are a list of some of them:
The French Tunnel-
The tunnels at Colditz was an incredible sight to behold. The French tunnel, although strictly speaking it was not a successful operation, it did however address the lengths prisoners would go in order to escape. A group of French prisoners hatched a plan to dig a tunnel out of the fortress in a bid to freedom. The tunnel was constructed in 1941 and was discovered by German guards in 1942. However having said that the tunnel was untraceable for the German guards for eight months and was nearly completed with only three metres left. The operation began at the clock tower of the castle and a tunnel was dug connecting this area through to the wine cellar, chapel and close to the exterior of the castle. Particularly, when digging occurred around the chapel more men were seen to be in choir practice. This was an attempt by many men to blur out the noise coming from the digging. Remarkably the tunnel was dug out by none other than kitchen knives and bulbs lined the tunnel offering light, due to prisoners re-wiring the electrical system to the tunnel. With all the excess rubble from digging, the men managed to place it all in any spare pockets and put it underneath floorboards. This plan seemed to go well until the floor gave way due to the extra weight placed under the floorboards from the rubble. Today there is a display in the castle documenting the items that were used for this particular tunnel. The other tunnel I saw was dug by Dutch prisoners and it was a tunnel that did not go as far as the French tunnel, but it was still impressive to see what they did with the limited resources on offer.
The Glider was another exceptional plan that was hatched to escape from Colditz. Again as with the French tunnel this plan was not successful but it was arguably one of the most ambitious escape plans. This attempted escape plan proved to be popular in time and the concept of it was inspired by true events. It was made into a Television film, The Birdmen in 1971, whereby it depicted a success. The Glider was the brainchild of two British pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch. Through much encouragement by two other prisoners they started construction in 1944 and was designed to sit two persons. It was assembled in an attic and was built with bits of wood and out of makeshift tools like metal in window bars attached to beech wood as a handle. Most tools were taken from the castle but one in particular was acquired from bribery, a drill. This was a rather remarkable feat considering Best and Goldfinch obtained a lot of information regarding the mechanics and physics from a book housed in a library onsite to ensure the Glider would be successful.
It was of course a tricky operation to maintain and the previous tunnelling systems appeared to make a lot of the Germans suspicious of similar activity to escape underground. Security was nonetheless prevalent amongst the prisoners. An alarm system was set up for them in case a German guard came close. Another way to cover up the construction was to ensure a false wall would protect those who were building the Glider. Unfortunately the Glider did not fly as it was completed in 1945 by this time an Allied victory appeared to be eminent and the Americans were close to liberating Colditz Castle. Although I did not see the Gilder as it was uncertain what exactly happened to it, I did however hear information about the history of it from 1944-45 by a tour guide.
On the grounds of Colditz Castle there were large cut out pictures of those who attempted to escape Colditz by going undercover. In addition we were also told about other attempts of escape by a tour guide onsite that did not have cut outs of themselves. This I felt was a very interesting start to the day as it introduced to the men who spent time at Colditz. Here are three attempts that I thought were particularly clever-
In 1941 a Frenchman by the name of Lieutenant Chasseur Alpin Bouley dressed up as a highly respectable woman. It was unfortunate for him that he was caught after he had dropped his watch and a German guard went after “her” for Bouley’s plan to be foiled upon inspection.
In 1941 Dutch prisoners Capt. E. Steenhouwer and Lt. J. van Lynden managed to dress up as German officers however they were detected and therefore did not escape. In 1942 Lt. van der Falk Bouman and in 1943 Capt. Dufour Flt. Lt. van Rood did the same thing and were also detected.
In 1942 a Frenchman by the name of Lt. A. Perodeau had a resemblance to a handyman that worked at Colditz Castle. His name was Willi Pöhnert. Unfortunately Perodeau was also detected and sent back to Colditz Castle. A lot of the time detection occurred as it was noticeable that some men could not speak German well.
It was not always an attempt-
Needless to say it was not always an attempt and I felt at times it was those who attempted the escape were better remembered, perhaps it was the heroism attached to it and the daring sense of adventure? Not to confuse anyone that I am profoundly putting that statement out there as a true representation, on the contrary it is an opinion.
It should be stated that some men in actual fact did escape a seemingly impossible fortress. These men came from different areas and countries from Britain, Poland, Belgium, France and the Netherlands but one stood out for me. This man was the only Indian to be captured by the German troops and sent to Colditz. His name was Capt. B. Mazumdar. Mazumdar’s way of escape was not like the above attempts but this is in no way less daring. He went on hunger strike in order to receive a transfer to another camp, he escapes from the new camp and beforehand Colditz to get to the new camp.
All in all it was an interesting place to visit and I would recommend to go there, particularly if you are thinking of visiting Leipzig or Dresden as it is in close driving distance. It has a gallery and small museum on site and you are shown around by an informative guide. It is recommended to book in advance prior to visiting.