Escape From Colditz Castle

Mar 1, 2023 0 comments

On a rocky outcrop high above the Mulde River in the small town of Colditz in Saxony, Germany, sits the massive Colditz Castle. Once the former residence of kings of Saxony, this fortress was turned into a maximum security prisoner-of-war camp during World War 2 for incarcerating incorrigible Allied officers who had repeatedly attempted to escape from other camps. The castle’s location above the hills coupled with its impenetrable stone walls made the Germans believe that Colditz offered no hope for escape. They were wrong. A surprising number of inmates managed to sneak out of this prison.

Colditz Castle. Photo: SKOMP46866/Wikimedia

Colditz Castle was originally built during the 11th century as a hunting lodge for the King of Saxony, and served as the residence of the noble House of Colditz for the next several centuries. After suffering damage in the early 16th century from a major conflagration that consumed a large part of the town, the castle was rebuilt in the Renaissance style. The castle was expanded in the late 17th century by then owner, King Augustus the Strong of Poland, into the 700-room-strong structure that we see today. In the early 19th century, Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, turned the castle into a workhouse to feed the poor, the ill, and persons who had been arrested. Later, the castle became a mental hospital for the “incurably insane”, a role in which it stayed until 1924. When the Nazis gained power, the castle was converted into a political prison for communists and dissidents. After World War 2 broke out, the castle became a POW camp called Oflag IV-C (officer prison camp 4C).

The Germans regarded Colditz Castle as a prison from which escape was impossible. This thousand-year-old fortress stood in the heart of Hitler's Reich, six hundred kilometers from the nearest enemy camp. Its outer walls were two meters thick and the cliff on which it was built had a sheer drop of seventy-five meters to the River Mulde below. The Germans decided that only the most difficult prisoners will be held there—inmates who had previously attempted to escape from other prison camps, and those who were generally known to make trouble. But herding all the troublemakers together in one place proved to be an embarrassing mistake.

“If you put a lot of naughty boys together, they egg each other on and pretty soon, your house is on fire,” said historian Ben Macintyre. “This is what happened at Colditz: it developed its own culture of defiance.”

Officers pose with a dummy inmate which they could hold up during head counts to cover for a fellow prisoner who escaped.

Officers pose with a dummy inmate which they could hold up during head counts to cover for a fellow prisoner who escaped. Photo: IWM

More than 300 escapes were attempted from Colditz Castle during the five years it served as a POW camp, of which some thirty got away clean. Prisoners called them the “home runs”. Most were recaptured, brought back to the prison and thrown into solitary confinement as punishment. The head of security, Reinhold Eggers, was a good natured fellow, who dealt with the escapees in a light-hearted way. He would take photographs of the prisoners' disguises, often instructing them to re-enact their attempts, and take photographs of their escape paraphernalia and display them in the castle’s “Escape Museum.” These escapees became a regular feature of Das Abwehrblatt, a weekly magazine for German POW camps.

So many attempts to escape were being made that the prisoners had to establish a sort of escape committee with “escape officers” coordinating the various groups so they would not ruin each other's escape attempts.

One of the most famous escapes was executed by British officer Airey Neave. One night after a theatrical production, Neave and an accomplice got themselves under the floor of the theater through a trap door, ran along an access tunnel, and got inside a German guard house after picking the lock on the door. There, they exchanged their clothes with fake German uniforms and walked out of the front door. They walked across the moat, down a little path, past the barracks, and climbed over the wall and got out. They made it safely to Switzerland.

A failed escapee demonstrates for the prison photographer how he attempted to escape.

A failed escapee demonstrates for the prison photographer how he attempted to escape.

The shaft of an escape tunnel located below the chapel

The shaft of an escape tunnel located below the chapel. Photo: Johnny Saunderson

Another brazen escape was by a French aristocrat named Pierre Mairesse-Lebrun. Leburn got an accomplice to catapult him over the fence when the guards were not looking. After landing on the other side, Lebrun ran up the hill, while being shot at by the guards. He walked about 70 miles to the nearest station, stole a bicycle, then cycled along the autobahn and miraculously managed to smuggle himself across the border into Switzerland.

Other attempts were not as successful, but they did make great stories, especially those by British RAF officer, Dominic Bruce, who made a record seventeen attempts to escape from various POW camps, including several attempts from Colditz Castle. Known as the “medium-sized man” because of his small stature, Bruce once hid himself inside a wooden tea chest and after it was stowed away on the third floor, Bruce used a file to cut open the chest and then using a 40-foot rope made of bed sheets rappelled down the sides of the castle to make his escape. Before he left, he scribbled a message across the wall of the storeroom with a piece of chalk: “The air in Colditz no longer pleases me. See you later!” He was recaptured a week later trying to stow aboard a Swedish ship in Danzig.

The tea chest used by Dominic Bruce to escape from Colditz.

The tea chest used by Dominic Bruce to escape from Colditz. Photo: Dominiclagan/Wikimedia

Tunneling was another favorite activity among the inmates. “There was one period when, in fact, there was something like six different tunnels being built,” Ben Macintyre told CBC.

One of the longest tunnels was dug by the French. It began at the top of Colditz's clock tower, descended two floors of basement cellars, then went horizontally underneath the wooden floor of the chapel, with several more vertical descents until the tunnel was 28 feet below the ground. The tunnel was just 6 feet away from the edge of a cliff before they were discovered. The tunnel had electric lighting along its whole length and ventilation system. They even rigged up a telephone system as an early warning network, so that if the German guards appeared, they could warn the tunnelers.

Perhaps the most ambitious escape plan involved building a glider with the intention of launching off from the roof of the castle and flying across the river Mulde. The glider was the brainchild of two British pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch. The audacious idea was supported by other inmates including glider expert, Lorne Welch, who reviewed the stress diagrams and calculations. The prisoners tore up floor boards and bed slats and every other piece of wood they could obtain to build the glider. Control wires were made from electrical wiring taken from unused portions of the castle. Prison sleeping bags made of cotton were used to skin the glider, and German ration millet was boiled and used to seal the cloth pores. The completed glider had a wingspan of 32 feet and fuselage of 19 feet. It weighed 109 kg. The glider was kept hidden in the castle’s attic, but before it could be used to facilitate a dramatic escape, the war ended and the castle was liberated.

The only known photo of the original Coldlitz Glider.

The only known photo of the original Coldlitz Glider. Photo: IWM

The escape stories from Castle Colditz have inspired many books and television dramas, including several board games and video games. There is even a Melbourne-based music band named “Colditz Glider.”

Today, much remains of this wartime castle, which was refurbished and restored during the early 2000s to recreate the castle’s appearance as it was prior to World War II. Visitors to the castle can see the escape tunnels dug by the prisoners, the forged papers and false uniforms. There is also a replica of the glider.

In 2012, a radio-controlled, full-sized replica of the Coldlitz glider was built and flown unmanned. It made it safely across the river and landed in a meadow 180 meters below.

# Ben McIntyre on Colditz: "The reality of Colditz is much more interesting than the black-and-white moral fable", History Extra
# From tunnels to gliders, WW II prisoners tried everything to escape Colditz Castle, CBC


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