Ben McIntyre on Colditz: "The reality of Colditz is much more interesting than the black-and-white moral fable"
For his new book, bestselling author Ben Macintyre has set his sights on the most infamous PoW camp of the Second World War. He reveals how the legendary escape attempts are only part of a complex, darker history
Colditz: in context
Early in the Second World War, the medieval Colditz Castle was converted into a prisoner of war camp, intended to hold those Allied officers deemed most likely to escape or cause trouble for their German army captors. Colditz remained in use until its liberation by US forces in April 1945 and at its peak held more than 800 PoWs, composed of many different nationalities and including famous names such as SAS founder David Stirling, future politician Airey Neave and RAF hero Douglas Bader.
Although the castle was said to be “escape-proof”, more escape attempts took place at Colditz than any other PoW camp. Altogether more than 130 men broke out of the castle, though little more than 30 successfully made it all the way across the German border. These often ingenious escape attempts – popularised in books, TV and a highly successful 1973 board game – are what Colditz is best known for today. But there were many darker aspects of the camp’s history including racism, class divisions and mental breakdowns.
In your new book you discuss a myth of Colditz that needs to be challenged. What is this myth and how did it come about?
Those of us of a certain age grew up with the great BBC TV series about Colditz and, also, in my case, the board game Escape from Colditz. So Colditz was steeped into our childhoods, but often the story followed a very particular pattern. It was brave British men outwitting the Germans and tunnelling out of this vast Gothic castle in a way that continued the war by other means. It dignified the whole prisoner-of-war experience as an extension of a gallant, rather old-fashioned war. And of course, that is true of Colditz, but only partly so.
Like all myths, the reality is much more complicated and much more interesting than the black-and-white moral fable we’ve inherited. There were acts of extraordinary courage and resilience. But there was also a whole other set of behaviours. Colditz was a crucible for the most amazing variety of human responses to circumstances that were beyond their control.
What kind of vision did the prisoners encounter when they arrived at Colditz?
A pretty terrifying one. It’s a vast, 700-room Gothic schloss on top of a cliff, overlooking the town of Colditz: a very dominating, domineering piece of architecture. The castle was built in the 11th century by the electors of Saxony, effectively as a demonstration of power. And it was also used, from its very earliest times, to incarcerate people who did not fit in with the existing power regime. Over the years, it had been a psychiatric hospital, a prison, a place where the electors would put their unwanted and dangerous siblings. So it’s always had a history of being somewhere people were held against their will.
- On the podcast | Bestselling author and historian Ben Macintyre joins us to discuss one of the most infamous German PoW camps of the Second World War
What kind of prisoners were sent to Colditz?
They were the most difficult prisoners: people who had demonstrated, in other camps, that they were going to try to escape, and going to make trouble. The German idea was to herd all these troublemakers together in one place, in a castle that would be impossible to escape from.
But there were two problems with that. One was that Colditz, while very impressive to look at, was full of holes and actually not a very good place to have a security camp. And the second problem was that if you put a lot of naughty boys together, they egg each other on and pretty soon, your house is on fire. This is what happened at Colditz: it developed its own culture of defiance.
More like this
One other thing to say is that this was an officers’ camp, which gave it a particular kind of status because, under the Geneva Convention, officers were treated better than ordinary soldiers. And, again under the Geneva Convention, these imprisoned officers had ordinary soldiers, orderlies, to look after them: to polish their shoes, to make their food, to bring up their bathwater. So right through the middle of Colditz was this unbridgeable social division between the officers who made up the majority, and the orderlies who were under their command and not allowed to escape.
As well as different classes at Colditz there were also multiple nationalities. How did they get on with each other?
Sometimes very well, sometimes in a sort of rivalry. What you had there were Polish, French, Belgian, Dutch, British and, latterly, American prisoners. They were all allies, technically, but like all allies, they didn’t always get on terribly well. During the initial period in Colditz, the PoWs from different nations were actually tripping up over each other’s attempts to escape, so they established an international escape committee which sort of worked.
I loved looking at the ways the different nations interacted. Believe it or not, they had an “Olympic Games” at Colditz in August 1941, which brought out, as one of the observers said, all the sorts of national stereotypes you could wish for: the Poles
very focused and wanting to win, the French being very laidback about it all, the Brits just not caring and laughing at everybody.
There were also several Jewish prisoners at Colditz. How were they and other racial minorities treated?
There’s a racial story within Colditz, which has never been properly told before. Quite early on, the French officers insisted that they would not be billeted with the Jewish-French officers. It was a very shocking moment. You have to bear in mind that at this point the collaborationist Vichy government was operating in southern France, and quite a few of the prisoners were very pro-Vichy, and some were clearly extremely anti-Semitic. The Germans, of course, saw this as a propaganda opportunity and immediately herded the French-Jewish prisoners – of whom there were about 60 or 70 – into a special barrack in the attics. It was much smaller and more uncomfortable, and was immediately called the ghetto. Some of the British were absolutely scandalised that this could happen and that the Germans allowed it to go ahead.
One other story that leapt out at me is that of the only non-white British officer in Colditz, an Indian doctor called Birendranath Mazumdar who was in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He had been told that he was not allowed to escape because of the colour of his skin – on the grounds that he would be picked up immediately. He went on hunger strike and insisted he be moved to an all-Indian prison, of which there were very few. The one he ended up in was in occupied France and from there he managed to escape and walk 700 miles across the border into Switzerland.
Mazumdar suffered the most terrible racism at Colditz, not really from the Germans but from the British. He was treated as a second-class citizen, and that’s very hard to write, but it’s important to know that there is this race story within the Colditz narrative.
In general, how well treated were the PoWs by their German guards?
Colditz was run by the German army. It wasn’t a concentration camp and these weren’t SS fanatics – they were professional soldiers, who went out of their way to observe the rules of the Geneva Convention. On the whole, they tended to treat the prisoners as officers and gentlemen and the prisoners expected to be treated that way.
That said, if the PoWs were escaping, they could be shot at – it’s not as if it was without danger. And among the German contingent were some pretty grotesque Nazi fanatics, though not very many. But again, this illustrates the point I’m making that
there was a huge variety of human nature inside this theatre.
And on the other side, how did the prisoners view their captors?
It depended on the individual. Some got on with them well, but there were also moments of deep antagonism and direct confrontation. One of the ways that the British contingent, particularly, dealt with the boredom and frustration of this long imprisonment was “goon-baiting”. “Goon” was a slang term for the German guards, and a huge amount of ingenuity went into this activity: teasing them, mocking them, whistling on parade, refusing to stand up straight – anything the prisoners could do to drive them mad.
It was very puerile and came from an English public-school tradition of ragging the masters. But it allowed the prisoners to let off steam in a way that was extraordinarily therapeutic. My favourite story is when the prisoners discovered a wasps’ nest in one of the walls and spent weeks catching wasps, putting them in matchboxes and very carefully attaching cigarette papers onto their legs on which was written, “Deutschland kaput”. Then one day in the early-morning parade, on a signal, they all opened these matchboxes and hundreds of very angry wasps carrying anti-German propaganda rose into the sky above Colditz and presumably went on to sting and inform many people around the countryside of what the PoWs felt inside Colditz.
The camp is best known for the myriad escape attempts that took place. Was Colditz home to an unusual number of such attempts?
Yes it was. There were more attempts to escape from Colditz than any other prison. But escaping from the camp itself was only half the battle. Once you were out, you had to then get out of Germany, which in many ways was much harder.
I discovered that there were fewer escape attempts than I had thought, and certainly fewer successful ones. The Germans gradually made it more difficult to get out and security was increased. By the end of 1944, very few prisoners were still trying to escape, it had become far too dangerous. So the story of everybody trying to escape all the time isn’t quite right. Everybody was prepared to contribute to escape attempts, but the hardened escapers were a minority.
Did any of the escape attempts particularly stand out to you?
The most famous was the escape of Airey Neave, who would become one of Margaret Thatcher’s senior advisors later in his career.
There was a space beneath the floor of the theatre in Colditz, and they worked out that they could get into the floor and from there access a tunnel that ran across one of the arches and ended with a locked door into the German guard room.
One night, Neave and an accomplice got themselves through the theatre floor, went along this corridor, unpicked the lock into the German guard house and strode out of the front door wearing fake German uniforms – they had managed to produce replicas that were virtually identical to the real thing. They walked across the moat, down a little path, past the barracks, and climbed over the wall and got out. It was an astonishing escape, incredibly brazen. [Neave and his accomplice made it safely to Switzerland and he returned to England via France, Spain and Gibraltar].
Another one I particularly liked was by a French aristocrat called Pierre Mairesse-Lebrun, who was a cavalry officer. He got an accomplice to help him vault over the wire enclosure that surrounded the exercise yard. He did a sort of cartwheel on the top, and landed beautifully on the other side, like a thoroughbred taking a steeplechase fence. Lebrun then ran up the hill, while being shot at by the guards, climbed over the wall, 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.
These stories are extraordinary, but do they obscure the fact that, for many, Colditz was a place of extreme boredom?
That’s a good point. Most war stories are about the moments of colour and adventure, yet most of life inside Colditz was unbelievably boring; nothing was happening. Because they were officers, the prisoners were not allowed to work and had nothing to do. They responded to this in a huge variety of ways. Some, as I say, took to goon-baiting, some became obsessed by escaping. But quite a lot of them retreated into literature or took correspondence courses.
Drama also played a huge part in Colditz and the theatre became a focal point. There was a new production every few days and they were packed out; the Germans would come too. The PoWs put on dozens of different productions: plays, revues, pantomimes, skits, and a lot of musical stuff as well. There were orchestras in Colditz, there were chamber groups, there was a Hawaiian string band, there was a Polish choir. It was another form of escapism, without actually escaping.
The British also began to set up clubs: bridge, chess, sports clubs, but also the social clubs that were so much a part of prewar British culture. Believe it or not, there was a Bullingdon Club in Colditz – exclusively for those who had belonged to the Bullingdon Club at the University of Oxford.
At Colditz there were also some celebrity hostages. How differently were they treated to the regular prisoners?
This is another extraordinary story. They were called the Prominente, the prominent ones, and they were individual prisoners whom the Nazi high command had decided were of particular value. The first was Winston Churchill’s nephew, Giles Romilly, who was a journalist and had been captured in Norway. He was later joined by two nephews of the king; a man called Michael Alexander, who pretended to be the nephew of General Alexander [British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean theatre]; and the son of the American ambassador.
Hitler and his entourage had convinced themselves that these characters would be useful bargaining tools, who could either be swapped or threatened. They were treated differently with better food and separate quarters, but if they ceased to be of value to the Nazis, they would have been murdered. Romilly called it a privileged nightmare.
Of all the prisoners you wrote about, who made the biggest impression on you?
There was one who stood out for the wrong reasons and one for the right ones. Douglas Bader was the most famous soldier, on either side of the entire Second World War really. He had lost both his legs in a flying accident before the war, yet nonetheless, he became an enormously brave Spitfire pilot. He was shot down over France and taken to Colditz.
Bader was a man of great courage but he was also not a particularly nice person. He was arrogant, he was rude, he was incredibly unpleasant to people he thought of lower status than him. And he treated his orderly, a man called Alex Ross, really badly. In the middle of the war, some ordinary soldiers were repatriated in prisoner exchanges and Ross was selected for this. He went to Bader and said: “I’ve got very good news, wing commander, I’m going home.” And Bader said: “No, you’re not. You’re my lackey and you’re going to stay here.” And poor Alex Ross spent another two years inside Colditz.
On the other side of the ledger, a character that few will have heard of is a Jewish dentist from Glasgow called Julius Green.
He looked after the teeth of the people in Colditz, but he was also a spy. He was primarily responsible for writing the coded letters that were being sent back to MI9, the branch of British intelligence that was concerned with prisoner affairs. He was sending back really vital information.
Green was rather wonderful: he was constantly modest, and very self-mocking. He described himself as a professional coward, but actually he wasn’t anything of the sort. He was a man of incredible bravery, but we don’t really hear his story because louder, more well-known figures have dominated the landscape.
- Read more | The real 'Rogue Heroes' of the early SAS
I’m also fascinated by the stories of the women who had a role in Colditz. I was expecting this to be a strictly all-male story; it’s not. For example, there was the extraordinary character of Mrs M. She was a Scotswoman in Warsaw, speaking perfect Polish and posing as a Polish housewife, who was actually running the escape networks out of Poland. And many of the Colditz soldiers owed her their liberty.
And then there’s another woman who played a very important part. I’ve mentioned Julius Green, the spy dentist. Well, Irmgard Wernicke was the German dental assistant in the town of Colditz, but she was also an anti-Nazi resistance plotter. And even though her father was head of the local Nazi party, she was providing the soldiers in Colditz with crucial bits of information.
Following their release at the end of the war, how easy did the men find it to readjust to society?
As with many soldiers and many prisoners, it was very hard. The world was never the same again after the war.
Some managed to adjust and have very successful careers. Pat Reid, who was probably the most famous escaper, established a mini-industry around Colditz. He wrote books, he patented the board game and he went on tour. But there are other, much sadder stories of people who never recovered. There are stories of suicide, and of people who had mental breakdowns.
There is a lot of mental strain that comes from being in any kind of prison, but being in a prisoner of war camp is particularly hard because it is seemingly without end. Quite a lot of people in Colditz suffered grievous mental distress from being in there so long. People are not supermen; people are not made of this granite material that doesn’t respond to stress.
So it’s not all about the cheeky-chappy, cheery, moustachioed officer who strides off into the sunset and the world is a better place. Life isn’t like that, and imprisonment certainly isn’t like that.
Ben Macintyre is a bestselling author and journalist who has written several books on espionage and the Second World War including Operation Mincemeat, The Spy and the Traitor and SAS: Rogue Heroes, which is the subject of an upcoming BBC One drama
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine and also works across the HistoryExtra podcast and website, as well as hosting several BBC History Magazine events.