The History of Colditz

Only a handful ever escaped from the impenetrable fortress of Colditz castle. Find out more about its history...

Colditz

Situated on a cliff overlooking a small East German town in the state of Saxony is Colditz Castle. It has stood on this site since the Middle Ages and has in the past been used as a workhouse and a mental institution.

However, its place in history became assured during the Second World War, when it was Oflag IV-C, a prisoner-of-war camp for high-profile Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps. Colditz has since appeared frequently in fiction, including books, films and TV, but what is the truth behind this notorious Nazi POW camp?

Castle History

The town of Colditz can be found in the middle of the triangle formed by the three great cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz, in the heart of Germany. The first castle was built during the late 11th Century AD at the order of powerful German king Henry IV. From then on the castle played an important role as a watchtower for the German monarchy.

In 1504, an accidental fire destroyed a large part of the castle and its reconstruction saw new buildings added to the site. In 1523 the castle grounds was turned into one of the largest zoos in Europe. The castle structure was changed again under the long reign of the elector Augustus of Saxony from 1553 to 1586, when it was reconstructed into a Renaissance style castle with extra courtyards, cellars and hundreds of rooms.

The condition of the once proud castle was allowed to deteriorate during the 19th Century, when Colditz was used by Frederick Augustus III as a workhouse to feed the poor, the ill and those under arrest in the city. It would be used in this way until 1829.

Home to the "incurably insane"

That year the workhouse at the castle was taken over by an institution in Zwickau and it became a mental hospital for the "incurably insane". For nearly a hundred years, between 1829 and 1924, Colditz was a high-profile sanitarium, generally reserved for the wealthy and the nobility of Germany

During this time Germany saw massive upheavals after the Napoleonic Wars destroyed the Holy Roman Empire and created the German Confederation. All the while Colditz stood firm as a shelter for the insane as it witnessed the lifespan of the North German Confederation and the complete reign of the German Empire, right up until the beginnings of the Weimar Republic.

Over this long period it was home to several notable figures including Ludwig Schumann, the second youngest son of the famous composer Robert Schumann, and Ernst Georg August Baumgarten, one of the original inventors of the airship.

Colditz was first used as an official Prisoner of War camp during World War One, although no escapes were made at this time. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they turned the castle into a political prison for communists, homosexuals, Jews, and other "undesirables". It was not until 1939 that Allied prisoners were housed there.

Impenetrable Fortress

There were many reasons why Colditz castle instilled fear in its prisoners above all other Nazi POW camps for captured officers; this thousand year old fortress was in the heart of Hitler's Reich, some four hundred miles from any frontier not under Nazi control. Its outer walls were seven feet thick and the cliff on which it was built had a sheer drop of some two hundred and fifty feet to the River Mulde below.

For any prisoner, chance of escape was slim and even if you did make it outside, you had a long and arduous trek ahead of you to freedom. The sheer fact that it had endured for a millennium made it a highly potent symbol of German strength, which Hitler exploited no end.

Oflag IV-C

This was the name given to Colditz castle during WWII, Oflag being an abbreviation for Offizierslager, which is German for "officers camp". The first prisoners arrived in November 1939; they were 40 Polish officers who had been branded 'escape risks'.

A year later captured British RAF officers were transported there, all who had escaped from previous Oflags. A famous group was the Laufen Six, named after the camp from which they made their first escape. By Christmas 1940 there were 60 Polish officers, 12 Belgians, 50 French, and 30 British, a total of no more than 200 with their orderlies.

Not only did the Nazis have to deal with a prison population entirely made up of proven escape artists, Colditz itself was a very large prison and so it was quite a difficult task keeping the castle running in a secure and efficient manner.

As a result Oflag IV-C maintained a larger garrison than at many of the other prison camps; between the years of 1939 and 1945, more than 70 German officers and enlisted men worked in a wide variety of staff positions.

Prison life

Day to day at Colditz was far from a sombre, empty experience; if you were to visit it you probably would be surprised by how much of a bustling hive of activity it was. Aside from the prison guards, there were also a large number of civilians and local townspeople who would be on castle grounds.

These included maintenance workers, medics, Swiss Red Cross observers. Some would be there in a supervisory role, such as Nazi Party leaders, while others would be on grounds simply because they were family members of the military officers at the camp.

For the prisoners themselves, they were permitted to entertain themselves. In August 1941 the first camp Olympics were organized by the Polish inmates, with events including football, volleyball, boxing and chess.

Inmates also put on revues, shows and plays, while the most popular sporting pasttime was entirely invented by the prisoners: stoolball was essentially a version of rugby, but which had two stools at either end of the prisoners' courtyard and goals were scored by knocking off the goalie who was sitting on the stool!

Colditz train station

Colditz train station

The Prominente

There were many famous Allied prisoners imprisoned in Colditz and these included British fighter ace Douglas Bader; Patrick Reid, the man who made Colditz famous with his post-war books; and Airey Neave, the first British officer to escape from Colditz and who later became a British Member of Parliament.

Others included New Zealand British Army Captain Charles Upham, who was the only combat soldier to ever receive the Victoria Cross twice; and Sir David Stirling, founder of the wartime Special Air Service. Prisoners who were relatives of Allied VIPs could potentially be used by Hitler as bargaining tools; these individuals were known as Prominente.

The first prisoner of this kind was Giles Romilly, a civilian journalist who was captured in Norway but who was also a nephew of Winston Churchill. The serious political ramifications of The British Prime Minister's nephew coming to harm meant that Adolf Hitler himself specified that Romilly was to be treated with the utmost care.

As the war came to an end the number of Prominente increased. These included British royalty, in the form of Viscount George Lascelles, nephew to George VI and John Alexander Elphinstone, nephew of Queen Elizabeth (better known as the late Queen Mother).

Escape attempts

Despite being a daunting prospect, there were a number of escape attempts, each using a range of plans. Inmates duplicated keys to various doors, made copies of maps, forged identity papers, and manufactured their own tools. Less daring plans included pretending to be ill or mentally unhinged in an effort to get repatriated on medical grounds.

Some prisoners even managed to communicate with the outside world. The British War Office communicated with the prisoners in code and smuggled them new escape aids disguised in care packages sent from their families. However, the Germans soon became skilled at intercepting packages containing suspicious material.

Other methods used, which seem straight out of a film, include inmates being sewn into mattresses, trying to navigate through the sewers below the castle, long-term tunnel digging and the tying together of bed sheets to form rope!

Although people did actually escape from Colditz and return to their homeland, most of the escape attempts failed. There was however only ever one fatality, that of British Lieutenant Michael Sinclair, who was killed in September 1944.

The Germans buried him in Colditz cemetery with full military honours, his casket was draped with a Union Jack flag made by the German guards, and he received a seven-gun salute. After the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the only man to receive it for escaping during WWII.

The Ones That Got Away

The ultimate goal for anyone trying to escape was a Home Run, which is a complete escape from the castle grounds and into Allied territory. There is some debate over how many of these actually happened.

Successful escapee and British Captain Pat Reid claims in his account Colditz: The Full Story that there were 31 Home Runs, including those who were repatriated due to illness prisoners who being transported and therefore were not directly under Colditz staff control.

However, in Colditz: The Definitive History historian Henry Chancellor claims 32 escaped but only 15 were Home Runs: these were 1 Belgian, 11 British, 7 Dutch, 12 French and 1 Polish.

The first to escape was French Lieutenant Alain Le Ray, who did so on April 11th, 1941. He managed to get out of the castle by hiding in a terrace house in a park during a game of football. Seizing the moment he managed to reach neutral Switzerland and freedom.

Another French officer worthy of mention was Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun, who escaped on July 2nd, 1941. After a failed attempt by climbing into the rafters of a pavilion during exercise and waiting until dark, he later vaulted over a wire in the park with the help of an associate. He then reached Switzerland in eight days on a stolen bicycle!

Notable British escapees include the aforementioned Reid, who succeeded on October 14th, 1942 by slipping through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandantur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. It then took him four days to reach Switzerland.

There was also the legendary British Lieutenant Airey Neave, who escaped earlier on January 5th, 1942. Neave crawled through a hole in a camp theatre after a prisoner performance to a guardhouse, then boldly marched out dressed as a German soldier. Reaching Switzerland two days later, Neave later joined M19, the department of the British War Office dedicated to helping POWs escape.

Other escapes were less daring in that they involved basically legging it from the town of Colditz itself; three Frenchmen escaped while on a visit to the town dentist, all on December 17th 1941!

Fall of Colditz

In April 1945, US troops entered Colditz town to conquer the castle. As the troops approached the castle, the Allies and prisoners feared the Prominente might be used by the German troops as hostages, human shields, or that the SS might try to kill them out of spite. However, this was not the case as the Germans moved all the Prominente out of the castle.

This decision was made after the prisoners themselves convinced the guard leader Obergruppenf├╝hrer Gottlob Berger to surrender in secret. With his aide these VIP prisoners reached American lines a couple of weeks later and Berger later received a lessened sentence after his hearing in 1949 because of his actions.

On April 16, after only two days the once-mighty prison for the enemies of The Third Reich crumbled. In May 1945, the Soviet occupation of Colditz began and following the Yalta Conference the city became a part of East Germany. The Soviets turned Colditz castle into a prison camp for local burghers and non-communists and later the castle was a home for the aged and nursing home, as well as once again serving as a hospital and psychiatric clinic.

The last residents moved out in 1996, and since then the castle has been renovated and turned into a museum with visits showing some of the escape tunnels built by WW II prisoners of the Oflag during. There are potential plans to turn part of the castle into a hotel, ensuring that people will continue to visit this historic site for years to come.