The secrets of Colditz Castle: The Nazi prisoner-of-war camp where the escape artists of World War II were locked away

Journalist and author Ben Macintyre unveils the history of the famous fortress and points out that, among the prisoners of war, there was rampant classism, antisemitism, madness, sex, racism and betrayal

Colditz Castle
An image of the Colditz Castle yard, where prisoners played sports.CICR (s.n.)
Jacinto Antón

In the British heroic tradition of World War II, including the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the sinking of the Bismarck, the story of Colditz Castle cannot be omitted. The German castle, located about 22 miles northwest of the city of Leipzig, served as an internment camp for captured Allied officers during the war, specifically those who had a knack for escaping from other facilities. Officially named Offizierslager Oflag IV-C, the castle was where Steve McQueen from the film The Great Escape (1963) would have ended up – that is, had the character existed in real life.

With its numerous isolation cells, Colditz Castle was considered to be the ultimate military prison, or a super-prison. It was the Alcatraz of the Third Reich for prisoners-of-war (POWs). Countless books, movies, TV series and board games have told the story of Colditz, glorifying the inmates and portraying them as men who had a great sense of honor and humor. The POWs at Colditz have been described in popular culture as swashbucklers and brazen adventurers who never gave up on trying to escape their prison with the most imaginative techniques. However, a book by Ben Macintyre, a renowned journalist who specializes in World War II, tells a radically different version of the story.

In his 2022 book Prisoners of the Castle, which has just come out in Spanish, the 59-year-old British author shares his research into the POW camp. In Colditz, there were amazing escapes, yes, and courage and heroism, and situations of great comedy, with prisoners dressing up or hiding to confuse the guards’ count. But some very ugly things also happened. There was class conflict, racism, antisemitism, a lack of solidarity, corruption, and betrayal among the inmates, not to mention the sexual misery caused by long periods of isolation (many killed time by self-satisfaction in secret, and apparently there were mutual masturbation groups).

“And much more,” added Macintyre, who has written widely about double agents and secret missions during the Nazi era. “I grew up, like most Britons, wrapped up in the Colditz myth. At the age of 14, I watched the 1972 BBC series with David McCallum. I played the board game, created by Pat Reid, [who was] one of the castle’s real escapees. Colditz’s heroes were part of my personal mythology: a story of brave Englishmen and courage. But, as often happens, the story turns out not to be so simple and not so uplifting.”

“[The story of] the Colditz prisoners is actually the story of a society divided by class, by race, by sexuality. It is also the story of a great suffering, of cruel attitudes, demoralization, boredom (there were those who read a copy of Vanity Fair 12 times), hunger, and psychological and moral collapse,” the author explained.

Macintyre wants his readers to to escape from mythology and see Colditz with a modern sensibility, as he has done. He also wants to make us wonder about what we would have done had we found ourselves there.

Disabled aviator Douglas Bader, who was imprisoned in Colditz Castle.
Disabled aviator Douglas Bader, who was imprisoned in Colditz Castle.Alamy Stock Photo

One of the most demystifying cases that appears in the book is that of Douglas Bader, one of the most legendary pilots of World War II. Bader was a Royal Air Force flying ace credited with 22 aerial victories. He had both his legs amputated after an accident and continued to fly with prostheses (which he filled with ping pong balls to be able to float if he crashed into the water).

Bader was shot down in August of 1941, captured and interned in various camps (from which he inevitably tried to escape), until he was sent to Colditz. “Bader was one of my childhood heroes, as he was for many British children. But although he set an example of tenacity and willpower and courage, he was also a bastard,” Macintyre noted.

In the book, Macintyre explains how Bader psychologically abused his orderly, Alex Ross. He made Ross carry him on his back and even prevented him from being released in a prisoner exchange, so that he could continue serving him. “He was a monster, which probably makes him even more interesting as a character. You can be brave and, at the same time, despicable,” said Macintyre.

At Colditz, the orderlies – who accompanied the officers in prison – were treated with haughtiness and contempt by their superiors. They were not even allowed to be part of the escape plans. These men were part of the “lower class” of Colditz, where the strict and immovable social stratification of the Great Britain of the time was reproduced.

Within the POW camp, there were social clubs that wouldn’t let you in if you hadn’t studied at Eton. There was also racism towards Indian officers, as well as antisemitism targeting a group of Jewish French officers, who were segregated by their compatriots in a kind of ghetto. Colditz, recalled Macintyre, was not a prison only for the British. At first, many nationalities lived together.

Dutch officers in Colditz Castle, with one of the dolls they used to confuse German guards during counts.
Dutch officers in Colditz Castle, with one of the dolls they used to confuse German guards during counts.SBG gGmbH (SBG gGmbH)

Macintyre stressed that, in relation to the castle, we must forget – with a few exceptions – the stereotype of brutal Nazi German guards. In fact, the author describes them in his book as very patient with the constant taunting of the British prisoners and the escapes, some of which were truly ridiculous. One involved French Lieutenant Émile Boulé, who tried to walk out the door disguised as a woman.

At Colditz Castle, the Germans respected the Geneva Convention and treated imprisoned officers in a manner commensurate with their rank. Of course, things changed at the end of the war. Some prominent prisoners were a hair’s breadth away from being executed by the SS as revenge. The surroundings of the castle were the scene of a real battle before it was liberated by American troops.

In the book, Macintyre shares incredible stories from the depths of Colditz Castle. These include one about a French officer who escaped wearing a Givenchy scarf around his neck; he rode 50 miles on a bicycle to Switzerland, after leaving a message in his cell requesting that his luggage be sent to him. Another is about a British officer named Airey Neave who attempted to escape by disguising himself as a German officer, in a poorly-made uniform. Another Brit, Michael Sinclair – known as the “Red Fox” – studied a German sergeant for months, imitating him carefully, so as to be able to slip out of the castle unnoticed… Until he ran into the very same guard while trying to escape.

“The [attempt] by the Frenchman – Pierre Mairesse-Lebrun – seems magnificent to me; he fled while being shot at and then asked for the clothes to be sent to him. I love it,” Macintyre joked. “The failed attempts are also very interesting. The costumes reveal the love that the British have for the theater.”

Emil Boulé, disguised as a woman, in his attempt to escape from Colditz Castle.
Emil Boulé, disguised as a woman, in his attempt to escape from Colditz Castle.SBG gGmbH (SBG gGmbH)

Another great mythical prison break in the Third Reich took place at the Stalag Luft III camp, near Sagan, in Lower Silesia (now Poland). The Allied prisoners made their attempt in March of 1944, in a mass uprising that was portrayed in the filmThe Great Escape. Macintyre said that “it was an episode of great epic value, but also a disaster and a tragedy. Of the 76 men who came out of the tunnel, 73 were arrested and 50 of them were murdered by the SS on the orders of a furious Hitler.”

The writer explained that this escape is remembered because of the savagery with which the prisoners were punished and not because it was ingenious, especially when compared to the various attempts made at Colditz Castle. While the numbers are still in dispute, Macintyre estimates that a total of 32 prisoners managed to escape the castle, including 11 Brits, 12 Frenchmen, seven Dutch, one Polish and one Belgian. Of those who were held at Colditz Castle, none are living – the last former inmate died in 2013. Some escapes were sensational, such as that of French alpine hunter Lieutenant Alain Le Ray, who only spent 46 days in Colditz before escaping to Switzerland.

A group of prisoners in Colditz Castle.
A group of prisoners in Colditz Castle.SBG gGmbH (SBG gGmbH)

Another of Colditz’s famous prisoners was David Stirling – known as “the ghost commander” – who was the famous creator of the Special Air Service (SAS): a special forces unit within the British Army. He described the castle as “the best-guarded pension (hotel) of the Third Reich.” Stirling was captured in one of his famous raids against the airfields and bases of the Afrika Korps in January of 1943. After several escape attempts from various POW camps, he ended up in Colditz. How did this bold, determined, slippery guy not manage escape? “The problem was that he was very tall,” Macintyre said.

This brings us to Max Hastings, who nobody wanted by their side in the battlefield. The soldier and war correspondent was also especially tall. “Stirling was even taller than Max,” Macintryre added. The writer remembers that the creator of the SAS had a fundamental role in Colditz, dealing with the radio and creating an espionage unit. He wrote about this in his 2016 book, SAS: Rogue Heroes, which became the basis for a BBC series. “I had little control of the series. It’s not history, with its soundtrack and made-up characters. But I loved it, it’s a fantastic piece of entertainment. Peaky Blinders in the desert! Now, in the second season, we’re going to see Stirling in Colditz…”

An image from the original BBC series about Castle Colditz.
An image from the original BBC series about Castle Colditz.

Years ago, you could see a replica of a glider that was clandestinely built at Colditz Castle, on the top floor of the Imperial War Museum in London. Crazily enough, some of the officers attempted to escape by plane. “I’m not very convinced that they could have managed to fly.I think it had more to do with mythical escapism and imagination than with a real escape. It was a dream for the prisoner collective: to fly away to freedom,” said Macintyre.

The writer also pointed out that there was quite a bit of homosexuality in Colditz:“It was a great taboo. In many books about the castle, the subject isn’t even mentioned. But, of course, it happened. There were love affairs and great homoerotic love stories. However, homosexuality was illegal back then – nobody talked about it. One of the sources I used for my book were the recordings kept in the Imperial War Museum and made by elderly ex-prisoners: the taboo had been lifted and they speak openly [about the subject]. Some of the stories are very moving.”

Macintyre emphasized that his book is about a part of World War II’s history – a particular place and time – but is also about escapism in general. He added: “We all need to escape from something: from a relationship, a job, a place. We all feel the need to escape from what drowns us. There are many types of captivity and there is no one who has not experienced some.”

A group of British prisoners at Colditz Castle cheer their liberators, circa 1945.
A group of British prisoners at Colditz Castle cheer their liberators, circa 1945.Bill Allen/AP/REX/Shutterstock (Bill Allen/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

The somewhat Monty Python-like atmosphere of Colditz Castle – with its prisoners and eccentric escape artists – clashes with the reality of nearby concentration camps, where the extermination of Jews, Sinti-Roma peoples, Slavs, disabled people, political dissidents and religious minorities was carried out through labor and starvation. “Nobody talked about this in Colditz. The German guards said it was an SS thing; the contrast between both kinds of camps was abysmal. It forces us to relativize the history of the castle and its prisoners.”

It’s obligatory to ask Macintyre about his thoughts on espionage in the current war in Ukraine: “Espionage is more important today than it has ever been. It’s different, though. Today it has more to do with cyber technology and unravelling intelligence networks. We’ve learned that, early on during the invasion, the CIA disclosed real-time information on Russian movements. There was someone in Putin’s inner circle – someone very brave. That’s the book I’d like to write.”

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