When I was in my early teens, I saw the British film, ‘The Colditz Story’, based on Captain Pat Reid’s book of the same name, which told of prisoner-of-war life in Colditz Castle during the Second World War. Colditz, in Saxony, near to Dresden and Leipzig, was turned into a high security camp for incorrigible escapers. The castle, high on a cliff above the small town, was considered to be escape-proof – but, of course, the ingenious officers found ways to escape, trying everything from digging tunnels to walking out in broad daylight disguised as German officers.
Colditz fascinated me for many years, and I read many more books, written by other ex-POWs about life in the castle. Until 1989, Colditz was deep in East Germany, and for many years was used as a hospital and psychiatric unit. Once Germany was reunited, it was easier for foreigners to visit the area, and I jumped at the opportunity to join a tour that included a visit to the now-unoccupied Colditz Castle.
From the minute I saw the castle as we crossed the River Mulde, it was everything I had imagined and more. As we walked through the large outer court, surrounded by the Kommandantur which housed the German garrison, I could picture the guards coming and going.
Through the next gateway, we climbed a sloping carriageway and turned right into the prisoners' courtyard, which seemed much smaller than the photos I’d seen of it, but I could still imagine the 500+ prisoners (British, American, French, Dutch and Polish), lined up for roll call, or playing football, or watching out for German guards in case they approached an area where a tunnel was being dug or an escape route being planned.
|The prisoners' courtyard in 1942|
|The courtyard today|
We saw the theatre where the prisoners put on plays and revues, the camp kitchen, some of the dormitories, and the chapel, where the remains of a tunnel started by the French has been discovered.
Hundreds of escape attempts were made, of which approximately 30 (the figures differ) managed to achieve ‘home runs’. As we left Colditz, and walked across the moat bridge, the thought occurred to me that I had just done what hundreds of men longed to be able to do between 1941 and 1945. I had ‘escaped’ from Colditz.