Inescapable: Prisoners in Colditz

Colditz in 1945 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Colditz Castle, Oflag IVC, was supposed to be an inescapable fortress. The Nazi regime had designated it a prison for the exceptional Allied prisoners who proved themselves “high-security risks”. When the first British prisoners of war arrived on 7 November 1940 they joined French and Polish prisoners already housed in the castle. It was the beginning of a headache for the German guards.

Colditz was an 11th century castle that had grown over the years. It possessed an intricate system of passageways that riddled the fortress; locked gates and doors throughout the castle were nothing to prisoners for they  proved to be quite learned at picking locks. The food was nothing to brag about and Red Cross packages were highly valued. When the times got hard, those packages would be even more appreciated. Life at Colditz was not pleasant. Walls surrounded the prisoners at every turn, space was limited and the number of rolls calls would grow to four a day with surprise inspections at night. Yet the Geneva Convention protected the prisoners and for the most part the guards treated them well. All in all the two factions would get along. Sadly, captivity would drive a few of the Allied men mad.

French officers at Colditz (Courtesy Wikipedia)

From the Polish the British prisoners learned a great deal of the ins and outs of Colditz. But it would be the French who attempted the first escape. While it was not successful it marked the beginning of over 300 escape attempts that would take place over the next 4 years. The first successful escape attempt would take place a month after the first failed attempt. Frenchmen Lt. Alain Le Ray made Colditz’s first home run, boosting the morale and hopes of those left behind. It would seem the French had all the luck. In July Lt. Pierre Mairesse Lebrun escaped before the eyes of his captors when he vaulted over the wire. He fled as a hail of bullets followed. His escape would be the third home run. After his escape he was cheeky enough to request that the Germans send his belongings to him.

Of the different nationalities assembled in the camp, roll call was a very messy affair with the British. Goon baiting was a favorite past time for many of the British officers (as well as the French). A sloppy roll call was just one way of annoying their captors. A past senior officer had gone so far as to encourage the behavior among his subordinates (In one rowdy goon-baiting session the riot squad fired on the French quarters—not entirely the German’s fault, in this case. A Frenchman took a bullet. He recovered but lost the use of his left-hand fingers). The British too had attempted various escapes, none of which had been successful in the year 1941. On one occasion they were digging a tunnel when the German accidentally discovered it. They would not have a home run until early 1942.

Colditz (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Colditz (Courtesy Wikipedia)

At first the Dutch prisoners were well regarded by the Germans, because they were trouble-free. But all was not as it seemed. Four Dutch officers turned up missing. The Dutch escape had been made from a manhole in a the castle’s park over a span of two days. While the rest of the prisoners played a noisy game overhead a pair of Dutchmen (the second pair) would scramble into the claustrophobic manhole. For hours the two would stand in the partially water-filled hole until nightfall. In the meantime a fellow prisoner covered for them by cutting through the wire in a mock escape. He got the attention of the guards and then yelled to nonexistent escapees to “Run, discovered!”. The Germans thought that the two men really had gotten away when in reality they were still in the park. When night came the two men emerged and made their run. After a grueling journey they made it to the Swiss border and to freedom. The escape was repeated by two more Dutch prisoners before the manhole was discovered in the midst of a fourth escape. To explain the disappearances of the third round of manhole escapees  two dummies, Max and Mortiz, were created by a Polish prisoner. The clay heads were dressed up in capes and boots and made regular appearances with the Dutch. The dummies, or at least one of them, would not be discovered until three months later when one was given an order by a German and the dummy failed to act on it.

By the end of 1941 the British had the most escape attempts followed closely by the French. However the French had made 10 homeruns while the British had none. They made up for that in 1942 when a Dutch and British prisoner broke out and made it to safety.

Liberation (Courtesy Wikipedia)

While the other nationalities were making their own escapes the French had decided to take up the task of tunneling. And it was a task. Through boulders, rocks and castle walls they dug. The tunneling noises could not always be hidden from the confounded Germans.  They were well aware that somewhere beneath their feet there were tunneling activities, but they could never pinpoint the area where the noise was originating. Dirt taken from the tunnel was hidden in attics. There was so much of it that one day a guard noticed a strange sagging in a ceiling. Another time a ceiling collapsed, busting a water pipe in the process. The mixture of water and dirt cascaded down the castle stairs in a muddy mixture much to the delight of the British and annoyance of the Germans. The tunnel was nearly finished and 200 Frenchmen prepared for the breakout when their hopes were dashed. The tunnel was discovered by the Germans two days before the scheduled escape date.

Another tunneling attempt was made in the cold winter that followed. Major Patrick Reid cut through the bars of his window and dug through the snow on the roof, forming a small tunnel. A ferret discovered his work soon after and came in after Reid. Reid’s escape was promptly ended.

Colditz Cock, the glider (Courtesy Wikipedia)

By April 1945 the number of escapes had fallen drastically. It would seem escape truly was impossible. In five years there had been thirty-two home runs. Drastic times called for drastic measure. So the British built a glider. Suffice it to say, after the glider was constructed the Americans liberated Colditz (but not before the British had convinced the kommandant to surrender before the forces arrived). It was not a moment too soon. Officers had been forced to watch as many of their comrades lost their minds, unable to cope with the monotonous captivity. Now freedom had arrived at last. The prisoners bade farewell to Colditz.

Source: Chancellor, Henry. Colditz: The Untold Story of World War II’s Great Escapes.

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52 thoughts on “Inescapable: Prisoners in Colditz

    • It is, isn’t it? There is so much I would have liked to have included but space was limited; after all we’re aiming for a blog post here, not an epic. 😉

      I first heard of Colditz while research the Great Escape. In the 1970s there was a TV series made of it. Some, if not all, of the episodes are on YouTube.

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  1. That was interesting and I also have never heard of Colditz before this. I can see that it could drive some of them crazy. To make a tunnel and for it to be found only 2 days before they were going to use it had to be disheartening to say the least.

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  2. That’s a terrible long time, almost 5 years, to be confined as a prisoner of war. It’s a story familiar to me but never so well told and especially using so few words. I wonder if there were any of our Australians there? They were often considered/ counted as British… grrr… 😉
    Thanks J,.G. Great work!!!

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    • Thank you for your kinds words, Catherine. 🙂

      Yes it is. Easy to see how it could drive the POWs mad. I’m surprised more didn’t succumb.

      There were a number of Australians at Colditz. A book was written titled “The Diggers of Colditz”. It appears to tell the tale of some of the Australian POWs. It’s out-of-print unfortunately but if I ever stumble across a copy locally I’m snatching it up. Here is a little info on one of the Aussies: http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2008/01/30/colditz-collection/

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    • Thanks for the info J.G… I’ll keep my eyes peeled for “The Diggers of Colditz” too 🙂
      Hopefully ex Colditz Australian POW, Lieutenant J.R.(Jack) Millett was not buried in the infamous West Aust Cemetery, Karrakatta, and had his grave desecrated… 😦

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  3. I’m surprised that some soldiers went mad from the confinement, since there were so many others around them for support and to make life bearable. I guess what is bearable is different for everyone. Its a very exciting story — such bravery.

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    • I guess it would have been easier for some of the POWs to cope with it, while not so with others. Cramped quarters and continual boredom (there were a few exceptional activities such as theater to keep them busy) sounds like it would be a nightmare for anyone who was very active. One of the things Henry Chancellor pointed out in his book of Colditz was that a good deal of the prisoners had lapses of insanity. They would rearrange their small bit of possessions while conversing with them. Fortunately they didn’t go off the deep end entirely…Then there were those who faked insanity to get repatriated—this is supposed to be dangerous because the person who is faking insanity could really lose their mind in the process.

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    • Thanks! I find it very fascinating. Did you see a couple of years back where footage of the Germans goofing off at Colditz was found? I seen a few of the stills on what was probably the BBC website, but I couldn’t find the actual footage online. As for the TV series I’ve seen a couple of episodes.

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  4. What a story! I was not familiar with this place. My book group has read afew books abour wwii prisonera and the various ways that prisoners tried to escape a d to say sane. Truly amazing mental and physical fortitude. I had to chuckle about theone who got a homerun aand then asked for his belongimgs.

    Excellent post!

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    • Thank you!

      That was funny, wasn’t it? There were a few references to humorous episodes in Chancellor’s book. It was probably irritating for the Germans, but the POWs came up with some real wise-crack remarks that are difficult not to laugh at. Wish I had had the room to include some of them!

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    • You’re very welcome.

      Mm, I never tire of reading these escape stories. We hear a lot about the Allied escape and what not, but I’m curious if the Germans ever had any while held prisoner in Allied camps?

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  5. I just love the idea of a Nazi yelling orders at a clay dummy. And that none of them noticed that two of their prisoners weren’t even real — for three months!!! That is priceless!

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    • It is funny, isn’t it? And the second dummy was not discovered until even much later. Can you imagine? I would love to have seen the looks on the guards’ faces when they gave they discovered the first dummy.

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  6. I really liked this post. Frankly, I enjoy your blog alot. I will continue reading your posts, they are interesting. I have a hunger for anything history.
    Thank you for visiting my blog and liking my newest post. What did you like in particular? Do you crochet? If so, are you going to join?

    Cathy the Bagg Lady

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    • Glad you are enjoying. 🙂

      I like just about anything that has to do with crochet, which is one of the reasons I set up a separate blog dedicated to crochet projects and ramblings. I’m afraid I have too much going on right now to join the CAL, but thanks anyway.

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  7. How fascinating! I’d never heard about Colditz before. Reading about the clay dummy heads reminds me of the 3 prisoners that escaped from Alcatraz in 1962. They made dummy heads and left them in their beds as to pass the night time inspection.

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  8. My speciality from university is this period. I’m fascinated by how people responded to the Nazis, from adoration to hatred. My particular area is resistance – how Germans resisted but also how prisoners resisted, just as you mention in your article. If they couldn’t escape, they’d cause as much annoyance as possible. We used to play “Colditz” when I was a child – it was a board game as well as a play time game. We always escaped successfully, of course :> This is an excellent article – I didn’t know about the glider! Just one query – Auflag is the correct spelling for concentration camps, although even the Colditz site says “Oflag”.

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    • Their stories, as individuals and as a whole, are interesting. I love reading about them. It’s amazing how the POWs remained undeterred in the face of all their disappointments.

      I have not heard of that game before. Will look it up! And also I will correct the spelling as well, thanks for the information!

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