Colditz: prisoners of the castle


Ben Macintyre is well known for his books on spies and espionage, like Agent Zigzag, Double Cross, and Philby. Earlier this year, one of his other works, Operation Mincemeat, was adapted into a hugely successful movie (see MHM June/July 2022).

So I was surprised to find that Macintyre’s latest book was about prisoners of war in the high-security officers’ prison in Colditz Castle. However, in many ways, Colditz just continues the line that links his previous books. It has a cast of wonderful and often eccentric characters, all brilliantly well drawn by the author. And it is packed with remarkable stories, many of which read more like fiction than fact.

Colditz Castle in Saxony dates back to the Middle Ages and is built on a high rocky outcrop. Imagining it to be escape-proof, the Wehrmacht selected it to host officer prisoners of war (POWs) in 1939. Initially there were French, Polish, Belgian, and Canadian inmates, but from May 1943 the authorities decided to hold only British and American captives.

Many of the emotions felt by the men incarcerated in the medieval castle were the same as those felt by all prisoners of war. There was a sense of guilt. They had joined up to fight but had ended up in captivity. Many felt it was their duty to try to escape. One British lieutenant, Michael Sinclair, felt this so strongly that he attempted seven breakouts, more than any other individual. Some of them nearly succeeded but not one came off.

There was also the crushing boredom of a daily ritual that remained the same month in, month out; year in, year out. And unlike conventional prison sentences, no one in a POW camp knew how long they would be incarcerated for, or what the endgame would be.

At times, conversations between inmates almost ceased. Everyone knew what everyone else would say or think. Then there was sexual frustration – hundreds of young men imprisoned without female company of any sort. Padre Jock Platt became terribly worried about the risk of what he saw as ungodly homosexuality at Colditz.

But Macintyre also makes it clear that Colditz was unlike most POW camps. Firstly, its extraordinary location made escape appear impossible. And then there was the fact that everyone housed there was classed as deutschfeindlich, ‘German-unfriendly’, and had been sent there because they had tried to escape from other camps. It was like a school where all the bad boys had been gathered together under one roof.

The inventiveness that came out of this was remarkable, and one escape attempt followed another. But few were successful in making ‘home runs’. One of only a handful who did was Airey Neave, later a leading Tory politician and supporter of Margaret Thatcher.

Divided inmates

Post-war stories of Colditz painted a picture of a classless prison society where everyone was equal. Macintyre convincingly shows how wrong this was. The biggest divide was between the officers and the orderlies. Officers were used to having batmen to look after them, polish their boots, prepare their uniforms, and even cook their food.

The Germans brought in a small army of orderlies to look after the officers in Colditz. Yet they were never invited to join the escape attempts nor share the goodies that arrived in Red Cross parcels. Moreover, there were deep divisions between the officers themselves. Those from the top public schools looked down on those from the minor schools. And they in turn looked down on those from grammar schools. There was even a Bullingdon Club in Colditz for a tiny elite.

below Group Captain Douglas Bader in 1955. The legless flying ace was one of the most noteworthy prisoners at Colditz. His long-suffering orderly was refused a chance to escape from the castle.
Group Captain Douglas Bader in 1955. The legless flying ace was one of the most noteworthy prisoners at Colditz. His long-suffering orderly was refused a chance to escape from the castle. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the top were the Prominente, prisoners whom the Germans thought were supremely important, such as Churchill’s nephew Giles Romilly, members of the aristocracy, and cousins of the royal family. They were kept under special guard and ate and socialised separately from everyone else. But why were the Germans keeping such men? For some sort of barter after the war? To parade in Berlin on final victory? It was a mystery that remained right until the end.

One of those who arrived as a Prominente was Douglas Bader, the flying ace who had lost both legs in an aeroplane accident in 1931. Bader was later presented as one of the war’s great heroes, with Kenneth More playing him in the 1956 film Reach for the Sky.

Macintyre makes it clear that, in reality, Bader was arrogant and totally self-centred. When his all-suffering orderly Alex Ross was offered freedom, Bader forbade it. He wanted him to remain in the prison to carry him up and down the stairs, cook his meals, and wash his stump socks every day.

Macintyre shows how the mood in the castle prison changed as the war progressed. In 1942, there was hope that victory might be around the corner. By 1943, this had turned to despair that it might instead go on for years to come.

As 1944 became 1945, serious hunger stalked the prison camp. The Red Cross parcels ceased to arrive, but the inmates still fared better than their guards, who had no extra supplies to add to their now-miserable diet.

As the end of the war approached, the danger facing the prisoners rose to a new level. No one knew what would happen to them. Would the guards flee and leave the prisoners abandoned to their fate? Would they all be taken out and shot by the SS? Would the Prominente be used as a human shield around a last-ditch defence by Nazi diehards? As the rule of law collapsed, so the level of peril facing the few hundred prisoners rose.

The climax of the book and the final liberation of Colditz is told by Macintyre in a gripping, page-turning style. The twists in the tale continue to the very end. And as the first few inmates arrived back in Paris and London, they looked at a sort of fairy-tale world that had somehow survived while they had been locked up for years, isolated, bored, fearful, and frustrated.

Macintyre produces a great and thoughtful ending to a fine book that is about heroism and cowardice, kindness and cruelty, collaboration and inventiveness. Highly recommended.

Colditz: prisoners of the castle Ben Macintyre
Viking Press, hbk (£25)
ISBN 978-0241408520