The boredom of life in Colditz

Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle

Ben Macintyre

vikingp. 384£25

They say each generation needs its own biographies of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Napoleon, not just as more evidence is uncovered, but because the lens through which we view character and motive changes. It is the same for the great fixed pieces of history.

According to Ben Macintyre, the story of Colditz and his World War II prisoners of war with their “mustaches firmly set on stiff upper lips, defying the Nazis by tunneling a grim Gothic castle on a German hill” has remained unchanged and unchallenged for over 70 years. In his latest page-turner, Macintyre includes the stories of those heroes who weren’t straight, white, mustachioed, or even male, and others who were simultaneously brave, arrogant, and bigoted. Colditz had both toffs and tommies, and class and relationships could be as perilous as they were auspicious. At least one story of betrayal also comes to light. The result is like watching a black and white photograph being colorized. Even the German guards, previously “painted in a single uniform color”, emerge in varying tones from behind their gray field.

Colditz was designated for prisoners of the Third Reich who had a demonstrated history of escape, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there were more escape attempts from this legendary leaky castle than all another Nazi German POW camp. After a cliffhanger prologue, Macintyre opens with the arrival of the first six British officers. Once locked in, the men were greeted by a group of Polish prisoners carrying several large bottles of beer. It had taken the Poles less than a week to learn how to pick the castle’s ancient interior locks, setting the stage for a series of remarkable escape attempts on the exterior walls.

Soon several tunnels were being dug by different national teams, while more independent-minded escapees tried to have their exits stuffed into mattresses or Red Cross tea chests labeled “surplus items”. ; jumping from windows on ropes of knotted sheets; or disguised as boiler engineers, gardeners, female visitors and members of the Hitler Youth.

Identity cards and passes were forged using a homemade wood and wire typewriter and photographs taken with a camera made from a cigar box and eyeglasses. Future Tory MP Airey Neave was humiliated at being caught in his ornate cardboard and tin approximation of a German uniform, but later became the first British POW to successfully complete a ‘home run’, scoring a mark of encouragement for the British on the rankings of escaped prisoners of war. Prisoners and their guards learned from these early attempts, and the castle grounds were soon filled with trip wires, machine gun emplacement and patrols.

It would be wrong, however, to say that this story is pure escapism. In Macintyre’s hands, Colditz’s story is “a story of idleness” punctuated with frequent moments of great drama. For many prisoners, captivity had to be endured creatively. Violent sports, musical practice, and theatrical productions (Denholm Elliott and Donald Pleasence both among the cast) all helped divert German attention from secret radio building and escape preparations. When nothing else was happening, men dreamed of food, taunted their jailers, trapped wasps to set them free en masse carrying tiny notes promoting defeatism and sometimes strapping mice to miniature parachutes for the descent from the castle’s highest windows.

Colditz Castle during World War II, and the first British prisoners to be sent there. Left to right: Harry Elliott, Rupert Barry, Pat Reid, Dick Howe, Peter Allan and Kenneth Lockwood (Alamy)

In some ways, Macintyre’s clever, scintillating prose, rich in humor and quirky detail, lends itself to this tale of charming 1940s heroism, where escape might hinge on the credibility of a mustache made of bristles. badger, and the comedy is in the ‘H Upmann brand of cigars, whose individual aluminum tubes were used to hide papers where an escapee was least likely to be searched. The risk is that instead of reframing the story, this gentlemanly joviality is a bit too muted, reinforcing Colditz’s existing image. Escaped Pat Reid’s 1952 memoir was “written in a breathless, engaging style, filled with tales of gallant escapes, schoolboy humor, and gleeful wandering”, as Macintyre notes with evident admiration.

Yet Macintyre also added many new elements and perspectives, acknowledging the madness caused by solitary confinement and the almost universal desire for sex, as well as the specific problems facing Jewish prisoners, the exploitation by British officers of their working-class caregivers, and real and imagined betrayal. Several personalities new to me deserve their own books, including the brilliant and dignified Indian Dr Birendranath Mazumdar, who had to fight overt and continued British racism in addition to the Nazi threat, but who comes out of it with his head held high; and the indomitable Scottish resistance fighter Jane Walker, aka Janina Markowska, finally rewarded the MBE for “helping hundreds of Allied prisoners to escape from German-occupied territory”.

Perhaps most poignantly, Macintyre also refers to another, previously neglected camp a few hundred yards from Colditz. The Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft Metallwarenfabrik, or HASAG, was a major arms manufacturer exploiting Hungarian Jewish slave labor. The last survivors were eventually freed and received treatment at Colditz, but were nearly lost to history. Such stories are an important reminder that the local war was not all brains and schoolboy games.

At the end of the day, Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle is packed with so many escape attempts, including 32 home runs, that when I closed it, I expected to see a string of knotted letters swinging down my spine. Yet, perhaps rightly, the most enduring stories are those of those who found they could never entirely leave the castle. Many notable people have passed through Colditz as prisoners or jailers, and while this history is inevitably fractured, it is all the richer for being inclusive. Like another author’s candlelight, seemingly aligning the random scratches on the table she was standing on, Macintyre cast new light on Colditz and aligning the scratches left on her walls in another compelling account.


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