In the forbidding gothic castle on a hilltop deep in Nazi Germany, an unlikely band of allied officers spent the Second World War …

By Roger Childs

A superb writer

Ben Mcintyre is the ace of spy writers. His books are based on meticulous research and read like page-turning novels.  Many, like Operation Mincemeat, have been made into films. 

In turning his attention to one of the most famous of prisoner of war camps, Mcintyre uncovers plenty of new material that has not been revealed before and he explores the background of a raft of officers from many different nations. 

Although there is a roughly chronological approach there is also plenty of analysis of particular aspects of camp life along the way from 1940 to 1945.

A camp like no other

Colditz is located in Saxony and the castle is right beside the town of the same name. Some prisoners with binoculars could spy on women in nearby houses! It was run by the Wehrmacht (German Army) and was specifically for officers. There were also some orderlies who were basically the officers’ servants. The prisoners came from Poland, the Netherlands, France and other countries overrun by the Nazis, but the hard core were British.

The main activity of the inmates was devising escapes and although each nation worked on their own, there was some cooperation between the nations. Tunneling was the favoured method of trying to get out, but there was always the problem of where to put the dirt that was excavated. Individuals tried various methods to get out –- using disguises, bribing guards, hiding in rubbish trucks, even pretending to be German soldiers, workmen and even women. If they got out of the camp, most escapees headed for the Swiss border 600 km away. There were many failures, but also some successes known as “home runs”.

One of the most interesting characters amongst the German staff was Hauptmann (Captain) Reinhold Eggers – the security officer – whose main task was to prevent escapes and uncover tunneling operations and other strategies. He was a civilized and reasonable man who was also an admirer of English culture. He kept a detailed diary of life in Colditz and collected evidence of escapes, tools and various forged documents used by would-be escapees. 

Life in Colditz

Cooped up in the castle not knowing when you would be freed was a boring and tedious way to spend the war years. Some officers put on theatrical shows, played volleyball, stoolball (a cross between rugby and cage fighting) and even held their own Olympics. Mcintyre covers a range of topics including “Goon-baiting”, spying, racialism and homosexuality.

There was an incredible range of men amongst the hundreds who passed through Colditz — prisoners could be moved at a moment’s notice and many were.  Some of the legends included

  • Douglas Bader — the English flying ace who had tin legs.
  • Frenchman Alain Le Ray – who achieved the first home run.
  • Indian doctor Birendranth Mazumdar who many thought was a spy. He wasn’t, and remained loyal to Britain despite the pressure from the Nazi government to defect to the German cause.
  • The debonair Czech flying officer Cenek Chaloupka who had an affair with the assistant to the Colditz town dentist.
  • Florimond Duke, the first American prisoner.
  • Julius Green, the camp dentist, an expert code cracker and a secret agent.

High tension in 1945

With incredible ingenuity the prisoners built two radios and were able to follow the news of the D Day invasion and beyond. They could hear the bombing of nearby Leipzig and knew that the Americans were coming from the West and the Russians from the East. Needless to say they hoped the Yanks, who had the beautiful War Correspondent Lee Carson, with them, would win. 

The Colditz Wehrmacht staff hoped to convince the Allies that they were not guilty of any atrocities and had treated their prisoners in line with the Geneva Convention. Their bargaining chip was a group of officers known as the Prominente – men who were linked to royalty and famous people like Churchill, and war heroes like Douglas Bader and New Zealand double VC Charles Upham. Above all they didn’t want the camp or the Prominente to fall into the hands of the SS. 

Anything Ben Mcintyre writes is first rate and Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle it up to his highest standards. I highly recommend this book which was published last September and is available in both hardcover and softover editions in better bookshops or in libraries.