COLDITZ CASTLE RISES high above the surrounding country- side of Germany’s eastern Saxony region, its white walls and narrow windows peering down at the Mulde River and the small town of Colditz below. Designated Oflag (“officer camp”) IV-C by the Wehrmacht in 1939, the 16th-century castle was assumed to be escape proof. Its prisoners spent the war proving otherwise.
On a bitterly cold, gray day in January I took the steep, ice-slicked cobblestone street that winds a few hundred yards from the town square to the castle’s outer wall. Following in the footsteps of hundreds of Allied POWs, I crossed a stone bridge over a dry moat and went through a narrow passageway into Colditz. The passageway opens into a courtyard almost as big as a football field, the part of the castle occupied by the German guards. Another vaulted arch leads to a second, smaller courtyard not much bigger than a volleyball court. This inner space was the center of POW life.
It’s also the first stop for visitors. Behind a thick wooden door and up a flight of stone stairs, the castle’s Escape Museum provides an orientation to the castle’s wartime history. Most of the artifacts filling its numerous display cases were preserved by the Wehrmacht, which saw Colditz as a sort of training facility for POW guards. In addition to high-ranking officers and “valuable” aristocrats, the camp received prisoners who had made multiple break-out attempts. By studying the best escape artists the Allies had to offer, the German army hoped to gain insights for running camps across the Reich. Around 300 Germans would serve here throughout the war, at times guarding more than 500 officers from Poland, Britain and the Commonwealth, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, the United States, and the Netherlands, plus the officers’ orderlies.
While the German strategy had a certain logic, putting all the bad eggs in one basket produced near constant escape attempts, as the most creative and daring Allied POWs encouraged each other and pooled their expertise. Polish officers were the first to arrive in November 1939, and immediately started casing the joint. Soon the prisoners knew every inch of the building, often better than their guards. Between 1941 and 1944 there were an estimated 300 escape attempts from Colditz; 31 succeeded. Would-be escapees were photographed holding their crude tunneling tools or wearing disguises—which were kept as educational trophies—and punished with solitary confinement.
The castle’s collection testifies to the creativity and daring of the prisoners, many of whom relied on sheer chutzpah: several tried to simply walk out of the castle. “German” uniforms were sewn by hand out of blankets, and cardboard rifles were realistic enough to pass one casual glance—but not a second. Belt buckles and insignia were cast from melted linoleum, provided by the castle, and painted silver. For decades after the war, Communist-era renovations turned up everything from handcrafted knives and shovels to cans of food squirreled away under floorboards and bricked up in walls. In 1993 a radio station was found under the eaves, and reconstructed in the castle museum.
The day I visited, guide Steffi Schubert offered to show me around. Starting in the courtyard, Schubert pointed out a narrow tower originally built to house the weights for the castle’s clock. French prisoners used the narrow shaft as the entrance for an escape tunnel—one of seven—that started several stories above the ground, wound its way under the flagstones of the chapel, and then cut down through solid bedrock.
Tunneling through stone meant heating it, splashing it with water or snow to form cracks, then slowly chipping it away. (Enthusiastic organists playing in the chapel helped mask the noise.) When the entrance to the tunnel was discovered in 1942, the Germans made the diggers fill it in with concrete. “It must have been the worst punishment,” Schubert said, peering into the narrow crack that remains. “All the tunnels failed—I think the digging was mainly for morale.”
Schubert led me through a gate and down another cobbled trail. Behind the castle, a walled-in park—once used as a hunting preserve—was covered in snow. Some of the most audacious escapes from Colditz started here. Dutch POWs hid under a loose manhole cover until dark, then melted into the thick forest around the castle. One French lieutenant got a boost over the wall during an exercise break and dodged bullets before safely making it to the forest.
Escape efforts like these were highly coordinated. To buy time for escaped comrades, prisoners raised two dummy heads (nicknamed Max and Moritz) at the daily roll calls while others answered “present.” At one point two prisoners—the “Colditz Ghosts”—spent nine months hiding inside the castle. Written off by their captors, they covered for men busy with tunneling or other escape work. They were found out in the summer when their skin, pallid from months hiding in a compartment under the chapel’s pulpit, gave them away.
In the castle’s larger courtyard, Schubert unlocked a small gate and led me down into a low chamber that was once a potato cellar. There’s only one other exit: a narrow ceiling vent leading to a barred window, just wide enough for a man’s torso. It was enough for Pat Reid, a British officer whose 1952 memoir The Colditz Story was the first popular account of the camp. In 1942, Reid and three others wriggled out face-up, the only way to get through without breaking their knees at the top of the passage, and made it to the Swiss border disguised as Flemish workers.
On the third floor of the building, Schubert led me down a hallway covered in peeling paisley wallpaper left over from the castle’s postwar use as a hospital. At the end of the hall is a ballroom, complete with a chandelier and a small stage. Prisoners spent a lot of time here—boxing, fencing, and organizing elaborately costumed plays and musical revues. The shows were a perfect cover for sewing counterfeit uniforms; the orchestra was instrumental in signaling the approach of guards and drowning out the sound of tunneling.
The antics at Colditz are an unexpected change from the grim tenor of most German war sites, though the camp wasn’t immune to the deterioration of Germany’s situation. Guards caught accepting bribes were executed. Escape attempts dropped dramatically after the March 1944 “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III resulted in dozens of executions. That September, Michael Sinclair, veteran of nine failed escapes, climbed the fence of the exercise yard in full view of the guards and was gunned down, the only prisoner to die trying to escape from Colditz.
Still, the prisoners had one last stunt planned. Schubert led me up a winding staircase and unlocked a thick metal door from the 16th century. We ascended to a wide room with a peaked roof: the castle’s attic. Taking up much of the center of the space is a 20-foot-long glider fashioned from blue-and-white checked tablecloths, a replica of the most audacious plot to escape from Colditz Castle.
Over several months in 1944, 40 prisoners kept watch while a team of 16 built the aircraft out of bed slats behind a false wall in the attic, impregnating the lightweight cloth covering with porridge to stiffen it. The plan was to launch it from the roof, soar across the river, and land in a field.
It was a desperate plan for desperate times: In the chaotic final months of the war in Europe, control of the town transferred to the SS. In April 1944, the 20-foot glider was a few weeks from completion when the SS moved out the high-value prisoners; the rest were to be marched eastward. But as American forces closed in from the south, engaging with the SS and Hitler Youth and shelling the town, the camp commandant made a secret deal to surrender to his British prisoners on April 14, 1945. Two days later the castle was liberated. The glider never flew.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.