Colditz castle, in the middle eastern side of modern day Germany, first took prisoners in November 1940 when 140 Polish officers, who were considered high escape risk, were transferred there. This really set the tone for who was to come later, which was officers from many nations who had already gained notoriety by escaping from other POW camps (it was the bad boys prison & Officers only).
The castle was considered escape proof by the Germans, due to its topographical position and the solidity of its construction but, as has happened so many times, making such a claim proved to be a schoolboy error! There were over 300 attempts made to escape from Colditz from 1941 onwards, of which just over 30 were successful. All of the attempts were brilliant in their conception even though some may seem incredibly simple in their actual execution.
Tunnel that started 150ft in the roof.
Here is a French tunnel which was started in the Germans wine Celler. However to access the celler the French climbed to the highest point in the castle, the clock tower, then lowered themselves down the slot which was made for the counterweights for the bells. Once in the celler they hid the tunnel behind a false panel, (The wine celler was still in use) then tunnelled across the whole castle, going under the chapel and eventually getting to within 2-3 meters of the outside wall.
The only problem was that all the rock they cut out was hidden beneath the floorboards on the first floor of their accommodation. Just before the tunnel was complete, the floor collapsed and alerted the Germans to the obvious tunnel attempt and they eventually found the entrance!
Once it was discovered they Germans made the French fill the whole tunnel back in again as punishment.
Walking to freedom.
Here is the theatre where a famous British escape started. The escapees removed the stairs and moved under the stage, they then cut though a ceiling which lead into the German barracks above the guardroom (the Germans had bricked it off). From here the two prisoners, who were dressed as German officers, walked out and past the guards (There was a social event on that night, which meant there were a lot of officers who were unfamiliar to the guards) . They avoided the final guardroom by taking a shortcut that German officers had been spotted using.
They made a successful escape back to the UK.. One of the Two men was Airey Neve who later became a politician in the Thatcher government and was murdered by (probably) the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) although there are some ‘suspicions’ about the true identity of the car bombers?
The escape route from the theatre...remove the steps, under the stage, drop down the the hole in the ceiling, walk down the stairs, exit the gate having ‘told off’ a guard for not saluting, then going through a short cut gate before the last guardroom!
The glider was built in in secret over a 10 Month period which started roughly June - July 1944. To conceal its construction the prisoners built a false wall to hide behind and build a plane. The plan was simple.
1) build a glider in separate component parts. Wooden frame and bedsheets held together with porridge.
2) on the chosen night..knock a hole in the wall, lay tables along the apex of the outside roof.
3) assemble the glider on top of the tables
4) attach the glider by cable to a bathtub of concrete
5) 2 men climb in glider
6) throw bathtub off roof (hopefully landing on A patrolling guard)
7) glider catapulted off roof
8) fly glider to small open area over the river from castle.
interesting fact 1
Both people involved were pilots but didn’t know how to build a plane...how did they find out the information?? They got a book from the library called ‘aircraft design’!!
interesting fact 2
Prisoners once asked the Germans for a book on the history of the castle. This was provided by the Germans and had very detailed plans of the construction of the building. By the time the mistake was realised, the plans had already been copied in detail.
The war ended before the attempt was made and I honestly think the whole project was more of a ‘boredom relief ‘ excecise. They knew the war was drawing to a close (they had a radio room hidden in the roof) and that the allied armies were drawing near. By the time the glider was finished the US army wasn’t far away and having been there for years, would anyone really undertake such a risky attempt, with freedom possible at anytime?
There is a documentary in which the whole project was re-done a few years ago, by a team of aircraft experts (should be on YouTube), It’s very interesting and a replica made the flight across the river and kind of landed. They interview the two guys who were the prisoners who built the original and asked them if it would have flown. The first one says “yes definitely”, the second (who’s idea the whole thing was), says “hmmm...I think it would have descended to earth, definitely”!,
Whilst it took some guts to escape, Colditz does have the feel of a public school playground to it. It was all a game that would allow the hero to escape back to the madness of the war. Only one person was killed trying to escape and that was from a badly deflecting bullet rather than intent to kill. The uncle of some of the guys who I was on the tour with, was a prisoner here and he told them on a number of occasions..”.Colditz ....it was like staying in a bad hotel”.