While watching it snow, and snow, and snow in the northern United States, it’s easy to feel a bit of a prisoner to the weather. As Department staff spent the day clearing snow off the roof, we are left to reflect on the anniversary of an event during the Second World War where actual prisoners were liberated from a much harsher confinement.
On this date in 1945, American troops liberated Colditz Castle in Germany, the place where the Nazis housed the most difficult Allied prisoners of war.
While everyone who ever watched the satirical comedy Hogan’s Heroes will tell you that no one ever escaped from Stalag 13, the truth of the matter is that Allied prisoners engaged in numerous escape attempts throughout World War II all over Germany, and some of them were successful.
As such, the Germans needed a place to keep their repeat offenders, if you will, and Colditz Castle was the place they used. Located 30 miles southeast of Leipzig, the castle was actually closer to Poland than it was to France, and was fully 400 miles from anything resembling friendly territory in every direction, making successful escape even more difficult for Allied prisoners sent there.
Known in German nomenclature as Oflag IV-C, there was obviously a long history for the castle prior to its use by the Nazis. Settlement on the site dates back to 1046, with the castle an important hub throughout the Middle Ages.
During the 18th Century, the castle was used as a place to feed the ill and those under arrest in the city, and then as a high-profile insane asylum until 1924.
But when the war began, Colditz was seen as an escape-proof facility due to its physical location atop a large hill featuring a sheer 250-foot drop to the Mulde River below, plus seven-foot-thick walls surrounding it. Used as a political prison by the Nazis from 1933, the outbreak of war saw the castle turned into a prisoner-of-war camp.
Because it was an “Oflag”, an abbreviation for “Offizierslager”, or “officers camp”, Colditz soon acquired a group of high-ranking prisoners known as “Prominente“. These included journalist Giles Romilly, who was a nephew of Winston Churchill; Viscount George Lascelles, a nephew of George VI; and John Elphinstone, nephew to George’s wife Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother).
As for military men, Colditz soon became an all-star camp. Group Captain and Battle of Britain hero Douglas Bader was held there, after shooting down 22 German aircraft despite two prosthetic legs. So was Captain Charles Upham of New Zealand, the only combat soldier to win the Victoria Cross twice. Another famous inmate was Flight Lieutenant Airey Neave. And almost immediately, the game was on between the prisoners and the Germans to get out of the “escape-proof” camp.
Eventually, between 15 and 32 of them did, achieving what in camp lingo was known as a “home run”, or a successful escape to Allied territory. Some historians claim the larger number while others say only the smaller number can be positively verified. In any event, there were about 320 attempted escapes and to get out, the prisoners were as ingenious as any of Colonel Hogan’s men, right down to the idea of building a glider:
A bustling escape industry was occurring in the vast warren of rooms, passages and winding stairways that made up the prison. Different departments were set up where men worked eight hours a day making fake ID’s, civilian clothes, medals, false weapons and German uniforms. One officer made a working camera from materials scrounged from the prison and used it to take first-rate ID photos for the escapers. Another man created a functional typewriter that was used for fake documents.
There was only one fatality at the castle. Lieutenant Michael Sinclair was fatally shot during a 1944 escape attempt – and was buried with full military honors by the Germans, who draped his casket with a Union Jack flag they made themselves. He posthumously received the Distinguished Service Order, the only man in the British military to receive the award while a prisoner of war.
Too, there were successes. Neave was the first British officer to escape and he hit an immediate home run:
Neave crawled through a hole in a camp theatre after a prisoner performance to a guardhouse, then boldly marched out dressed as a German soldier. Reaching Switzerland two days later, Neave later joined M19, the department of the British War Office dedicated to helping POWs escape.
Neave also served with the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremberg Trials. As he spoke German, he was given the honor of reading the indictments to the defendants in their native tongue. Later in life, he became a Conservative MP.
The legacy of Colditz Castle is one of incarceration on the one hand and of the indomitable will for freedom on the other. Today, local developers have preserved some of the tunnels used by the World War II prisoners to escape from the facility, which now serves as a tourist attraction.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!