Built more than 800 years ago, atop a sheer 255-foot cliff above the Mulde River, Colditz Castle is a picturesque Renaissance castle, complete with whitewashed walls and charming red eaves. Despite its beauty, Colditz Castle’s notoriety arises from a less pleasant note in its history. During World War II, the castle became an infamous Nazi POW camp.
Its fame was in no small part because the Germans considered the castle—with its 7-foot-thick walls and precarious location in the heart of Nazi territory—to be utterly impregnable and escape-proof. To this end, the castle became home to “incorrigible” Allied officers and those prisoners of war who had already escaped from other camps.
In essence, the Nazis inadvertently created a castle filled with escape artists. The forbidding location and heavy security of Colditz proved no match for the daring, ingenuity, and desperation of those imprisoned inside. During the five years that Colditz functioned as a POW camp, officially dubbed Oflag IV-C by the Nazis, it was home to more than 300 escape attempts, 30 of which were successful.
Today, you can still visit Colditz Castle, which has been restored to its condition from before the war, but has retained many of the escape tunnels and hidden rooms created by the Allied prisoners, some preserved under glass. A museum and guided tour showcase the castle’s history, and walk visitors through some of the many escape attempts that were made during the castle’s time housing prisoners of war.
Colditz Castle served a variety of functions prior to its conversion to a Nazi POW camp during the war. It housed nobility, acted as a hunting lodge, and was converted to a sanatorium for wealthy members of the German aristocracy. When the Nazis first took power, they transformed the castle into an all-purpose prison for “undesirables”. As early as 1939, the Nazis had begun housing Allied prisoners of war within the forbidding structure.
Among the camp’s first prisoners of war were the notorious “Laufen Six”, who had previously escaped from Laufen Camp, aka Oflag VII-C. Two of the six would put their wily methods to successful use at Colditz as well. Harry Elliott feigned serious health issues, including an ulcer, and was sent home to Britain. Pat Reid, along with three other British and Canadian prisoners, cut through the bars on a window in the prisoners’ kitchen and eventually made his way to the Swiss border.
Reid later wrote about his experiences in Colditz in two bestselling books, which were adapted as a film and television series. In 1973, even a board game, Escape from Colditz, was created from his story.
While the other members of the Laufen Six didn’t escape from Colditz Castle, they served on the so-called escape committee, helping other prisoners to organize escape attempts until the castle was liberated by Allied forces in 1945.
The POWs held in Colditz included notable journalists, relatives of prominent politicians and aristocrats, and a future cardinal, to name just a few. Prisoners excavated escape tunnels and installed secret radio rooms, several of which were discovered by repairmen after the war.
One of those prisoners was Dutch officer Hans Larive. Having refused to give his word not to participate in any further hostile activities against the German forces after the Dutch capitulation, Larive first escaped from a previous POW camp in Soest, Germany.
Larive made it as far as the Swiss border before he was captured. While he was being held, an overconfident German officer boasted of another route by which Larive could safely have crossed the border.
Larive memorized these instructions, which later came to be known as the Singen route, because the crossing was near the German town of Singen, and passed them along to his fellow prisoners in Colditz, several of whom later used the Singen route to cross the Swiss border—Larive included.
Larive’s escape from the castle involved a fake escape attempt which acted as a diversion, while Larive and another prisoner, Francis Steinmetz hid under a manhole cover for several hours. Normally secured with a metal bolt, fellow prisoner and Dutch “escape officer” Machiel van den Heuvel had earlier replaced the real bolt with a fake replica made of glass.
Once the coast was clear, Larive and his fellow escapee broke the glass bolt, switched it for the metal one, and made their getaway. They caught a train to Nuremberg, all while Steinmetz held a blanket over his uniform to appear to be a woman. The pair’s courting disguise held true: They crossed the Swiss border three days later.
One of the most elaborate and infamous escape attempts at the notorious POW camp was never actually carried out: The camp was liberated in 1945 before it could be put into effect. The plan involved the painstaking construction of a glider, known as the Colditz Cock, which was kept in a hidden attic workshop.
The real Colditz Cock never got a chance to fly, but after the camp was liberated, the glider was assembled in the courtyard for the freed prisoners to see. Years later, the glider was reconstructed based on drawings kept by Bill Goldfinch, one of the POWs who helped to design it, and tested by Channel 4 Television at the RAF Odiham. Several former prisoners who had worked on the original plan were there to watch it successfully take flight and see that the plan would have succeeded.
Later still, another replica of the Colditz Cock was actually launched from the roof of the castle itself in 2012. Radio-controlled, this replica made it across the Mulde River below and landed safely in a meadow.
Beginning in 1943, Colditz was given over mostly to British and American prisoners of war, but during the course of the conflict, the castle housed soldiers from the Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, India, and more. Among its most famous inmates were British flying ace Douglas Bader; future British Member of Parliament Airey Neave, who was also the first British soldier to escape from the castle; Giles Romilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill’s wife; and Charles Upham, who twice received the Victoria Cross.
In April of 1945, the castle was captured by American soldiers, and the prisoners still held within it were given their freedom. In the subsequent days, many of the secret tunnels and hidden rooms that they had created were discovered, while more were found over the intervening years as repairs and renovations were made to the castle. Today, you can still visit Colditz Castle, and see the evidence of the ingenuity and tenacity of its former inmates.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons