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10 Fascinating Facts about WWII’s Most Notorious Nazi-Run POW Camp

by Lyal Smeaton
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Dating back to the 11th century, Colditz Castle in eastern Germany has had what can justifiably be described as a checkered history. After the outbreak of the Second World War, it took on a new role as a prisoner-of-war camp. The Nazis reckoned that its tall, immensely thick stone walls would rule out any possibility of escape. In fact, they sent prisoners who’d escaped from other camps to the castle. However, there was a compelling question for the Colditz captives. Was their prison really escape-proof? Read on for the answer.

Related: 10 Facts about the Wildest Prison Break You’ve Likely Never Heard Of

10 Castle History

Colditz Castle ~ a visitor’s guide ~ September 2015.

Schloss Colditz dates back to at least 1046, the year it was first mentioned in writing, actually in a marriage document. From this thousand-year-old manuscript, we learn that Henry III, king of Saxony, gave the castle to his wife, Agnes of Poitou. Ownership of the property was passed on to various noble German families until it was destroyed along with the adjoining town in 1430.

The destroyers of the original castle were the Hussites, followers of a religious rebel from Bohemia called Jan Hus. He had the misfortune to be burned at the stake in 1415, so he probably never even set eyes on Colditz despite the fact it was apparently ravaged in his name. Obviously, the castle was subsequently re-built although the passage of time has left no information about who did that.[1]

9 State Institute for the Incurable Mentally Ill

What It Was Like to Be a Mental Patient In the 1900s

The castle continued as a royal possession until the late 18th century. Then, in a somewhat unexplained turn of events, its purpose changed radically. The Schloss Colditz website tells us that the property now became “a country workhouse for beggars and tramps.” It was also a haven for disabled and mentally troubled people, and all the new occupants were given work in the castle, spinning, tailoring, or gardening.

By 1829, Colditz was given the official title of State Institute for the Incurable Mentally Ill. Apparently, it was a forward-looking institution since the patients were treated without the employment of “shackles and chains.” At the time, this was regarded as a rather shocking innovation. Under the directorship of one Christian August Fürchtegott Hayne, the institution even went so far as to hire nursing staff. The Schloss continued to fill this role right up until 1928.[2]

8 A Sinister Turn

Colditz Castle | Prisoner of War Camp | Oflag IV-C | World War 2 | 1991

Events at Colditz took a much more sinister turn in 1933, the year Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor. The Nazis identified the castle as an ideal place to lock up some of the many people they didn’t like. Socialists and other dissidents were imprisoned in Colditz, and the regime there became one of severe isolation, flogging, and torture.

Things became even darker in 1938 when the castle was returned to its role as a mental institution. But it wasn’t a place offering benevolent treatment as before. There was no intention that the inmates might be cured of their illness. Instead, it was somewhere for them to die. The Nazis had no time for people who were mentally incapacitated and were quite content to see them die. In a matter of months, 84 people lost their lives there.[3]

7 Oflag IV C

Colditz TV Series S01-E01 – The Undefeated

In 1939, Schloss Colditz was repurposed yet again. Now, it became Oflag IV C, a prisoner of war camp. But it wasn’t just any old POW camp. It was the place where the most problematic prisoners were incarcerated, those who had already attempted to escape from camps elsewhere. Nobody, the Germans believed, would be able to escape from this formidable medieval schloss with its towering stone walls that were up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) thick.

To make sure that the 700 rooms of the formidable castle building were escape-proof, large numbers of armed German guards patrolled the premises and the surrounding grounds day and night. The land around the rock the castle perches on was open and flat, making the possibility of escape seemingly impossible. But there was an obvious problem. Putting all the Allied prisoners who had a taste for escaping in one place turned out to be a recipe for disaster.[4]

6 The First Successful Escape

The Colditz Story – Acrobatic Escape

The astonishing truth is that there were more escape attempts from Colditz than any other German POW camp. And of the 130 men who attempted escape, despite the steep odds against them, around 30 succeeded. The distinction of being the very first successful escapee falls to a Frenchman. Alain Le Ray was a general in the French Army who went on to become a noted member of the French Resistance after his successful bid for freedom.

So, how did Le Ray get out of the “escape-proof” prison? He was involved in a tunnel-digging escape plan but grew frustrated with the lack of progress. So he moved to Plan B. While outside the castle walls on exercise, he managed to evade the guards by hiding in a derelict house. He made it to Nuremberg by train but was now penniless. So he robbed a man, taking his coat and wallet. After further scrapes, he made it to Switzerland by clinging on to the front of a locomotive.[5]

5 Lieutenant Airey Neave

The Incredible Life & Tragic Death of Airey Neave

The very first British officer to escape successfully was Lieutenant Airey Neave. Captured in 1940, when the Germans invaded France, Neave was originally imprisoned in Stalag XXA, from where he escaped. But he was apprehended and moved to Colditz. Once there, he made his first escape attempt while wearing a bogus German uniform in August 1941 but was caught before he’d exited the castle.

But Neave’s next bid for freedom the following January went to plan. He escaped with three other men, all dressed in fake German uniforms. The four split into pairs, and one duo was caught. But Neave and a Dutch officer called Tony Luteyn made it to Switzerland. Later in life, he became a prominent politician only to be killed by an IRA bomb attack in 1979 near the Houses of Parliament.[6]

4 Flight Lieutenant Hedley Fowler

The most IMPREGNABLE Nazi Prison: Escape Plan from Colditz Castle

Another who made it out of the purportedly escape-proof Colditz Castle was Flight Lieutenant Hedley Fowler of the Royal Air Force. Along with five other men, variously disguised as Polish workmen and Germans, Fowler escaped the castle via a tunnel, the entrance concealed in an office. Donning civilian clothes, the men headed for the Swiss border.

Four of the party were recaptured, but Fowler and Dutch officer Damiaen Joan van Doorninck reached the safety of neutral Switzerland. But the Englishman’s war story did not end happily. Promoted to squadron leader, he became a test pilot with the RAF’s Armament Test Squadron. In March 1944, while testing a Hawker Typhoon, he crashed and was killed.[7]

3 Goon Baiting

Ex-Inmate Returns To WW2 Prisoner Of War Camp (1992 Colditz Documentary) | Forces TV

The British officers, in particular, liked to infuriate their German guards, whom they called “goons.” Historian Ben McIntyre told the History Extra website that “a huge amount of ingenuity went into this activity: teasing [the guards], mocking them, whistling on parade, refusing to stand up straight—anything the prisoners could do to drive them mad.” These passive-aggressive ploys were known as “goon baiting.”

McIntyre related one particularly bizarre episode. The British officers found a wasp’s nest in the castle and began to capture individual wasps, imprisoning them in matchboxes. They then attached cigarette papers to the wasps with the message “Deutschland kaput” inscribed on them. On an agreed day, all the wasps, presumably infuriated by their captivity, were released at once while the prisoners were on parade. What the Germans made of this is not recorded.[8]

2 Colditz Cock

Escape From Colditz! The British Plan To Glide Out Of Colditz Castle

Perhaps the most daring escape plan involved the construction of a glider, dubbed the “Colditz Cock,” in complete secrecy within the castle chapel. British officer Lieutenant Tony Rolt was the man who came up with this improbable scheme. He realized that the chapel roof could make an ideal launching point for a glider. Two RAF pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch, set about building the aircraft, supervising a work party of 12 other prisoners.

Working from a book they’d found in the prison library, Aircraft Design, the men grabbed whatever materials they could find in Colditz. The launch was to be accomplished by dropping a bathtub filled with concrete and attached by pulleys to pull the glider along a 60-foot (18.3-meter) ramp built with furniture. Sadly, before the plan could be put into operation, it became clear that the camp was on the verge of being liberated by the Allies. The madcap scheme was abandoned.[9]

1 Liberation

Colditz TV Series S02-E13 – *Liberation*

After fighting their way across Europe, American soldiers reached the town of Colditz in April 1945. SS troops and others prepared to defend the town while the Americans readied themselves for battle. The Germans had already moved some prisoners from Colditz, and now an order was issued for the relocation of the British captives. However, the senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Tod, told the prison commandant that his men were going nowhere.

Although the POWs draped British and French flags from the castle walls, unfortunately, the Americans didn’t spot them and bombed the prison. The attackers didn’t actually know that Colditz was a prison camp. Mercifully, the flags were finally spotted, and the bombardment ended without casualties. Early on the morning of April 18, American soldiers entered the castle. The prisoners were free.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen