Escaping to Colditz

The three of us had last flown together as a crew was when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Piper Warrior Light Aircraft. 

Piper Warrior 180 four seat light aircraft

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. We all shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip is the subject of another article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by our experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum-security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers.  This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember avidly watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport.  Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Not exactly a busy airport, but well equipped and only a 40 minute journey by road

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty-one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force. Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the windy and damp tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty-minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle. The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt some 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with absolutely no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local council bureaucrats here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in.  Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz – silently holding it’s nine hundred years of secrets

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years.  Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.

During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it was a sanatorium for the rich, and was home to some notable residents, including Ludwig Schumann, the son of Robert Schumann the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmacht decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those that made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid, Airey Neave and Desmond Llwelyn, (better known as “Q” in the James Bond films) to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners, however, were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the long empty hours of captivity to dream up ever-more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunneling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to facilitate these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.

We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well-lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a bright area containing museum exhibits.

Stout wooden doors – and a stout English visitor!

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter for creating work permits and travel documents!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself.  The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by engaging the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Lottie was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living as a student in London no doubt.

Under Lottie’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

The restored coal hole from which Airey Neave MP made his escape.

From Lottie’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region; the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Lottie grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.

The worst casualty of this willful neglect is the Chapel, which was virtually derelict at the time we visited back in 2012, but it may well have been restored by now. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Escape tunnel deep under the Colditz castle

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Lottie if we could see the loft where the glider was made.  She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre.  This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunneling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive escapees staged a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs to watch the performance and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked.  “Ja, of course you can” grinned Lottie. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, we were led outside into the grounds, to the places where the prisoners played football. Lottie pointed out where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to ever be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident, and was apparently unintentional.

According to Lottie, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, apparently aiming to hit his legs, but a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Lottie bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.

We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine – and a few steins of strong lager in the deserted restaurant.

By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple more beers in the bar, we said our goodnights, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00[1] for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

So, having scratched that particular itch, we will now have to plan our next journey into history.

Go Well.


[1] At March 2012 prices.