Category Archives: Veterans

A Trip To Colditz Castle, WW2 Prison Camp

Chris, Barrie and I had last flown together when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Light Aircraft.  The purpose of that trip was a simple one. All three of us 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 was the subject of a prior article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by the 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. 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 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.

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 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 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 no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local councillors 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 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 became a sanatorium for the rich, with some notable residents, including Ludwig Schubert, the son of Robert Schubert 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 became a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmach decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those prisoners who made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader the Battle of Britain hero, Pat Reid and Airey Neave (later Sir Airey Neave, MP)  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 were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the hours of captivity to dream up ever more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

 These included tunnelling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to support 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 well lit area containing museum exhibits.

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

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 using the services of an official guide.

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

Under Steffi’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.

From Steffi’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 Steffi 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 as the decades marched on. 

The worst case is that of the Chapel, which is virtually derelict. 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.

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Steffi 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 tunnelling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress. 

The inventive chaps put on a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs, 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 Steffi. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

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

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, Steffi led us outside into the grounds, where she pointed out the places where the prisoners played football, and where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident. 

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

Eventually, Steffi 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 via the railway station to see where the prisoners would have arrived.  We found a small bar in a quiet side street, and enjoyed a couple of beers, chatting amiably about our experiences. 

We then wandered through the virtually deserted town of Colditz, and made our way back to the hotel.

 We met up later in the evening, and visited the completely deserted hotel restaurant, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine. It was a challenge ordering, as the waitress spoke no English, and our German was severely lacking, so we were all a little surprised by our meals.

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

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the 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 for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

I wonder where our wanderings will take us next.

Don’t Tell ‘Em I’m Only Sixteen Mum

I wrote this after visiting the WW1 graves at Ypres, and West Flanders. Having looked at the names and ages on the simple white headstones, following the Battle of Passchendaele. There were numerous graves of 16 year olds. I also attended the Last Post at the Menin Gate. It was one of the most moving military ceremonies I have ever seen. When I looked around, virtually everyone, men, women, children, me. We all had tears on our faces.

I hope I’ve done these men justice in the following words.

Don’t tell em I’m only sixteen, Mum,
Or they won’t let me go the the front,
I’ve been issued a Lewis machine gun,
Which I clean as I sit on my bunk

I’ve heard there’s a big push tomorrow,
The barrage is starting at dawn,
The sky’s grey and dark with Gods sorrow,
The Poppy’s stand limp and forlorn

We stand in the mud of the gloomy old trench,
Waiting silent for daybreak to come,
Backing us up are Belgians and French,
All shaking from fear of the Hun

Some lonely boy in a dugout, is playing a gramophone now,
A sweet image of crisp sheets and home,
With my girl at the Theatre, to see Chu Chin Chow,
Surrounded by men in a close crowded trench, I’m alone

Don’t tell ’em I’m only sixteen Mum,
Or they won’t let me go over the top
I’m no longer a schoolboy, so,I must go and battle the Hun,
I’ll make you proud, Mum, and I promise I won’t get the chop

The Suns golden fingers, are now probing the top of my trench,
A whistle is blown, the ground starts to shake, my ears filled with brimstone and noise,
Dawn’s freshness corrupt, by explosions, the smoke with a cordite stench,
A shout, and the smell of fresh mud hits my face, as I climb up the steps with the boys

The barbed wire fence is in tatters, like a snakes skin just freshly sloughed,
The whipcrack of bullets buzz by my head, like like so many furious bees,
We slowly move into the maelstrom, friends falling like rain from the clouds
Away to my left is Sid from the village, chest Crimson, he sinks to his knees

Through the smoke I see a small crump hole, half filled with my comrades, and mud
I look back to the trench that was home, about fifty yards I would guess
I crouch and hobble to safety, and see Charlie, who’s covered in blood,
I held his hand as he died in the green slimy mud, I cry, “My God, what a mess”

Don’t tell them I’m only sixteen Mum, I’m really just doing my bit,
If the Captain finds out that I’m under age, they’ll send me home in disgrace,
It’s just that I’m so very scared Mum, that on the next push, I’ll get hit,
Then it’s back to the factory, white feathers, and old ladies who spit in my face

Don’t tell them I’m only sixteen Mum….

No Flying Today – Ops Scrubbed

I wrote this after wasting a day at a little grass airfield in Southern England, waiting for the grey overcast, and the heavy rain and showers to blow through. – typical cold front weather. The airfield – Popham in Hampshire was, and still is the home of the Spitfire flying club, and on that morning it was pretty atmospheric, and I just got to thinking. This is the result.

For those unfamiliar with the UK flying licences, the reference in the poem to the IMC is the Instrument Meteorological Conditions Rating, held by pilots who are qualified to fly on instruments, in cloud.

No Flying Today – Ops Scrubbed

The weather at the airfield, was gloomy wet, and grey,
The rains lashed down, the clouds whipped past, a dreary, soggy day,
I mooched about the clubhouse, and heaved a mighty sigh,
And cursed the fickle gods above, who wouldn’t let me fly.

So I sat there glum, dejected, and sipped my tepid tea,
When a rheumy eyed old warbird, plonked down next to me,
And as he sat, I glanced around, and there I chanced to see,
Proud but faded, on his chest, a single DFC.

I turned away, and sipped my tea, which I add, was weak,
I made to go, and drained my cup, and then I heard him speak
“Don’t feel cheated old chap, this weather will soon pass by,
And if you fly this morning, then you will surely die”

“What makes you so sure?” I asked, “Why should it be me?”
“I have flown in cloud before, I have my IMC”
He chuckled quietly, and then, before he spoke,
He looked at me, and politely cleared his throat

Alone, inside the club house, with the rain still crashing down,
I noticed that my new companion’s face was creased up in a frown,
He grasped my arm, leaned forwards, and peered closely at my face,
His voice was low, insistent, then he rushed on a-pace

“It was on a ropy day like this, in the summer, of ’43,
When I scrambled in my Spitfire, to patrol the cold North Sea,
I was supposed to track a warship, the best the Hun had got,
Then pass my observations to the Navy, for them to make a plot.

Once airborne, I was soon enveloped in solid looking cloud,
Which as I discovered later was to be my burial shroud,
I stared upon my gauges, nailed airspeed and AI
And then I saw some green above, where I should have seen the sky

It took a few eternities, before it all sunk in,
I was fully inverted, sir, and also in a spin,
I pushed the stick, I kicked the bars, and pulled every stunt I knew,
But nothing could recover it, there was nothing I could do

The next thing I remember, is sitting on my arse,
watching as my kite burned out, scorching, black, the grass,
It was just then that I noticed, with a feeling of sick dread,
That the pilot was in the cockpit, and he was surely dead

So, old son, take note from me, advice that you should heed,
Don’t trust to luck, or the instincts of your breed,
Instruments, like people, sometimes fail, or lie,
and if you blindly follow them, then, like me, you’ll surely die.

So, One pilot to another, I say to you, old chap,
Don’t bugger about in clouds, watch the landscape, and your maps,
Only fly when birds do, don’t take needless chances,
don’t fly in bad weather, or in iffy circumstances

I considered all his comments, and thought perhaps he’s right,
I turned to thank him for his guidance, and he’d disappeared from sight,
I looked around, but he was gone, or was he there at all?
Then I saw his young and carefree face, staring from the photo on the wall

I read the caption, inscribed upon the frame, and this is what it said

Pilot Officer Jim Smithers, DFC
Killed in Action 1943, aged 19
And, I realised he Was Dead

Mark Charlwood © owns the intellectual copyright to this work. Unauthorised copying, distribution or publication is prohibited. Please contact me if you wish to use my work. Many thanks

A Trip to Colditz Castle – A World War Two Remembrance

Chris, Barrie and I had last flown together when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Light Aircraft.

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. All three of us 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 was the subject of a prior article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by the 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 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.

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 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 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 no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local councillors 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 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 became a sanatorium for the rich, with some notable residents, including Ludwig Schubert, the son of Robert Schubert 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 Wehrmach decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those prisoners who made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid and Airey Neave 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 were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the hours of captivity to dream up ever more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunnelling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge. In order to support 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 well lit area containing museum exhibits.

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

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 using the services of an official guide.

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

Under Steffi’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.

From Steffi’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 Steffi 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 case is that of the Chapel, which is virtually derelict. 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.

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Steffi 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 tunnelling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive chaps put on a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs, 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 Steffi. “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, where the places where the prisoners played football were pointed out, and where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident.

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

Eventually, Steffi 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 in the deserted restaurant.
By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple of beers in the bar, we said goodnight, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the 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 for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

I wonder where our wanderings will take us next.