Monday, 12 January 2015

Colditz Part One - The Camp Organisation

The Escape Organisation in Colditz Sonderlager IVC contained the same broad based threads as many Allied POW camps, especially those of the classic template put together in Stalag Luft 111 as illustrated here. There were inevitable differences according to the type of camp, personnel and geography, but it is interesting to look at how an Allied escape organisation generally followed the same lines.

Earlier posts have covered the structure and workings of a typical escape organisation within Allied POW camps in occupied Europe during World War 2, especially Stalag Luft 111. But each camp presented its own set of challenges and variance.  Colditz castle was unique. It towered above the village, was built on the edge of a cliff and jutted out over the River Mulde at a merger with a tributary stream. The outside walls were an average of seven feet thick, and the inner courtyard of the castle was about two hundred and fifty feet above the river level. The castle rooms where the POWs were housed were a further sixty feet above the courtyard.

Colditz - Wikipedia

Colditz was nothing like one of Goering’s purpose built 'model'  POW camps which appeared later in the war with their wooden huts flanked by searchlight towers on stilts, electric fences,  barbed wire and guards. It was an ancient medieval castle situated in the middle of a triangle formed by the three cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz. Right in the heart of the German Reich it was four hundred miles from any frontier not directly under Nazi control. Deemed escape-proof by the Germans, Colditz was the only camp where the number of guards exceeded the prisoners.  Allied Officers who had made repeated escape attempts from other POW camps were sent there for the duration of the war.

Even for the habitual escaper, seeing Colditz from a distance for the first time must have seemed daunting. This type of POW would already be sizing up the geography and sketching in first impressions of a new camp with a view to breaking out.  Once off the train, the castle was immediately visible. POW and escaper Major Pat Reid summed it up perfectly:

 "Almost upon leaving the station we saw looming above us our future prison: beautiful, serene, majestic, and yet forbidding enough to make our hearts sink into our boots. It towered above us, dominating the whole village; a magnificent Castle built on the edge of a cliff.... We marched slowly up the steep and narrow cobbled streets from the station towards the Castle...Entering the main arched gateway, we crossed a causeway astride what had once been a deep, wide moat and passed under a second cavernous archway whose oaken doors swung open and closed ominously behind us with the clanging of heavy iron bars in true mediaeval fashion. We were then in a courtyard about forty-five yards square, with some grass lawns and flower-beds surrounded on all four sides with buildings six stories high. This was the Kommandantur or garrison area. We were then escorted farther; through a third cavernous archway with formidable doors, up an inclined cobbled coachway for about fifty yards, then turning sharp right, through a fourth and last archway with its normal complement of heavy oak and iron work into the 'Sanctum Sanctorum', the inner courtyard. This was a cobbled space about thirty yards by forty yards, surrounded on its four sides by buildings whose roof ridges must have been ninety feet above the cobbles. Little sun could ever penetrate here! It was an unspeakably grisly place...."
Incarcerated in a castle with its warren of corridors, rooms, floors and staircases, the ‘would be’ escaper’s mind was stretched to new limits. Most escape attempts quickly failed, yet despite the high security, obstacles, barbed wire and guards, at least 130 men got out during the course of the war. 16 of these made successful 'home runs' from within Colditz castle and grounds, 11 escaped whilst outside the castle and a number of officers were also repatriated due to illness (faked or genuine) including insanity. The total number of successful escapers is still marginally open to debate depending on what is classed as an escape.  

Colditz POWs at Appell -

Much had been written about Colditz, but in a series of short posts, many of the breakouts and unsuccessful attempts will be examined again. Personal accounts and analysis of some successful ‘home runs’ will also be looked at in future posts. In escape and evasion, it is the human stories which paint real colour on to the canvas. That canvas must never be allowed to deteriorate or be put into storage and forgotten.  

Sources and Additional Reading
Colditz The Full Story – Major P R Reid MBE MC
MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 - M.R.D. Foot & J. M. Langley (Recommended read on MI9)
Author's Notes

 ©Keith Morley

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  1. I didn't realise how big this camp was...
    Looking forward to hearing some personal accounts in future posts.

  2. Thanks Maria. It was a deceptively big camp. Much has been written about Colditz, but I will try to cover the psyche and human stories as well as the narrative.