Colditz, a former mental hospital and Renaissance castle in German Saxony, was during the Second World War a scene was several spectacular escape attempts were made. The castle was a prison camp.
In connection with the outbreak of World War II, Colditz was transformed into a high-security prison for prisoners of war. The hard hilly terrain around the castle just like the tall walls did every escape attempt to a potentially deadly mission. Hermann Goering pointed out personally that the prison was escape-proof.
Only two exits were found and the castle also housed a garrison of German Wehrmacht soldiers. In Colditz, which was called Oflag IV-C, Germany would place the particularly notable prisoners of war from the Allies.
The building that the prisoners lived in was a 27-meter high tower whose courtyard was surrounded by barbed wire. It was considered that it was a convenient place to send especially escape-proven or those who had already tried to escape.
Famous escapes and escape attempts
The inventiveness among the prisoners was great. Different escape attempts were based on copied keys, copies of maps and counterfeit ID cards. Some tools also came in the hands of prisoners in gifts from family or non-existent “charities” (British M-19).
In the prison camp, there was even a black stock market where you could change different items depending on what you needed.
The most famous events in Colditz
The Singen route
The Singen route was named after the Dutch navy Lieutenant Hans Larive, who escaped from another prison camp in 1940. Larive was caught at the Swiss border at the city of Singen. The Gestapo man who stopped him was so convinced that Germany soon won the war, so he led Larive safely across the border to neutral Switzerland.
Larive had the chance to use his escape plan a second time when he and some fellow inmates escaped from Colditz. Thanks to his memories, everything went well.
The Red Cross tea chest
Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce was small. He arrived in Colditz 1942 after having escaped from the prison camp Spangenberg dressed as a Red Cross doctor. After a while in the castle, the prisoners were ordered to stock all materials not used in boxes.
Bruce fellow prisoners helped to pack him in a box, which was due to his small size. In the box, he also got a room with a rope made of bonded sheets. The box was taken to a storage room on the third floor and the following day Germans discovered that the box was empty. He left a message: “The air in Colditz is nothing for me. See you later!”.
During a period, the work of the French prisoners involved moving mattresses. They would be moved from the castle to another camp. A British officer informed the French that a mattress would be a bit heavier …
The British officer was loaded on a truck. A few hours later he could cut himself out of the mattress. Wearing Hitler Youth uniform, he lifted with an SS officer to Vienna. He tried to get help from the US embassy but was denied. Without money and food, living conditions became unreasonable. He was captured and locked back into Colditz.
The bed sheet rope
Two Polish officers managed to repel down a full 36 meters using twisted bedclothes. Unfortunately, they were discovered when they reached the ground.
The French tunnel
Nine French officers were behind one of the most time-consuming escape attempts. They began to dig a tunnel from the castle’s bell tower. They dug with primitive tools for eight months. The tunnel was burst out of logs which they saw with self-made saws, whose blades came from tucked table knives.
In the end, the French dug a 44 meters long tunnel located 6.8 meters below ground. They even had lights in the tunnel. The power came from a twisted wire.
One day, the German guards heard a noise under the ground. They began to search and then found the tunnel. The hard work had been completely unnecessary.
The “Colditz Cock” glider
The most ambitious escape plan was commenced by the British pilots Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch. After the escape attempt through tunnels, the Germans were wary of what took place in and below the ground but in the air was not expected any escape attempt.
At the castle, there was a chapel where the construction of a glider was started. The aircraft would gain momentum by tapping a rope on a bath filled with concrete, which was then thrown down from the walls and pulled the plane.
The prisoners created a small improvised workshop. Around it, fake walls were built and the guards did not notice anything strange. All the wood they could hide was used to build the aircraft body. Sleeping bags were then sewn around the aircraft body. In Colditz, an expert on gliders was imprisoned, who could look at the drawings and calculate the reasonableness.
In the end, the aircraft weighed 109 kg and accommodated two people. However, the war stopped before they tried their construction, but the mythical escape attempt has, among other things, become a movie. A copy of The “Colditz Cock” glider is available at the Imperial War Museum in London.