The castle was built in 1014. In the 15th century it became a hunting lodge for the electors of Saxony. In 1694 its holder, Augustus the Strong begun to expand it, resulting in a second courtyard and total of 700 rooms. By 1800 the Saxon nobility had abandoned the castle and it became a poorhouse and in 1828 a mental hospital, in which use it remained through the next century.
During the First World War, the Castle was used as a Prisoner of War (POW) camp . No escapes were made.
When Nazis took over in 1933, they turned the castle into a political labour camp for communists and other undesirables. The buildings around one courtyard housing prisoners and the buildings around the other courtyard being the Kommandantur.
Colditz as a POW camp
After the outbreak of the Second World War the castle was converted into a high security prisoner of war camp for officers who had became a security or escape risk or who were regarded as Deutchfeindlich, anti-German. Its official designation was Oflag IVc and it was under Wehrmacht control.
The first prisoners came in October 1940; they were 140 Polish officers who had become escape risks. Wehrmacht guards treated them with derision because, as far as the Wehrmacht was concerned, Poland did not exist any more.
On July 24 1941, 68 Dutch officers arrived who had refused to sign a declaration that they would take no part in the war against Germany. Afterwards a number of would-be-escapees would borrow Dutch greatcoats as their disguise because they resembled that of the Wehrmacht.
In February 1941, 200 French officers arrived. A number of the French demanded that French Jewish officers be segregated from them and the camp commander obliged; they were moved to the attics.
By the end of July 1941, there were 200 French, 150 Polish, 50 British, 2 Yugoslavian and 68 Dutch officers in Colditz.
Among the more famous inmates were British fighter ace Douglas Bader; Airey Neave (the first British officer to escape from Colditz); Charles Upham (double Victoria Cross winner); and David Stirling, founder of wartime Special Air Service.
There were also prisoners called Prominente, relatives of an Allied VIPs. The first one was Giles Romilly, a civilian journalist who was captured in Narvik who also happened to be a nephew of Winston Churchill. Commando Michael Alexander , however, only claimed to be a nephew of field marshal Harold Alexander. Allies were particularly worried about the prominente because they suspected they could be used as hostages, bargaining chips or human shields.
Life in the camp
In Colditz, Wehrmacht followed the Geneva Convention to the letter. Would-be-escapees were punished with solitary confinement, instead of being summarily executed. In principle, the security officers recognized that the duty of the POW was try to escape - and that their job was to stop them. Prisoners could even form gentleman's agreements with the guards, such as not using borrowed tools for escape attempts.
Most of the guard company was composed of WW I veterans and young soldiers not fit for the front. Because Colditz was a Sonderlager - high security camp - the Germans organized three, later four roll-calls (appells) a day to count the number of the prisoners. If they discovered someone had escaped, they alerted every police and train station within a 40 km (25 miles) radius and all the members of Hitler Jugend joined the hunt.
Due to the number of Red Cross food parcels, prisoners sometimes ate better than their guards, who had to rely on Wehrmacht rations. Prisoners could use their relative luxuries for trade and, for example, exchange their cigarettes for reichsmarks they could later use in their escape attempts.
Prisoners had to make their own entertainment. In August 1941 there were the first camp Olympics. Prisoners formed a Polish choir, a Dutch Hawaiian guitar band and French orchestra and the British organized plays and farces. Officers also studied languages from each other. Later the most popular way to pass time was Stoolball, a particularly rough version of rugby where there were two stools on the either end of the prisoner's courtyard and one would score a goal by knocking off the goalie who was sitting in the stool. It served as an outlet of aggression and also provided noise to cover voices of tunnel-digging.
In addition to escape attempts, prisoners also tried to make the life of their guards more miserable by resorting to "goon-baiting" - making nuisance of themselves by, for example, dropping water and extrement bombs on the guards. Douglas Bader even encouraged his junior officers to do that. British Flight Lieutenant Pete Tunstall especially tried to cause havoc by disturbing the roll call even if someone was not trying to escape so that the guards would not became suspicious when somebody was. He went through a total of five courts martial and suffered a total of 415 days in solitary.
Prisoners contrived a number of methods to escape. They duplicated keys to various doors, made copies of maps and identity papers and manufactured their own tools. MI9, a department of British War Office which specialized in escape equipment, communicated with the prisoners in code and smuggled them new escape aids disguised as aid packages. The Germans learnt to intercept them.
Nine French officers organized a long-term tunnel-digging project. Their tunnel begun at the top of a chapel's clock tower, descended 28 meters (90 feet) into the ground, continued further 30 meters (100 feet) under the chapel and then out of the castle. German guards heard the sounds of digging but it took them a long time to find the tunnel - not until it was almost finished.
Many tried to escape in disguise: Airey Neave twice dressed as a guard, French officer Peodeau disguised as regular camp electrician Willi Pöhnert and French lieutenant Boule as a lady. British lieutenant Mike Sinclair even dressed as a German officer, Rothenberger, when he tried to organize a mass escape.
Most of the attempts failed. Camp commandants collected so much escape equipment that they established an "escape museum". Local photographer Johannes Lange took photographs of the would-be-escapees in their disguises or re-enacting their attempts to the camera. Security officer Reinhold Eggers made them a regular part of Das Abwehrblatt, a weekly magazine for the German POW camps.
Pat Reid , who later wrote about his experiences in Colditz, failed to escape at first and became an Escape Officer, one of the officers who helped to coordinate between escape attempts of various national groups so they would not stumble in each other's way. Escape Officers were also forbidden to escape.
Polish sculptors made two clay heads to masquerade escaping officers in the roll call. Later "ghosts", officers who had faked a successful escape and hid in the castle, took the place of an escaping ones in the roll call to delay discovery as long as possible. They were also moved to the front of the escape queue.
There was also a form of black market where the prisoners used items from their Red Cross parcels to buy information and tools from the cooperative guards and townsfolk. Because the Germans allowed Douglas Bader to visit the town, he took chocolate and other luxuries with him. Flight lieutenant Cenek Chahorpka traded for information and even had a sort of a girlfriend in the town. David Stirling later took control of the black market operations.
On Good Friday 1941 French officer Alain Le Ray hid in a terrace house in a park during a game of soccer. He was the first successful Colditz escapee and first to reach neutral Switzerland.
French lieutenant René Collin climbed into the rafters of a pavilion during exercise, hid there until the dark and slipped away.
Dutch officers Francis Steinmetz and Hans Larive hid under a manhole cover in the exercise enclosure, came up after nightfall, took a train to Gottmadingen and reached Switzerland in three days. Two other Dutchmen, Major Giebel and Lieutenant Drjiber used the same way later but the method was discovered on the third try.
French Lieutenant Pierre Mairesse Lebrun was captured when he was trying Collin's method. Later he vaulted over a wire in a park with a help of an associate. He reached Switzerland in eight days with a stolen bicycle.
British officer Airey Neave and Dutch officer Tony Luteyn crawled through a hole in a camp theater (after a prisoner performance) to a guardhouse and marched out dressed as German officers. They reached Switzerland two days later. Neave later joined MI9.
Dutch lockmaster Damiaem van Doorninck and Australian flight lieutenant Bill Fowler slipped with four others through guard office and a storeroom dressed as German officers and Polish orderlies. Only van Doorninck and Fowler reached Switzerland.
British officers Major Pat Reid , Major Ronald Littledale , Lieutenant commander William Stephens and Canadian Flight Lieutenant Henry Wardle slipped through POW kitchens into the German yard, into the Kommandatur cellar and down to a dry moat through the park. They split into two pairs. Reid and Wardle took four days to reach Switzerland, Littledale and Stephens one day more.
The fate of British lieutenant William Millar is unknown; he broke into the German courtyard and hid in a German lorry. He intended to go to Czechoslovakia. There is speculation that he may have been killed in Mauthausen concentration camp.
The only escapee to be shot during the escape was lieutenant Michael Sinclair in September 1944. Germans buried him in a local cemetery with military honors.
Others tried to escape during transit and even cause themselves to be transferred in order to escape. Polish lieutenant Kroner jumped out of the window in Koningswartha hospital; French Lieutenant Boucheron fled from Zeitz hospital, was recaptured and later escaped from Düsseldorf prison; French lieutenants Odry and Navelet escaped from Ehterhorst Hospital; French officers Durant-Hormus, Prot and de Frondeville on a visit to the town dentist; Captain Louis Remy from Gnaschwitz military hospital (his three companions were captured but he reached Algerica and later Britain); British squadron leader Brian Paddon when he was sent to his previous camp for a court martial (he escaped to Sweden via Danzig); French lieutenant Raymond Bouillez from a hospital after an unsuccessful attempt to jump from a train; Dutch Lieutenant van Lynden slipped away when the Dutch were moved to Stanislau camp; French lieutenant A. Darthenay escaped from a hospital at Hohnstein-Ernstal (he joined the French Resistance and was killed by the Gestapo in April 1944).
The Royal Army Medical Corps captain Biren Mazundar , the only Indian in Colditz, went on a hunger strike to have himself transferred into an Indians-only camp. His wish was granted three weeks later. He escaped from the camp to France and reached Switzerland in 1944 with the aid of the French Resistance.
Some officers resorted to faking illness and mental retardation in order to be repatriated for medical grounds. Another member of the RAMC, Captain Ferguson, wrote a letter to an Irish friend where he suggested that Ireland join the war; the letter was stopped but his wish to be moved elsewhere was granted. In Stalag 4D he certified a number of prisoners as insane and therefore repatriated until in June 1945 he convinced Germans of his own insanity and returned to Britain the same way. Four British officers claimed symptoms of stomach ulcer, insanity, high blood pressure and back injury to be repatriated. However, there were also officers who went genuinely insane.
At the end of May 1943, Wehrmacht high command decided that Colditz should hold only British and American officers. All the Dutch and Polish and most of the French and Belgians were moved to other camps. Three British officers tried their luck by taking place of an equal number of French when they were moved out; they were later returned.
German security gradually increased and by the 1943 most of the potential ways of escape had been plugged. The last, long-term escape project was to build a glider, part by part. The officers who took part of the project built a secret space in the attic where they slowly built the glider out of smuggled pieces of wood. The war ended before the project was finished.
A replica of the Colditz glider was built for the television series NOVA, and flew successfully on its first attempt.
When the end of the war approached, the number of Prominente increased. Eventually there were Viscount George Lascelles , nephew to George VI ; John Elphinstone , nephew of the queen; Captain Dawyck Haig , son of WW1 field marshal Douglas Haig; Charlie Hopetoun , son of the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow ; Lieutenant John Winant Junior , son of John Winant , US ambassador to Britain; and four German generals. Later arrival was Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, commander of the Warsaw Uprising.
On April 13 1945 all the Prominente were moved out of the castle, over the protestations of the other prisoners. With the aid of a cooperative German officer trying to save his reputation, they reached American lines a couple of weeks later.
When the battles approached the area, the prisoners became concerned that they might be used as human shields or that the SS might try to kill them out of spite; they prepared for resistance and, if possible, to take over the castle. When US troops reached the area, prisoners convinced the camp commander to surrender in secret, hidden from the SS.
In April 1945, US troops entered the Colditz town and, after a two-day fight, liberated the castle on April 16.
After the War, Colditz became first part of Soviet territory and then East Germany. Soviets turned Colditz castle into a prison camp for local burghers and non-communists. Later the castle was again used as an insane asylum. Repairmen found forgotten hides and tunnel projects for years afterwards. The Colditz glider was destroyed.
There are a large number of books on the subject of Colditz as a prisoner of war camp. The most famous are Pat Reid 's Colditz: The Full Story and Escape From Colditz on which the BBC's dramatised television series was based. Colditz security officer lieutenant (later captain) Reinhold Eggers gives a German perspective in Colditz: The German Story. There is also Henry Chancellor 's Colditz The Definitive History, based on the BBC documentary series. Neave wrote of his escape in They Have Their Exits.