Behind the walls

I thought I’d add a little background info for the story of the Colditz Glider, as covered in my Flight From Colditz book review. I actually wrote this summary for the review, but it just didn’t fit. So here it is. . .

Oflag IV-C

Senior officers of the Oflag IVC in front of Colditz Castle chapel. From left to right: Unidentified Yugoslavian Army Captain; Colonel de Smet, Belgian Army; Admiral Józef Unrug, Polish Navy; General Tadeusz Piskor, Polish Army; Colonel David Stayner, the Dorsetshire Regiment, British Army; General Le Bleu, French Army; Major E. Engles, Dutch Army. © IWM (HU 20269)
Senior officers of Oflag IV-C in front of Colditz Castle chapel. From left to right: Unidentified Yugoslavian Army Captain; Colonel de Smet, Belgian Army; Admiral Józef Unrug, Polish Navy; General Tadeusz Piskor, Polish Army; Colonel David Stayner, the Dorsetshire Regiment, British Army; General Le Bleu, French Army; Major E. Engles, Dutch Army. © IWM (HU 20269)

The basic story of Colditz is fairly well known: In the second half of 1940, the Germans decided it would help security to separate the most habitual escapers from the ‘better behaved’ POWs, by concentrating them in a single, highly secure prison.

Colditz Castle, a behemoth dating back to medieval times, seemed perfect – it had high, thick walls; it was perched on a steep, rocky hill; and it was deep in the far east of Germany.

But the British and other prisoners were indomitable. After all, the German victories in Norway and France had only taken place a few months before, and yet there were already POWs who’d made so many escape attempts that they needed to be separated. These men may have been captured, but they were far from defeated.

And that was the flaw with the German plan. In effect, they’d brought all the most determined, resourceful, and imaginative prisoners together into a kind of ‘super escapers club’, where they could freely share their ingenious ideas and many talents.

Almost inevitably, there were some 37 successful escapes from the ‘escape-proof’ Colditz, along with countless more attempts, and several men who caused just as much disruption by giving the impression they’d escaped while continuing to live as ‘ghost prisoners’ within the castle.

The intimidating entrance to Offlag IV-C, a prisoner's first close look at what they'd be trying to escape from.
The intimidating entrance to Oflag IV-C, a prisoner’s first close look at what they’d be trying to escape from.

Most amazing of all

But most amazing of all was the ‘Colditz Cock’ – a full-sized glider that was built in a concealed workshop in one of the castle’s attics.

Prisoners parade in front of the French quarters, Colditz. The Glider was built in the upper attic (above the windows) of this building, and launched along the roofline behind the tower at centre-left.
Prisoners parade in front of the French quarters, Colditz. The Glider was built in the upper attic (above the windows) of this building, and would have been launched along the roofline behind the tower at centre-left.

Incredibly, there was a book on aircraft construction (Airframes II, by C.H. Latimer-Needham) in the prisoners’ library, which provided crucial information for the design and construction. Plans were drawn up, a secret workshop was created in an attic, wood-working tools were made from scratch, and materials were scavenged or stolen from the castle itself.

Under the vigilance of some 40 ‘stooges’ keeping watch for the guards, work began in early 1944. Obviously, the construction alone is an amazing tale: The men hand-sawed and planed floorboards and bed slats to suit their needs; they made plywood gussets by shaving available the three-ply wood down to two-ply thickness; with no drill, they found and stole steel fittings with holes already in the right places, then enlarged the holes with a file; they used bedding for covering fabric; and they boiled millet to make a starch-based dope.

Code-named ‘Heavy Industry’, the project was complete by the beginning of 1945. However the prisoners realised (based on reports from their clandestine radio) that they would be liberated soon anyway. So the glider was kept ready in case they needed to reach Allied forces in a last-minute emergency – should German High Command order their wholesale execution, for example.

Colditz Castle from the opposite bank of the Mulde River, with the town's road bridge in the foreground. (IWM)
Colditz Castle from the opposite bank of the Mulde River, with the town’s road bridge in the foreground. (IWM)

And it was still there when the Americans arrived. Once  security was assured, the Colditz Cock was brought down and assembled in a lower attic for all the prisoners – and the incredulous liberators – to see. Then the POWs went home and the Colditz Cock was left to its fate.

In all likelihood it was broken up and burned by cold and hungry locals in the winters immediately after the war. Only the rudder survived, and is preserved in a local museum.

Liberation

US soldiers on Colditz Bridge, April 16th, 1945. Damage to the town is evident, and the barricade on the right of the bridge marks damage to the centre piling. (wikipedia)
1st US Army soldiers on Colditz Bridge, April 16th, 1945. Damage to the town is evident, while the barricade on the extreme right of the bridge marks German attempts to blow up the centre piling. (wikipedia)

Colditz was liberated by the 273rd Infantry Regiment of the 69th Infantry Dvision, 1st US Army on April 16th, 1945. Supported by self-propelled artillery from the 9th Armored Division, the US forces began their attack from the south, along the Mulde River, on April 15th.

Colditz Bridge after it had been blown up and shot at by Volkssturm and WaffenSS soldiers. (69th-infantry-division.com)
Colditz Bridge after it had been blown and shot at by Volkssturm and WaffenSS soldiers. (69th-infantry-division.com)

German soldiers defended the town vigorously all that day, and attempted to blow up the bridge across the river using WW1 era ammunition. When this failed, they shot at the central pier with anti-tank panzerfausts for over an hour, but still didn’t bring it down.

During the fighting, a couple of shells passed close to the castle, but there was no fighting in the castle itself. In fact, the prisoners effectively took control from within, saving all concerned from what could have been a bloody siege had the castle been occupied and defended.

On the night of the 15th, however, the Germans withdrew. The Americans moved carefully into the town but soon realised it was secure and liberated the POWs in the castle. By all accounts, they received an energetic welcome.

The prisoners were impressed by the Americans’ ready largesse and, apparently, celebrated long into the night. The young US soldiers, meanwhile, noted the drawn and hungry appearance of their new-found friends.

Frustratingly though, I can’ find any record of their impressions when the Brits revealed the completed, clandestine glider.

Nine days later, on April 25th, 1945, after taking the major city of Leipzig, a patrol from the 69th made their historic first contact with Red Army soldiers at Leckwitz on the Elbe River.

Lousy stars

In the final analysis, the POWs of Colditz were fairly well treated throughout the war. Prisoners in other German camps almost starved as the Allied noose closed and vital Red Cross parcels couldn’t get through, and many were then force-marched away from the advancing armies.

Needless to say (but I will anyway) the European POW experience pales in comparison to the horrendous treatment endured by prisoners of the Japanese; let alone the conditions in the Nazi concentration camps.

Colditz may well have been the five-star option for prisoners in World War II – but they were lousy stars nonetheless.

Schloss Colditz in 1945, the day after its liberation. Taken by an unnamed US soldier. (Wikipedia)
Schloss Colditz on April 17th, 1945, the day after its liberation. Taken by an unnamed US soldier. (Wikipedia)
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2 thoughts on “Behind the walls

  1. Lousy stars indeed. Thanks for the additional insight into what went on in and around the castle. It’s fascinating to note the difference in how prisoners of war were treated — not just between countries, but even between wars. That might make for an interesting post: a contrasting look at how downed pilots in Europe were handled in WWI vs WWII.

    Kinda reminds me of a comparison between flying as an airline passenger in the 1960s vs the 21st century. Somewhere along the line we seem to have seriously lost our soul. 🙂

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