Escape from Colditz Castle

Deep inside Germany we find the town of Colditz. This little town is most famous because of its castle. The original Colditz castle was built in the 12th century, but throughout the centuries it was destroyed and rebuilt several times because of attacks and accidental fires. In the 17th century the castle became an administrative centre for the Office of Colditz and a hunting lodge. Its then-current holder began to expand it, resulting in a second courtyard and a total of 700 rooms.

In the 19th century the castle was used as a workhouse to feed the poor, the ill, and persons under arrest. It served this purpose from 1803 to 1829, when its workhouse function was taken over by an institution in Zwickau. In 1829, the castle became a mental hospital for the "incurably insane" from Waldheim. In 1864, a new hospital building was erected on the ground where the stables and working quarters were previously located. It remained a mental institution until 1924.

For nearly 100 years, from 1829 to 1924, Colditz was a sanitarium, generally reserved for the wealthy and the nobility of Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they turned the castle into a political prison for communists, homosexuals, Jews, and other "Untermenschen". Our story starts in 1939, when the castle was became a POW-camp: Oflag IV-C.

Colditz Castle
Colditz Castle in 1945 (Photo by US Military)

Colditz Castle as a POW-camp

Colditz was situated in the middle of the triangle formed by the three great cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz, in the heart of the German Reich and four hundred miles from any frontier not directly under the Nazi heel, and therefore perfectly located to serve its new purpose. The Germans planned to use the castle as a POW-camp for "incorrigible" Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps.

Prisoners, upon arrival, found it confusing. Disembarking from the train, there was no camp. They were marched from the station, through the village, up a hill and right into the courtyard of a large, beautiful castle. Most of them expected to be executed.

The structure looked extremely formidable. It was situated on a rocky outcropping. The outer courtyard housed about 200 German soldiers who guarded and maintained the place and the inner courtyard was used by the prisoners. The outer courtyard had only two heavily guarded exits. One led over the moat into the town, the other into the forest. The prisoner side was lined with a 100 foot cliff into a river. Although this seemed pretty impregnable, a German officer once mentioned, “apart from putting bars on the windows, it had never really been built for he purpose of keeping people in. A more unsuitable place to hold prisoners will probably never again be chosen.” As with similar structures, the place was a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways, perfect for escaping bad boys.

Colditz Castle map
Colditz Castle map (Show bigger map)

Escape attempts

The first successful attempt was made by a Frenchman named Le Ray. His attempt was fairly simple. Two or three times a week, the officers were led down a zigzag path to a barb-wired area called the park. On the way down they passed an unused building that was under construction. The workers stored their tools in one of the rooms on the first floor. On one of the walks, Le Ray, who had hidden some civilian clothes under his great coat, ran up the small bank and hid in the house while the zigzag shielded him from the guard following him. After changing into his civilian clothes, which was dangerous considering you could be taken for a spy and shot, he made his way over 400 miles to the border and into freedom.

Another officer, who was very small, was sewn into a mattress as it was being removed by some French orderlies. His costume was that of a Hitler Youth. He traveled quite far, even getting a ride with some soldiers until hunger drove him to the American consulate in Vienna. From fear of loss of diplomatic status, he was betrayed and directed to a German police station.

The attempts became more audacious at time went on. Another Frenchman Lebrun spent time running in the park to build up his legs. When the day came, he was in his accustomed running outfit. Using his friend as a catapult, he ran, stepped into his friend’s cupped hands and leaped clear over the 10 ft wire. Dodging bullets, he cleared another 8 ft wall and escaped. Soon after he stole a bicycle and rode his way to the Swiss border. Two weeks later the Commandant of the camp received a letter requesting his personal effects.

Colditz Castle
Colditz Castle inner courtyard

In true British fashion, a theatre with stage was built and various plays were performed. The soldiers put on full performances, growing out their hair and drawing hose on their legs to play female parts. They were so convincing that a couple of them received invitations to the French officers’ quarters for dinner. The stage and props were built on the promise that the tools would not be stolen or used for escape. No one broke that promise; they made their own tools. Under the stage they cut a hole in the ceiling which opened into a locked room. Picking the lock, they found that the adjoining hall led out into the German side of the camp near the main gates. At the end of one play, they dropped down through the hole, picked the lock on the door, exited out into the German side of the castle. Dressed as German officers, they marched out, even reprimanding a soldier for not returning their salute.

One day, while returning from the park to the castle, some British soldiers noticed that a passing lady dropped her watch. The Brits, being all form and manners, picked up the watch and attempted to return it to the lady. The German guards only thought it odd when the lady kept walking instead of retrieving her watch. Upon inspection, it turned out to be a French officer decked out to look like a very respectable woman.

The most daring attempt was never put into play as the war ended before it could be utilized. A British engineer designed a plan for a 2 man glider. The prisoners built it in the attic of the castle chapel. It was extremely light and was made with materials at hand: bedding, wooden bed slats, floor boards, electrical wiring. It would be launched off a runway of tables using a bathtub full of concrete to provide the necessary acceleration. The project was extremely well hidden using false walls, lookouts and an electric alarm system.

Colditz Castle glider
The only known picture of the glider (Photo by Lee Carson)

Colditz Castle today

Nowadays, the Castle is owned and maintained by the local government of the State of Saxony. Under their aegis, part of the former Kommandantur buildings have been converted into a modern Youth Hostel, stripping out all of the former rooms and completely renovating that part of the Castle. Other parts of the Kommandantur are still as they were during the War, especially the buildings on the South side of the outer courtyard. The rest of the castle is being renovated and turned into an escape museum with visits showing some of the escape tunnels built by the prisoners.

Colditz town itself is a beautiful, quiet town of great character. The locals are friendly and very helpful.

Colditz Castle
Colditz Castle (Photo by DJHLvbSachsen)

Colditz castle opening times
April-October
Every day 10.00 a.m. - 5.00 p.m.

November - March
Every day 10.00 a.m. - 4.00 p.m.

24.12. - 26.12. - 31.12 - 01.01.
closed

prices
guided tour through the castle 6,00 Euro
(to 4 persons with guidance 7.00 Euro)
reduced rate 4,00 Euro (pupils, students, disabled persons)
reduced group rate 3,00 Euro (pupils, students, disable persons)
family card 12,00 Euro
group rate 5,00 Euro per person