Prisoners of the Castle
London : Viking, 2022
Paperback 384pp RRP: $35.00
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, April 2023
In the history of escapes from German World War II prisoner of war camps, Colditz Castle (Offizierslager Oflag IV-C) takes pride of place as a supposedly escape-proof camp especially for difficult (deutschfeindlich) officers who had escaped from other camps. Early books by Pat Reid and others have left a legacy of ingenious and dangerous escape attempts, cooperation – and sometimes unintended interference - between the British and other prisoners, baiting the German guards (‘the goons’) and striving to maintain morale.
Most opinions about Colditz will have been formed by the film ‘The Colditz Story’ and the BBC television series ‘Colditz’. Both concentrate on escape attempts – successful and otherwise – and perpetrate the myth of a close community of dedicated escapers with limited attention paid to the social and emotional aspects of their imprisonment. This book is different: a ‘warts and all’ history of the camp from 1940 until its liberation by the United States Army in 1945.
All the Colditz prisoners are now dead, but the Imperial War Museum contains a collection of audio recordings by all surviving former Colditz prisoners made for the 1955 film. Ben Macintyre made extensive use of this resource for his book, which departs from the ‘Colditz’ myth to show aspects of prison life, previously largely overlooked including the social and racial problems in a completely male society, although there was some notable contact by prisoners with sympathetic German women. The prisoners were from a pre-war society and British officers would have been almost entirely from the upper and upper-middle classes and the products of education in the recognised public schools. In most books the private soldiers who acted as cooks and servants are simply not mentioned. Non commissioned soldiers were required to work for the Germans and were also exempt from the duty to attempt to escape. As such, they were never involved in any Colditz escape attempt. The British class system existed even in a prison camp, and one private, who acted as batman for a famous British officer prisoner, was refused repatriation to Britain by this officer who reportedly said, ‘You’re my lackey and you’re going to stay my lackey’, which shows that celebrated fighter pilots are not necessarily nice people.
The Germans are treated sympathetically as most were not dedicated National Socialists, and Hauptmann Eggers, who wrote extensively about Colditz, was a civilised and correct anglophile. The book also records how a representative of the Swiss protecting power followed and kept track of the Prominente when they were moved to an unknown destination by the SS during the final collapse of Hitler’s Germany. The last chapter, Aftermath, completes the Colditz story by providing a brief post-war history of the principal characters.
This highly recommended book contains two good maps and excellent plans of Colditz Castle, some excellent photographs and a useful bibliography.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.