Review: Colditz: The Definitive History, Henry Chancellor

So my World War 2 streak continues with Colditz: The Definitive History.  This is the last one on the reading list for the next wee while (til Christmas when my next lot of Waterstones vouchers come in … watch this space).  Actually I didn’t buy this one, it’s borrowed from my friend Andrew.  There is so much mythology surrounding Colditz and the numerous escape attempts, I knew the bits that everybody knows: the tunnels, the glider, the disguises but I always had it a bit muddled with The Great Escape.  Even the author admits in the introduction the difficulty of producing a ‘definitve’ history of Colditz since there are so many conflicting accounts and there was a necessary culture of secrecy which means it is tricky to separate the truth from the fabrication.  It amused me when after several of the escapes, Eggers the camp’s security offer was left completely puzzled concerning the methods used for the next twenty years when he was able to read the truth of the matter in the prisoners’ biographies.  

One of the first myths that Chancellor addresses is the idea that Colditz was an escape-proof castle.  Although it had been designated as such, it was widely agreed to be comparatively easy in the beginning.  The castle was a medieval building with hundreds of rooms, hundreds of doors and multiple secret passages which not even the Germans were fully aware of.  It was also uphill, giving a downhill bonus to those running away.  As time wore on, security was tightened and in the final months of the war, nobody made it outside the castle but there was still on average an attempt every ten days.  For bored Allied officers with a sworn duty to inconvenience the enemy as much as possible once captured, Colditz was an absolute dream.

The atmosphere of the camp is what comes across most vividly through Chancellor’s book.  The German guards (or ‘goons’ as the prisoners called them) despaired of the lack of discipline.  The Polish prisoners would step forth and dust off any of their comrades who were touched by a German, the French sung songs loudly abusing the Germans and the British tended to come to roll call in their pyjamas.  There was a tradition of cheering and celebrating returning escapees for their enterprise and the ‘arch goon-baiter’ Peter Tunstall received 5 court martials and spent nearly a year in solitary.  When Reinhold Eggers was sent to inspect the security of the camp where The Great Escape happened, he sourly noted that despite that camp having only 250 guards to 7000 prisoners, discipline was nearly perfect.  Colditz had a ratio of almost one guard to every prisoner and there was constant chaos.  

Colditz Castle

It was obvious though that incarceration of that nature, through no fault of their own and with no firm prospect of release, was not good for the captives’ state of mind.  There were cases of prisoners ‘working their ticket’ through feigning insanity to earn repatriation but there were all too many genuine cases.  Even without overt madness, it was clearly a very depressing place to be long term so it is not surprising people baited the goons to keep their spirits up.  Mike Sinclair, the master escaper, seemed to be unable to stop after years of compulsively observing his surroundings for a window of opportunity, even timing the guards on their rounds so he knew when blind spots came up. Ultimately, he died during one last ill-thought escape which more closely resembled a suicide attempt.  

What was fascinating though was the relationship between the guards and the prisoners.  During Eggers’ memoirs, when writing about the death of Mike Sinclair, Eggers noted that if there was indeed a Valhalla, a resting place for warriors ‘of courage and daring, if their determination springs from one true motive alone and that motive is the love of their country then in our own German tradition, Valhalla is the resting place of Lieutenant Mike Sinclair’.  This startlingly beautiful salute to a fellow warrior is typical of the professional attitudes between the two different sides.  Eggers would later appear on famous escapee Pat Reid’s edition of This is Your Life.  There was a general recognition on the German side that the prisoners would always try to escape and not to blame them for so doing and in turn the prisoners understood from experiences elsewhere in Germany that they were lucky to be in a camp which observed the Geneva Convention.  One of the prisoners even noted that compared to some POW camps, Colditz was just a ‘bad hotel’.  

One character who came out of it very badly in my view was Douglas Bader.  Bader was the famous RAF pilot who lost both legs and continued to fly before being shot down again and interned.  Adored by the Germans because of his loud personality, Bader was  thoroughly obnoxious and inconsiderate of others.  He was forever demanding to be included in escape attempts which were incompatible with his disability, telling other prisoners that they were worth less than him to the British government.  When his orderly had the opportunity to be repatriated, Bader blocked it saying that the man had come as his lackey and must remain so.  Delightful chap all round.  

Escaping seemed like a bit of a Catch 22 situation, you needed an effective disguise to blend into Nazi Germany while you made your way to the Swiss/Swedish borders but if caught in anything other than your uniform, then you faced being shot as a spy.  The adventure and the    courage of the escapees are very appealing to the outsider such as myself and there are incredible stories such as that of the French tunnel nicknamed Le Metro by the British which the Germans could hear being dug but took months to discover, yet still there are details which make you realise that it was a truly ghastly experience.  Without the Red Cross parcels, many of the POWs estimate that they would have starved within two years.  This is a well written and interesting book which brings together a lot of varying accounts into one narrative, no mean feat at all.

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Colditz by Henry Chancellor
Published by Coronet Books on April 4th 2002
Genres: Historical, History, World War II
Pages: 446
ISBN: 9780340794951

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