Escape to Colditz: my night in the notorious Nazi prison

Schloss Colditz now has a new museum in the wing where hundreds of Allied soldiers were imprisoned
Schloss Colditz now has a new museum in the wing where hundreds of Allied soldiers were imprisoned - Sebastian Theilig

Looking out of my bedroom window in Schloss Colditz, I find it hard to fathom how anyone ever managed to get out of here. Below me is a sheer 100-foot drop, then a high wall, then another 100-foot drop, into a fast-flowing river that flanks this castle like a moat. In the heart of Hitler’s Reich, 400 miles from any Allied or neutral border, no wonder it was renowned as the most secure Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Nazi Germany, designed to thwart even the most intrepid and ingenious escape.

Yet incredibly, during the Second World War, 30 Allied prisoners escaped from here, dodging the German guards who patrolled this castle day and night. Armed with forged identity papers, disguised in civilian clothes or Nazi uniforms, they traversed several hundred miles of enemy territory on their ‘home runs’, often southbound to neutral Switzerland.

How did they manage it? To find out, I’ve come to Colditz – to stay in the youth hostel within the castle and sneak a preview of a new museum in the wing where hundreds of Allied soldiers were imprisoned. I want to discover what made Colditz unique, why it captured the imagination of my generation, and what remains of the world’s most famous POW camp.

Schloss Colditz was known as the most secure Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Nazi Germany
Schloss Colditz was known as the most secure Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Nazi Germany - Schloss Colditz

For 50-something Brits like me, Colditz was a big part of our childhood, a constant inspiration for our playground wargames. The 1970s TV series was a huge hit, spawning all sorts of spin-offs, from comic books to board games. However, Colditz isn’t nearly so well known on the Continent. Also, when I told my children I was coming here, it turned out they’d never heard of it. This place is a testament to the indefatigability of the human spirit, the stage for some extraordinary deeds of bravery and innovation. With so few war veterans left alive, it would be an awful shame if Colditz was forgotten.

Arriving here, your first view of the castle could scarcely be more dramatic. On a sunny day it looks romantic, but as darkness falls, it takes on a more sinister air. A cluster of towers and robust battlements, cloaked by thick forest, it looms over the surrounding countryside like the setting for a Hammer Horror film. You can see why, for Britons, it became an iconic, almost mythic place.

Built in the Middle Ages, Schloss Colditz was a fortified palace for several centuries, and then a hospital, before becoming a Nazi POW camp. As every British schoolboy used to know, most of its inmates were POWs who’d been recaptured after escaping from other camps elsewhere in the Reich. It was a fortress in an isolated location and the Germans thought Colditz would be inescapable. These prisoners rose to the challenge.

'The Colditz Story' by P. R. Reid tells the story of Mr. Reid's escapes from the German POW camp
'The Colditz Story' by P. R. Reid tells the story of Mr. Reid's escapes from the German POW camp - Alamy Stock Photo

The British and Commonwealth contingent (including POWs from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India) grew from a few dozen in 1941 to more than 200 in 1943, but there were other nationalities here too – French, Belgian, Dutch and Polish. Whisper it back in Blighty, but the success rate of Continental escapees was actually a lot better than the Brits.

The French achieved the most home runs: 12 (out of 24 attempts). The Dutch managed seven (out of 17) and the Poles just one (out of 18). Belgium, with one home run from one attempt, achieved the only 100 per cent success rate. Yet the fact that Brits made the most escape attempts (by far) is a special badge of honour: 120 attempts, including 11 home runs.

Successful or not, all of these attempts were daring and inspiring, requiring considerable courage and painstaking preparation. Some were heroic failures, like the “60 Second Escape”, in which two British officers, Jack Best and Mike Sinclair, took advantage of a one-minute gap during the daily changing of the guard to abseil down the walls before the searchlights were switched on at dusk. They broke out of the castle and made it all the way across Germany, only to be captured miles from the Dutch border.

Others were spectacularly successful, like the “Laundry Men’s Escape”, in which six escapees masqueraded as the daily laundry duty, taking washing to the town below. Two Dutchmen, who spoke fluent German, were dressed as German officers. The four Britons were dressed as Polish orderlies. Their clothes were made in secret, on a homemade sewing machine.

Rooms in the new hostel are simple but comfortable
Rooms in the hostel are simple but comfortable - Schloss Colditz

Most inventive were the “Roll Call Ghosts” – Lieutenant Jack Best (yes, him again) and Lieutenant Mike Harvey, who disappeared in 1943, and were presumed (by the Germans) to have escaped. In fact, they never left the camp. They remained here in hiding, only reappearing during daily roll calls where they took the places of other inmates who really had escaped.

With so many stirring tales like these, it was no surprise that Colditz captured the imagination of the postwar British public. However, here in Germany it was a different story. Liberated by US troops in 1945, Colditz wasn’t a scene of Nazi atrocities, like so many other places in Germany, but nor was it something for Germans to commemorate or celebrate.

When Germany was divided into East and West, Colditz ended up in the Soviet zone and duly disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. For 45 years thereafter, it was almost impossible for Westerners to visit, and so in Britain it became a kind of legend. Everyone knew the name, but no-one knew what had become of it. With scant interest in its wartime past, the East Germans turned it back into a hospital, as it had been before the war.

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, in 1989, Colditz became easily accessible to Western visitors for the first time since the war. However, when I first went there in 2004, there wasn’t much to see. It was exciting, then as now, to step inside this historic site, but the building was drab and eerie. Much of it was shut off, awaiting renovation. The museum was rudimentary and the town below was sad and shabby. Coming here felt funereal, a visit to a forgotten relic. It seemed like a place whose time had passed.

Photos by Gerhard Wber at Colditz from 1987/88
Photos by Gerhard Wber at Colditz from 1987/88 - Getty

Returning here 20 years later, I’m amazed to find how much has changed. The castle has been beautifully restored, brighter and smarter than it was during the war, but still sparse and striking – an authentic renovation, closer to the fortified palace it once was than the POW camp it became.

The museum is spread across several rooms. The original exhibits include false passports, fake guns and uniforms, and homemade tools designed for everything from picking locks to digging tunnels – all made clandestinely from foraged odds and ends, under the noses of the guards.

The rest of the building has been left bare. Instead of the corny reconstructions you often see elsewhere (crude mannequins dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms – you know the sort of thing), a computer tablet guides you through these empty rooms and repopulates them with computerised recreations of guards and inmates. Click on these images and a wealth of information is revealed: old photos, archive documents… You can even plot your own escape, collecting essential equipment en route.

I spent the night in the youth hostel, which was intensely atmospheric. It’s actually in the part of the castle where German guards rather than Allied prisoners were housed, but it’s still thrilling to spend a night within the castle walls. It was full of German children on a school trip, having the time of their young lives. As I settled down for the night in my perfunctory bedroom (pretty spartan, but surely far more comfy than the sleeping facilities during the war), I could hear their happy shrieks and shouts as they played in the cobbled courtyard below.

Fly to Berlin and make the onward journey to Colditz
Fly to Berlin and make the onward journey to Colditz - Schloss Colditz

Of course it’s just a guess, but I think those POWs would be glad to know that Colditz is now a youth hostel, where the children of a democratic Germany come to study and enjoy themselves. You could say it’s the epitome of what those Allied soldiers fought for, a place of fun and freedom replacing a place of misery and repression. These school kids are growing up in a new country, the Bundesrepublik, which the Allies created. They’re the beneficiaries of the long, lean years those POWs spent here.

Next morning, before I left for home, I walked down the hill into the quaint market town below. Like the castle above, it has had an energetic spring clean. The antique buildings around the market square have been spruced up, and new shops are sprouting up around the outskirts. A sleepy outpost is becoming a commuter town, no longer cut off from the modern world. As I drove away, I caught a last fleeting glimpse of Schloss Colditz. To me, it no longer looked like a scene from a spooky horror film – more like a castle in a fairy tale.

How to do it

The new museum at Schloss Colditz (www.schloss-colditz.de) opens on April 17. Accommodation in the adjoining youth hostel costs from €42.50 per night for adults, with various reductions for under-27s. The dormitory bedrooms are clean but basic. The cheap and cheerful canteen serves school-dinner style food. If you’d rather stay somewhere less austere, try Pension Albertberg (www.pension-albertberg.de), where doubles cost €70 per night, including breakfast.

Schloss Wächter (www.gasthaus-colditz.de) is a friendly, unpretentious Gasthaus at the foot of the castle walls, serving hearty, wholesome food. Its spacious attic apartment sleeps up to four people, from €60 per night. Landbäckerei Dietrich (www.landbaeckerei-dietrich.de), a cosy, old-fashioned bakery on the main square, serves delicious cake and coffee. For information about the surrounding region, see www.visitsaxony.com.

Getting to Colditz isn’t easy, but if you treat it as a challenge, it’s an enjoyable, interesting trip. I flew to Berlin with British Airways (www.ba.com) and travelled on to Colditz with Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.de), breaking my journey in Leipzig.

The train journey from Berlin Brandenburg Airport to Leipzig takes around two hours. From Leipzig to Colditz, by train and bus, takes around an hour. If you’d rather hire a car, the drive also takes about an hour. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Leipzig from Stansted, and to Berlin from Birmingham, East Midlands, Manchester and Stansted. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Berlin from Luton, Bristol and Edinburgh. For more information visit www.germany.travel.

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