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A tale of WWII derring-do that reveals the humanity of its heroes

Colditz castle gained international fame through its use as a prisoner of war camp for Allied officers in World War II. (Peter Endig/AP)
7 min

In 1943, French prisoners of war launched a mouse wearing a tiny parachute from a fourth-story window of Colditz, an ancient castle towering over Germany’s Mulde River. The liberation of the miniature paratrooper reflected the men’s boredom in captivity — but also their aspirations. Many of the detainees in the castle were obsessed with planning their own flights to freedom, plotting and executing escape attempts ranging from the inspired to the impossible.

“Only in fairy tales do people escape from prison,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his novel “Invitation to a Beheading.” And parts of Ben Macintyre’s latest book, “Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape From Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison,” do read like a fairy tale.

Macintyre tells the story of the POW camp that had more escape attempts than any other during World War II. He parades a brigade of officers, some of whom have since been lionized or found postwar fame through film, television and multiple books. Ultimately, Macintyre offers a more complete and complex account than is typical in popular histories from the Nazi era. Read in that light, this is less a fairy tale than an honest account of heroic but fallible men in captivity, made more compelling through the acknowledgment of their flaws and failures.

Across a half-dozen years, Colditz operated as a camp for officers deemed deutschfeindlich, a word evoking deep anti-German hostility. In the case of Colditz prisoners, deutschfeindlich referred to officers who overtly disrespected their captors or had a proclivity for escaping. Despite these tendencies, during the years that the Wehrmacht jailers at Colditz still observed the Geneva Conventions, the men were largely insulated from the savage treatment administered elsewhere by the Gestapo or the SS. They put on ballets in drag and performed concerts. But all the while, many of them remained fervent in their desire to leave Colditz and return to the battlefield. Dozens attempted escapes.

These stories of flight make up the heart of Macintyre’s tale, as do the consequences of each attempt. Disappointed to learn that the French contingent had beaten them out of the gates to log the first success, the British felt compelled to sharpen their game. Prisoners would attempt to dig more than 20 tunnels in all and, at times, the competing projects interfered with one another. An international prisoners’ committee emerged to determine who would be allowed to escape, as well as how and when.

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But Macintyre also dwells on the details of life for those who remained confined by Colditz’s walls. In a cubbyhole beneath an attic sat a radio room complete with desks, where detainees tuned in nightly to the BBC. Britain’s MI9 managed to provide maps, compasses, German money and fabric for Wehrmacht replica uniforms, all smuggled in via parcels of blankets, gramophone records, chess pieces or tins of food. Locks were picked, and guards (called “goons” by the prisoners) were bribed — not always successfully.

Much of Macintyre’s timeline unfolds via records kept by a German officer present throughout Colditz’s time as a camp. This jailer appears almost as a background narrator, observing and occasionally outsmarting the prisoners, while documenting the history of escape attempts in a physical museum he established in the castle that grew after the discovery of each new scheme.

Prisoners of the Castlesometimes reads like “A Thousand and One Nights meets “Groundhog Day,” with evermore baroque attempts to exit the same dull trap. But the near whimsy of Colditz took more than one grim turn, and in narrating those darker developments, “Prisoners of the Castle” works to undo some conventions of World War II escape stories.

The book’s preface opens with a gentle mockery of the myth of Colditz, which locates all detainees’ “mustaches firmly set on stiff upper lips.” In what follows, Macintyre occasionally catches them in moments of pain, loss and even deterioration. A Belgian’s deliberate failure to salute a German officer spiraled into a court-martial and a death sentence that was later commuted. Recaptured prisoners earned time in solitary for their escape attempts, which sometimes destroyed their sanity.

Later in the war, the dangers became more existential. As Germany’s military fortunes plummeted, other elements of the Third Reich took an interest in the most prominent detainees at Colditz. The castle went from being an officers’ club to a stable of hostages that the worst Nazi elements hoped to use to extort clemency for themselves or to exact revenge for their losses.

With so many absconding prisoners to cover, Macintyre keeps things moving and does not get in the way of his material. He seems aware that this is not a story for literary flourishes but one whose strength resides in the stitching together of voices from disparate historical records.

We get plenty of action, from the tiny Scotsman who sneaks out inside an old mattress to the glider built entirely inside the castle attic with a plan to launch it from the roof. But we also hear directly from the mattress stowaway, who made it on foot as far as the then-neutral American consulate in Vienna in May 1941, where an official refused to help in any way, saying, “They’ll get you in the end. They always do.”

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Macintyre has already made a name for himself through World War II histories such as “Operation Mincemeat” and “Double Cross,” as well as BBC documentaries. He knows how to layer dramatic details and doesn’t shy away from sharing the worst things his imprisoned protagonists did, including the degree to which Colditz prisoners quickly replicated the most atrocious aspects of their home societies — from classism and exclusionary social clubs to virulent racism.

Even the most celebrated detainees are presented as complicated people. Wing Commander Douglas Bader ranked as the greatest war hero in the prison and was met on arrival with salutes from German sentries. A double-amputee flying ace, he had two tin legs and a penchant for making his subordinates’ lives (and everyone else’s) miserable.

Micky Burn, another combat hero with a very different personality, was a brash bisexual who veered from an early love affair with Nazism to embrace of communism. His posh background earned him admission to Colditz’s Bullingdon Club, an organization modeled on an elite dining club at Oxford University. But he soon unnerved its members with his enthusiastic lectures on Marxism. In a letter to his parents from captivity, Burn wrote, “I am now living in a castle, as most of the best people do at this time of year.”

Some portraits are particularly moving. We get to know the camp dentist, a Scotsman who concealed his Jewish identity and served as an intelligence agent, sending coded secrets out of Colditz to London. And we witness an Indian doctor — cruelly ostracized by his British peers — who plots his own radical escape from Colditz.

With dozens of characters, “Prisoners of the Castle” risks becoming a grab bag of vignettes. However, each detainee is memorable enough that readers are unlikely to get lost. And a treasure trove of details is arrayed on the page. Macintyre so seamlessly fuses so many different accounts that their compilation creates something more profound than a simple escape yarn: a biography of the prison itself and the world detainees built there.

Prisoners of the Castle

An Epic Story of Survival and Escape From Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison

By Ben Macintyre

Penguin. 368 pp. $28.99

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