Introduced by James Holland
Historian James Holland introduces a richly illustrated edition.
Major P. R. Reid was sent to Colditz in 1940 and escaped two years later. His book, written with typical British understatement, details the ingenuity and bravery of the Colditz officers and the workings of the ‘escape committee’. Examples include a 45-year-old officer disguised as a ‘bronze-haired Rhine maiden’, dummies used during roll calls, feigned illnesses and countless ruses to befuddle and dupe the guards. Other methods involved months of planning and execution – in one case shifting tonnes of rubble from an underground tunnel to a fifth-floor attic.
This edition, expertly introduced by the historian James Holland, features two redrawn maps of the castle and its environs, watercolours by POW Major William Anderson and photographs of daily life, key figures, the famous Colditz glider and items from the Colditz escape museum.
The very name Colditz is synonymous with incarceration – with the image of a bleak, inescapable fortress. But the notoriety of this prisoner-of- war camp, to which the Germans dispatched the most recalcitrant officers of the British and Allied forces, is ironically due to its record number of successful escapees. These were so numerous that life in the castle was an almost daily game of cat-and-mouse, and so many recaptured escapees were punished with solitary confinement that they often had company. Most were not dissuaded from trying again, knowing that the threat of shooting was largely an empty one. The details of these exploits emerged soon after the war, but it was Major P. R. Reid’s best-selling account The Colditz Story, published in 1952, that cemented the castle’s emblematic status within the POW-escape genre. In Colditz: The Full Story, first published in 1984, Reid sought to give a more comprehensive account of life in the castle and the many escape routes pursued.
Colditz Castle. (© Hans P. Szyszka/Novarc/Corbis)
Colditz lies in Saxony, to the south-east of Leipzig, and is really a very pretty and rather alluring place. The castle still dominates, with its huge stone walls and austere roofs, but it looks altogether less threatening and severe than it once did. The grey stone has now been painted white, giving it a softer appearance, and trees have grown up all around, while its position, perched high on the rock overlooking the pretty Zwickau Mulde River, gives it an undeniably romantic aura. There has been a castle here since the mid-10th century, but the schloss of today was largely rebuilt in the 16th. No wonder, then, that it has about it all the romance of a Renaissance castle.
Colditz also has a very rich history, of which its time as a notorious prisoner-of-war camp amounted to just five short years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are few reminders in the nearby museum or castle itself of those days. During its time in Soviet-backed East Germany, its wartime role was pushed into the background, while today it is celebrated for all its many other roles: as royal palace to the Electors of Saxony for some 300 years, then later as a workhouse for the poor, and for nearly 100 years until 1924, as a sanatorium.
In its glory days as a palace, however, it must have been quite something, an even more dominating presence than it is today. Complete with a gothic chapel, opulent furnishings, and even the largest zoo in Europe in its grounds, Colditz was a palace worthy of rich, Renaissance princes. Strip away the princely trappings, however, and it is easy to imagine how the fairy-tale castle became the cold, bare and unforgiving place known so well to POWs like Pat Reid.
Even Colditz: The Full Story paints a picture of a prison camp that is more akin to Victorian public school than a place of ruthless oppression. By 1942, Reid admits, the prisoners were being as well fed as the townsfolk. From the outset of war, rationing in Germany was severe, and considerably worse than it ever was in Britain. Unlike the townspeople, however, Reid and his fellow British inmates received regular food parcels from home and from the Red Cross. From the much better-served Britain and Dominions came chocolate, sugar, butter, tinned meat and dried food. The Germans appear to have behaved largely honourably in the time that Reid was at Colditz and not interfered with these parcels, which also included books, cigars (the tubes of which were used to conceal escape material), pipes and other comforts from home. Red Cross parcels meant the inmates were receiving as many as forty cigarettes each per week. There were sports activities as well, including international football matches, basketball and their own version of the Olympic Games. Most of the guards and camp officers seemed to be decent and fair. Reid paints a picture in which his entire raison d’être and that of his fellow POWs, whether British, Dutch, French or Polish, was to escape. There is no doubt at all that the schemes they dreamt up were ingenious. Lead piping was somehow melted down and forged into swastikas, buckles and buttons, while entire German uniforms were manufactured from reworked jackets, purloined greatcoats, blankets and other material. Money was hidden in the covers of books sent from home. Foolproof codes were devised. Every conceivable means of outwitting the ‘Goons’, as the German guards were known, was tried and tested. That so many did manage to escape is testimony to the fact that the prisoners frequently did get one over their captors.
P. R. Reid (1910–90) was a British Army officer and author. He gained a BSc from King’s College, London and qualified as a civil engineer in 1936.With the outbreak of war in 1939 he was commis- sioned into the Royal Army Service Corps and was posted to France as an ammunition officer with the British Expeditionary Force. In 1940 he was taken prisoner and held captive at Colditz Castle until 1942 when he escaped, crossing the border into Switzerland. Reid was awarded the MC in 1943 and reached the rank of major. After the war he was a diplomat and administrator, before returning to his pre-war career in civil engineering. Over ten years after the war he wrote several books about his experiences, including The Colditz Story (1952), The Latter Days (1953), Prisoner of War (1953), Winged Diplomat (1962) and My Favourite Escape Stories (1975).
James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster.The author of the best-selling Fortress Malta (2003), Battle of Britain (2010) and Dam Busters (2012), he has also written nine works of historical fiction, five of which feature the heroic Jack Tanner, a soldier of the Second World War. Holland regularly appears on television and radio, and has written and presented the BAFTA -shortlisted documentaries Battle of Britain and Dam Busters for the BBC, as well as Battle for Malta, Cold War, Hot Jets and Normandy 44. Co-founder and Programme Director of the hugely successful Chalke Valley History Festival, he has his own collection at the Imperial War Museum, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
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