Germany’s ‘Escape-Proof’ Castle POW Camp Actually Had the Worst Record for Escapes

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A photo of Colditz Castle in Saxony, taken by a U.S. troop in 1945. (Department of Defense)

Situated just south of Leipzig, Germany, lies Colditz Castle. During World War II, it was used as a prison camp by the German Heer. Since it was considered almost impossible from which to escape, the most seasoned Allied prisoners were sent there to put the lid on their escape attempts, once and for all.

It didn’t work, of course. It’s believed that at least 33 Allied prisoners of war managed to escape from the castle’s formidable walls. It was a lot more difficult to escape from Colditz, but not impossible. It soon became the prison of last resort for the Allies’ most daring and indefatigable prisoners.

The Code of the United States Fighting Force, created under the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Korean War, outlined the code of conduct for captured American troops held as prisoners of war. One of the central tenets to this code is that POWs will “make every effort to escape and aid others.”

This tenet wasn’t written in stone during World War II, but it largely was understood by Allied troops, especially officers.

The result was a slew of prisoners who made repeated escape attempts in an effort to disrupt enemy operations and force the Germans to commit resources to their capture, rather than the war effort. These skilled escapees were, frankly, a recurring nuisance to their German captors. After making too many attempts, they were sent to Oflag IV-C -- Colditz Castle -- in Saxony.

Colditz Castle was built with the blessing of Frederick Barbarossa, then Holy Roman emperor, around 1158. It became a seat of power in the area for 250 years and then became a royal residence. It received a number of facelifts and upgrades over the following centuries before becoming a sanatorium in the 1800s.

When the Nazis rose to power, it became a prison for "undesirables" like communists, Jewish people and homosexuals. When World War II broke out, it became a prison camp. Colditz Castle was the most secure facility in the Axis prison camp system, sitting on a rocky ridge overlooking the Mulde River. The Nazis believed it was escape proof, and by 1943, it was used exclusively to hold British and American officers.

The Nazis were wrong about Colditz Castle, as the first successful escape attempt came in April 1941 when French Gen. Alain Le Ray escaped during a football match. Le Ray made his way back to France, joined the Vichy government and became a resistance leader.

Colditz Castle in 2011, taken from the town of Colditz.

Allied prisoners of war made hundreds of escape attempts from Colditz Castle, using whatever means necessary. They hid in postal sacks, dressed as German officers and Hitler Youth or used the old bedsheet rope to scale down the castle walls. Most of those were unsuccessful, but the ones that were successful usually were escapes from hospitals, hiding in the camp well or tunneling into the kommandant’s office and cellar.

In one instance, a group of escaping British officers are said to have tunneled into the kommandant’s wine cellar, drank 100 bottles of his finest wines and refilled the bottles with urine.

Most of the prisoners held at Colditz Castle were there for the duration of the war, until it was liberated by the U.S. 1st Army in April 1945. In the end, the castle was far from escape-proof. It actually had one of the worst escape records of any POW camp in Germany.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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