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Last Updated: Friday, 8 August, 2003, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Escape to Colditz
By Andrew Walker
BBC News Online

With two new films about it in the pipeline and a youth hostel about to open there, now might be just the time to pay a visit to Oflag IVc, better known as Colditz castle, the world's most famous prisoner of war camp.

Colditz. The name conjures up so many different images: a vast dark castle towering over a tiny German hamlet, Bond director Guy Hamilton's stirring 1955 film starring John Mills and Eric Portman, the 1972 TV version with David McCallum and Anthony Valentine and the oddly addictive board game, Escape from Colditz.

And the castle has also entered popular usage, "It was like being sent to Colditz" holds its own with "Who do you think you are: Stirling Moss?"

But today, this 1,000 year-old schloss, some 26 miles from Leipzig in the former East Germany - now served by the Irish budget airline Ryanair - is transforming itself into a holiday destination after a 9m refit.

Violent history

Dr Manfred Gergs, the castle manager, is proud of Colditz. "We have lots of visitors from all around the world, especially to the Escape Museum," he says.

Colditz castle
The castle overlooks the old town of Colditz, on the River Mulde
"The State of Saxony - which owns the castle - has just renovated the attics and one of the courtyards and 2004 will see the opening of a European Youth Hostel in another courtyard."

The castle, originally built as a hunting lodge for the King of Saxony in 1014, has seen many sieges and battles and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.

Reduced to rubble in the Hussite wars of the 15th century, it was subsequently ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, the Danes, and Swedes, before becoming a mental hospital in 1828.

The castle started World War II as a transit camp for Poles captured after the German invasion and it was not until November 1940 that the first British prisoners arrived, RAF officers captured after bailing-out over occupied Europe.

But initial Nazi successes on the battlefield presented the Germans with a problem: how to keep a huge number of Allied prisoners of war - some seven million of them - under lock and key.

VIP prisoners

Many British and French officers saw it as a matter of honour to escape, return home and continue the fight. Serial escape attempts reached such a scale that the German High Command decided to act.

 Churchill's nephew Giles Romilly was one of the
Prominente: Churchill's nephew Giles Romilly
Colditz castle, clinging to a rock which dominates the surrounding countryside and hundreds of miles from neutral countries, was seen as the perfect place to incarcerate troublesome PoWs.

There were two main categories of prisoner at the "sonderlager" or special camp, those who had already attempted to escape and the so-called Prominente

These VIP prisoners included the son of Earl Haig, the British World War I commander, Winston Churchill's nephew, Giles Romilly - who escaped - and Viscount Lascelles, now Lord Harewood, nephew of King George VI.

Colditz inmates read like a Who's Who of British wartime heroism. Airey Neave - the first British officer to make a "home run"- later became a Conservative MP and close advisor to Margaret Thatcher before being blown up by an INLA car bomb in 1979.

Douglas Bader, the RAF fighter ace who had lost both his legs in a flying accident before the war, was also an inmate, as was Major Pat Reid, who wrote the original book which gave birth to the Colditz legend.

What was meant to be an escape-proof fortress prison became a haven for the best tunnelers, forgers and daredevils the Allies had to offer. With such "talent" together in one place, escape was almost inevitable.

Audacious French

Altogether, around 300 escape attempts were made which resulted in 31 "home runs". Twelve Frenchmen made it home, 11 Britons, 7 Dutch and one Pole.

The Colditz clock tower
The French tunnel ran from the clock tower
The methods used were breathtaking in their range and intricacy. Besides the tunnels, prisoners built a full-sized glider, walked through the gates dressed as German soldiers and even took to the sewers.

But it was the French tunnel, built in 1941, which proved to be the most impressive and audacious engineering feat undertaken during the war.

From the top of the clock tower, it ran vertically for 35 metres before entering the cellars where it wound for another 44 metres, partly under the chapel.

Complete with electric light, it was only 30 feet from completion when discovered on 15 January 1942.

Today, much remains of the wartime castle. For five euros visitors can see the tunnels, forged papers and false uniforms, the secret radio which kept prisoners up to date with BBC news and a replica of the glider.

The war's end almost proved a tragedy. SS chief Heinrich Himmler took over Colditz and the Prominente - bargaining counters for a bet which had already been lost - were taken to Bavaria after Hitler ordered their execution. Thankfully the Germans relented and no one was killed.

A false uniform in the castle museum
A false uniform in the castle museum
Today the Colditz legend is going from strength to strength. Granada Television is producing a new version of the story and Russell Crowe is tipped to star in Miramax's big screen epic. Colditz veterans mutter, with some reason, about Hollywood rewriting history.

Strangely, though, mention Colditz to any German and the response will probably be a blank look.

"Colditz is very important to the British," says the castle's guide, Johannes Tschechlaffler. "But there is not much interest in Germany. Just a few school trips, that's all."

But to the British, Dutch and French visitors to the castle, Colditz means tenacity, audacity and cheerful struggle against the odds.

Perhaps Airey Neave had it right when he wrote: "I learnt at Colditz that the escaper must have absolute confidence in his success. He must never be influenced by the gloom of his companions or he is lost."

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