Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle, by Ben Macintyre

The latest book by historian Ben Macintyre is undoubtedly the most gripping I have read recently. Macintyre thoroughly researched the stories of all the prominent inmates of the impenetrable prison fortress, Colditz, within Nazi Germany, and describes the day-to-day activities and attempted escapes of the British officers and their relationship with their German guards. Many of us of a certain age were hooked as youngsters on The Colditz Story, published in 1952, where Pat Reid MC described prison life as a series of gallant adventures of escape – later developed in the 70s as the popular BBC TV series, Colditz. This book offers a much wider insight into life in the prison during WW2, dealing as it does with an invidious class system, relationships that often involved bullying and sexual conflict, the different personalities of men full of courage and arrogance such as Douglas Bader, or quiet courage and tenacity such as Padre Jock Platt; the activities of Churchill’s communist nephew, Giles Romilly, one of the Prominente of particular interest to the German High Command.

As well as learning more about the huge number of attempted escapes from the prison to which officers were sent who already had a record, I found it fascinating to follow the writings of Eggers, the Kommandant who prided himself on the Museum he created within the prison walls, exhibiting the seized maps and forged documents, uniforms and other escape materials which the guards had uncovered. He himself often admired the courage, ingenuity and tenacity of the captured. I learned of the enormous courage of the dentist from Glasgow who extracted both teeth and information as a chief coder in the prison. An Appendix offers in fascinating detail how some of the codes operated in the letters going to and from the prison to relatives at home, intercepted by MI9. Macintyre explores the courage of the daughter of a local Nazi bigwig who forms a relationship with an inmate and tirelessly risks her life in passing on information. Thanks to her, a clear picture was formed of local Nazi sympathisers and those against the regime, in place if and when the Allied victory came. We are told about the radio successfully hidden for the duration of the war and offering a vital lifeline to outside news alongside the horrendous Bullingdon Club, which also operated, showing the less edifying side of life. 

Macintyre describes with such clarity and honesty the different conditions that operated in the war years depending on those placed in command. His narrative skills never waver: the final desperate days in April 1945 bring fear of SS reprisals, despite the elaborate system of signalling coded messages; that tension is maintained until the end. Generous use of photographs and an interesting Aftermath, which follows up the main players in the narrative, enhanced my enjoyment. This bestselling writer really brings history to life.  

Reviewed by a library member

[We have a copy of Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle in the library]