Prisoners of the Castle
On the afternoon of November 10, 1940, Captain Pat Reid gazed up at the castle on the cliff and experienced the combination of admiration and anxiety its builders had intended. “We saw looming above us our future prison,” he later wrote. “Beautiful, serene, majestic and yet forbidding enough to make our hearts sink . . . a sight to make the bravest quail.”
Quailing was not in Pat Reid’s nature. Indeed, he saw faint-heartedness of any sort as a moral failing, and refused to countenance it, in himself or anyone else. An officer in the Royal Army Service Corps, he had been captured in May, one of thousands of soldiers unable to get away after the fall of France. Initially held in Laufen Castle in Bavaria, he had immediately supervised the digging of a tunnel from the basement to a small shed outside the prison walls, and then made a break for the Yugoslavian border with five other officers. They were on the run for five days before they were caught and sent to Colditz, a new camp for incorrigible prisoners, and therefore a place for which Reid was amply qualified.
Born in India to an Irish father, at twenty-nine years old Reid was a natural contrarian and a born exhibitionist, a most dependable ally and, as an opponent, obstinate and insufferable. He had once climbed the rugby posts during an England-Ireland international at Twickenham to plant a bunch of shamrocks at the top. Described as “a thick-set, wavy-haired fellow with a mischievous look in his eyes” by one fellow inmate, Reid spoke and wrote exclusively in the argot of the Boy’s Own Paper. He displayed, at all times, a relentless, chirpy optimism. With a strong sense of his own place in the drama, Reid would become the first and most extensive chronicler of Colditz. He hated the place on sight and spent most of the rest of his life thinking and writing about it.
The British officers, later known as the “Laufen Six,” were marched across the moat, and then under a second stone archway, “whose oaken doors closed ominously behind us with the clanging of heavy iron bars in true medieval fashion.” In peacetime, Reid had been a civil engineer and he cast a professional eye over the battlements. The ground fell away in a sheer precipice on three sides, below terraces festooned in barbed wire. As the day faded, the castle walls were lit by a blaze of searchlights. The nearest city was Leipzig, twenty-three miles to the northwest. The closest border to a country outside Nazi control was 400 miles away. “Escape,” Reid reflected, “would be a formidable proposition.” The little group was marched under another gated arch, and into the inner courtyard. Only the sound of their boots ringing on the cobbles broke the silence. It was, wrote Reid, “an unspeakably grisly place.”
Colditz Castle stands on a hilltop 150 feet above the Mulde River, a tributary of the Elbe in the east of what is now Germany. Before it became a German province in the tenth century, the Serbian Slavs who inhabited the area had called it Koldyese, meaning “dark forest.” The first stone of what would become a mighty fortress was laid in about 1043, and over the next millennium it was repeatedly expanded and modified, destroyed and rebuilt by the great dynasties that tussled for power and prominence in the area. Fire, war, and pestilence changed the castle’s shape over the centuries, but its purposes remained constant: to impress and oppress the ruler’s subjects, demonstrate his might, frighten his enemies, and incarcerate his captives.
The hereditary rulers of the region, the Electors of Saxony, converted it into a hunting lodge, with a chapel and banqueting hall, and in 1523 the surrounding parkland became a game reserve encircled by high stone walls; white stags were held in a special enclosure in the park or Tiergarten, before being released and hunted down. The electors kept their dowagers, turbulent relatives, and unmarried daughters within the castle walls. In the early eighteenth century under Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and Grand Duke of Lithuania, the Schloss was enlarged with additional fortifications and pleasure gardens, and a theater. “Augustus the Strong” was a man of immense physical stamina, skilled in the sport of fox-tossing (which was exactly as nasty as it sounds), and a prodigious womanizer said to have fathered somewhere between 365 and 382 children. The castle was expanded to 700 rooms in order to house them.
By the nineteenth century the Saxon princes had turned their attention elsewhere, and the castle on the hill became a poorhouse, a remand home, and then a hospital for the “incurably insane.” The most expensive lunatic asylum in Germany, Colditz was a dumping ground for the mentally disturbed members of wealthy and notable families, including the composer Robert Schumann’s son Ludwig, who arrived, deranged, at the age of twenty, and never left. By the twentieth century it had become a place of death, a vast mausoleum of freezing stone floors, drafty corridors, and hidden misery. During the First World War it housed tuberculosis and psychiatric patients, of whom 912 died from malnutrition. Before the war, the Nazis used it as a concentration camp for communists, social democrats, and other political opponents of Hitler. More than 2,000 such “undesirables” were imprisoned there in a single year. Some were tortured in its dank cells. After a brief period as a camp for Reich Youth Workers, in 1938 it became an asylum again, but this time a lethal one: eighty-four physically and mentally disabled people were deliberately starved to death, a testing ground for Hitler’s full-scale euthanasia program.
But in 1939 it became what it will always be remembered as: a camp for prisoners of war. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), or German Army High Command, turned Colditz into a special camp (Sonderlager) for a particular breed of captured enemy officers: prisoners who had tried to escape from other camps, or otherwise displayed a markedly negative attitude toward Germany. These were designated deutschfeindlich, or “German-unfriendly,” a word that has no parallel in any other language and is virtually untranslatable: in Nazi Germany, insufficient friendliness was a crime. Being deutschfeindlich merited a red tab on a prisoner’s record: a mark of demerit in German eyes, but a distinction of note among POWs. The castle was henceforth a camp for captured officers, an Offizierslager, designated Oflag IV-C.
The denizens of Colditz Castle, over the centuries, had been many and varied, but almost all had this in common: They were not there out of choice. The dowagers, lunatics, Jews, virgins, tubercular patients, war prisoners, and white stags in the park had all been brought to the castle by others, and could not get out. Even the bastard progeny of Augustus the Strong were trapped in this huge hilltop compound. The great castle had supposedly been built to protect the people, but it was always a projection of power, a vast castellated giant dominating the skyline, erected to awe those living below and keep its occupants securely inside. It was either magnificent or monstrous, depending on which side of its walls you were on.
The building consisted of two adjoining courtyards. The inner, older space, no bigger than a tennis court, was cobbled and surrounded by four walls ninety feet high. On the north side were the chapel and clock tower; on the west the Saalhaus, or great hall, with the theater, parcels office, and senior officers’ quarters above; on the south was the prisoners’ kitchen, adjoining the German quarters; the east wing was the Fürstenhaus, or Prince’s House, which would accommodate the British prisoners. The sun penetrated the inner courtyard for only a few hours around noon. A single gateway led to the larger outer courtyard, which itself had only two exits: one over the dry moat leading down to the town of Colditz in the valley below, and the other through a tunnel under the barracks, sloping down toward the park and woods that had once been the gardens and hunting grounds of the mighty electors. The prisoners were contained in the inner courtyard, while the German guards, men of the 395th Defense Battalion, occupied the outer one: the garrison headquarters known as the Kommandantur.
Colditz Castle looked as solid and unyielding as the rock it stood upon. In reality, it was full of holes. The colossal stone warren had been built in layers, one on another, rooms expanded, windows opened up or filled in, corridors blocked, drains diverted and re-dug, by men who had been dead for centuries. It was riddled with hidden compartments, abandoned attics, doors secured by medieval locks, and long-forgotten fissures. Over the next four years, Reid and the other inhabitants of the inner courtyard sought to exploit these openings, while those in the outer courtyard struggled, just as energetically, to plug them.
A tall, sharp-faced German officer saluted crisply as the British prisoners entered the courtyard. “Good evening, my English friends,” he said, in impeccable English. “You must be tired after so long a day.”
Leutnant Reinhold Eggers was the antithesis of Pat Reid in every possible way, being formal, self-disciplined, and humorless, as patriotic as Reid was deutschfeindlich. The two men detested one another on sight: their meeting marked the start of a long and bitter contest.