ESCAPING TO COLDITZ
As people approach a “certain age” – let’s be diplomatic and called it a “milestone birthday” – it’s not uncommon to want to mark the occasion by throwing a huge party for friends and family, or by booking up a special trip or holiday. As my “milestone” approached, I was still in denial and thought that the fewer people who knew about it, the better. After all, in my mind’s eye I am still 39 and I have been 39 for, well, quite a while. I didn’t want a party, as that’s not my style, but I did want to go on a trip. The question was, where?
Most (normal) people choose a once in a lifetime experience – perhaps a fortnight in Las Vegas, a week long party in a villa in Ibiza, a Caribbean cruise, or a dreaded “City Break”. Personally, all of those options filled me with horror – Vegas is my idea of living hell, I loathe beach holidays, I’d never contemplate a cruise since I watched The Poseidon Adventure when I was 7, and being a bit of a country bumpkin, I hate cities (with a few notable exceptions).
Barely able to stand upright, I celebrated my birthday in a dank, dark, claustrophobic tunnel, with just the smallest chink of light at the end of it. This isn’t a metaphor for the world’s worst hangover – this tunnel was real.
This wasn’t any tunnel; this was the legendary cellar in the bowels of Colditz Castle, deep in the heart of Germany, from which Major Pat Reid, and three other British officers had miraculously escaped from their Nazi guards on the night of 14th October 1942.
I’d been obsessed with Second World War history since early childhood, and would spend hours listening to my grandparents’ tales of the Blitz and the Battles of Tunis and Monte Cassino, and their stories of my great uncle Jack, a RAF wireless operator who flew on perilous Bomber Command raids over Germany. Like many children who grew up in the 1970s, I was absolutely gripped by the tv series “Colditz” and had read Pat Reid’s book about his experiences in the infamous Prisoner of War camp several times before I even reached my teens.
Today, Colditz Castle is dazzlingly beautiful. Set upon a hill above the small village from which it derives its name, the castle commands the surrounding landscape, its freshly painted white walls glittering in the bright Autumn sunlight against a forest backdrop of green and gold. The immediate impression is of a fairy tale Schloss, straight from the pages of a story by the Brothers Grimm. It is only as you draw closer and gaze up the ramparts to the soaring stone walls above, that the castle begins to assume a darker, more forbidding nature.
The white paint is a relatively new addition – in the days when it housed Allied Prisoners of War, the walls were bare grey stone, clad in ivy, its double courtyards almost permanently in shadow. A place of fear and utter despair, yes, but also of hope, camaraderie and ingenuity. Passing through the infamous stone archway into the prisoner’s courtyard was, for me, a spine-tingling and unforgettable experience.
There has been a castle here since 1046 when it began life as hunting lodge for the rulers of Saxony. Over the centuries it was gradually added to and extended, until it had doubled in size – hence the two courtyards. Colditz is essentially two castles in one – the first, an ancient medieval building, dating back a thousand years; the second, a huge Baroque addition. Today, the castle houses an excellent museum and a Youth Hostel, as well as a music symposium; for many years before and after the war it was a mental hospital. The lives of the poor souls detained within its walls must have been unimaginably horrific.
The castle housed political prisoners in the early 1930s and was then commandeered for use as a Prisoner of War camp in October 1939; prior to that Colditz Castle was put to a singularly evil purpose. A small, barely visible plaque tucked away near the entrance to the castle’s basement serves as a memorial to the 84 mental patients who were murdered here in the 1930s under the Nazi’s euthanasia policy, the majority of them through deliberate starvation.
Colditz, renamed Oflag (Officers’ Camp) IV-C, was reserved for high profile prisoners particularly those who had been involved in previous escape attempts. The German authorities considered the castle to be “escape proof”. Major Pat Reid, one of the first men to escape from the castle and make it to safety across the Swiss border, described the security arrangements in his 1952 book, The Colditz Story :
“The garrison manning the camp outnumbered the prisoners at all times. The Castle was floodlit at night from every angle, in spite of the blackout. Notwithstanding the clear drops of a hundred feet or so on the outside from barred windows, there were sentries all round the camp, within a palisade of barbed wire. Beyond the palisade were precipices of varying depth…But the Germans overlooked the fact that successful escapes depend mostly on the accumulation of escape technique, and they gathered together…in Colditz all the escape technicians of the Allied Forces from all over the world. Together with this, they concentrated in Colditz the highest morale it is possible to imagine.”
These “escape technicians” mounted hundred of escape attempts; most were discovered by the German guards, but around thirty-two prisoners managed to break out over the course of the war, of whom fifteen made it home. The camp, the castle and its inmates have taken on a mythological status in British culture, particularly as a result of Reid’s book and the subsequent film and TV series. Most Germans haven’t even heard of it – and why would they?
Today, you can have an extended guided tour of the castle, conducted by incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides. The guardroom, the solitary confinement cells, the chapel (with the French tunnels beneath), the theatre, the prisoners’ dormitories, and even the famous “glider loft” (complete with replica glider) can all be visited. You can even spend a night in the Youth Hostel there if you wish. The sheer ingenuity of the prisoners cannot fail to impress. If you ever happen to find yourself in this little corner of Saxony (Colditz is easily drivable from both Leipzig and Dresden), I heartily recommend it.
TIME TRAVELLING IN BERLIN
The trip to Colditz was sandwiched in between a flying overnight visit to Leipzig (which itself followed a weekend in Berlin) and a few days in Dresden and Pirna. Much to my shame, I’d never really spent any time in Germany at all (how does one reach a “milestone birthday” without ever having being to Berlin?) Apart from a flight into Munich en route to Austria, and a wander over the border into Bavaria to Chiemsee, Germany had never really been on my radar.
I alluded to the fact that I hate cities earlier, but German cities are notable exceptions. I absolutely fell in love with Berlin. I can’t wait to go back. I love EVERYTHING about it – the momentous history, the architecture, the parks and squares, the laid back atmosphere, the food (curry wurst anyone?), the high-tech railway station – everything in fact except Tegel Airport, where it is still 1978. Oh, and the ticket collector on the subway who fined us 60 Euros each for failing to have our newly purchased tickets stamped before boarding. I shan’t make that mistake again.
However, the highlight of my visit to this lovely city wasn’t the Reichstag or Check Point Charlie or any of the more obvious tourist hotspots and historic sites.
In the Gesundbrunnen district of Berlin there is a large park, created in the nineteenth century, and named after the eminent natural historian Alexander von Humboldt. On the very edge of the park, far beyond the swimming pool and the children’s play area, past the rose gardens, the snaking footpaths and the shrubbery, there lies a huge mound, now partially covered with trees and undergrowth.
A walk around the mound reveals a vast grey concrete structure, reminiscent of two towers of a medieval castle, but now battered and worn and covered in graffiti. The occasional twist of rusted metal thrusts skywards, as if trying to escape from its concrete prison, providing some hint as to this building’s dark history. A steep pedestrian ramp affords access to the very top, from which the determined visitor can gain a spectacular view of the entire city, laid out like a model village before him.
This is what remains of the Humboldthain Flakturm, one of eight enormous anti-aircraft towers constructed in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna, between 1941 and 1943. In 1940, when the RAF first began to bomb Berlin, Hitler personally sketched the designs and gave orders for the construction of these gargantuan buildings, which also doubled as barracks and air raid shelters for as many as 10,000 civilians; there was even a hospital on one of the floors.
Part of his twisted vision of the future mega-city of Germania, it was anticipated that after the Nazi victory, the flak towers would be used for civilian purposes and leisure activities, pleasure castles for the master race. For that reason, the Humboldthain tower included small windows in its design, covered by steel shutters which were intended to be replaced by glass when the hostilities were over. Seventy metres square with a flat-topped turret at each corner, the flak tower was some five storeys high, with walls of concrete eleven feet thick, and was designed to be indestructible.
Built by slave labourers from the work and concentration camps in just six months (many of whom were worked, literally, to death), the tower bristled with anti-aircraft (flak) guns; two 128mm guns, which could fire shells a distance of eight miles, were positioned on each corner turret, with numerous smaller-calibre cannons on the lower-level platforms. A signal tower a short distance away picked up incoming aircraft by radar and electronically relayed the co-ordinates directly to the guns, which swung around automatically and began firing into the sky at a rate of 800 rounds per minute.
There were two other such towers in the centre of Berlin, one in the Tiergarten and the other at Friedrichshain, forming an almost impenetrable triangle of air defences over the city; when fully operational, the sky was filled with so much exploding metal that it would have been suicide for any RAF Bomber Command aircraft to go anywhere near it. Many did stray into this airspace while trying to avoid pursuing Luftwaffe night fighters, or when off course due to the confusion of battle and paid the ultimate price.
The Humboldthain flak tower is believed to have shot down thirty-two Allied aircraft during the war, and damaged countless others. Towards the end, as Hitler’s regime was fast running out of men and resources, the guns were manned by boys as young as fourteen, recruited from nearby schools and the ranks of the Hitler Youth. Not even the full weight of the Russian artillery could penetrate its concrete shell in the final days of the war; the troops holed up inside Berlin’s three flak towers were the very last Germans to surrender to Soviet forces in May 1945.
The towers in the Tiergarten and at Friedrichshain were demolished, with many tons of dynamite and at great cost, not long after the war. Despite the best efforts of the Allies to erase the Humboldthain tower from the face of the earth, only two of the four turrets could be destroyed. With the help of expert guides, modern-day visitors can clamber around the partially collapsed interior, a gargantuan labyrinth of twisted steel and concrete; once the very epicentre of the Nazi defences, a place of safety for the citizens of the Third Reich, today it is home to a colony of bats. I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough, it’s an incredible experience.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
As part of my research for my forthcoming book, I needed to visit both Leipzig and Dresden. My first impression of the former was that it resembled a cross between Innsbruck and Peterlee. The railway station itself is worth the two hour trip from Berlin – it is like a cathedral.
Leipzig was, and is, a beautiful city. Although the surrounds now bear testament to the brutalist architecture of over sixty years of Soviet control, the old town is a maze of baroque and medieval architecture, of alleyways and courtyards. The walls of the Thomaskirche echo with the music of one of the city’s most celebrated sons, Johann Sebastian Bach, who lies there still.
In a side street just around the corner from the white-gabled and red-roofed Rathaus, down a steep set of steps in a beautiful arcade now filled with designer shops, you will find the 500-year-old Auerbachs Keller. Beneath its vaulted ceilings, in a dark corner behind the stone pillars, Faust plotted to sell his soul to the devil Mephistopheles, in the German writer Goethe’s dramatic retelling of the legend. Goethe was a regular visitor to the Keller while a student at Leipzig University in the 1700s, and the long evenings spent in Auerbachs provided inspiration for his writing.
Three hundred years later, it’s still a bustling bar and restaurant, serving typical German fare (accompanied by huge steins of beer) to hundreds of locals and tourists every week, its whitewashed walls now decked with Faustian imagery. Yes, it’s touristy, but the atmosphere is great, and the food was fantastic. Upstairs you will find a little café bar called Mephisto (what else?) which serves the most amazing hot chocolate laced with rum.
The main square seemed to echo with the sound of an orchestra performing Bach’s Toccata et Fugue; upon rounding a corner, there was no orchestra, just two extremely talented accordion players playing their hearts out in the darkness to no-one in particular.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Dresden, but what I encountered far exceeded my expectations. It is exquisite. Since 1945, the very name of the city has become a byword for unimaginable death and destruction.
On the night of 13 February 1945 two waves of Lancasters headed towards Dresden; up until that point the city, an architectural marvel on the banks of the River Elbe, had largely been spared from the Allied bombardment. The German authorities had considered it to be of too great historical significance to be a target; it had very few air defences, nor any municipal air raid shelters.
Plans had been drawn up by Allied commanders earlier in the year for attacks on Chemnitz, Dresden and Leipzig, with the intention of aiding the Soviet advance in the east; with the Russians now close to the German border, the time had arrived for the plan to be implemented. The fires of hell were about to be visited upon on Dresden, in the first of four raids by RAF and USAAF aircraft over the course of two days.
At around quarter past ten, the bombardment began. The attackers were completely unopposed, and within minutes of the first bombs being dropped, the ancient city, crammed with wooden medieval structures, was on fire. Fanned by a strong wind, individual conflagrations soon spread to envelope the city in one huge firestorm.
The blackened and anonymous corpses of those who had attempted to flee towards the safety of the river were scattered upon every street. Thousands huddled together in the medieval cellars of their homes, only to be suffocated as the firestorm engulfed house after house, sucking up all the oxygen from the air. Others still tried to take refuge in the large water tanks situated in the city’s squares, where they drowned or were boiled alive as the flames overtook them.
Arguments have raged for decades as to the actual death toll (the city population was swelled by a large number of refugees from the Eastern Front on the night of the raid); over the years estimates have been put at figures ranging from 18,000 to 135,000 (Nazi leaders announced a grossly inflated of 200,000 dead in the immediate aftermath for propaganda purposes). The true figure is believed to be between 25,000 and 41,000, and probably at the lower end of that range.
Even now, seventy-five years later, there are still tell-tale signs of the firestorm all over the city. The Altstadt has been diligently and beautifully rebuilt in recent years, but if you look carefully, particularly around the bases of buildings at pavement level, the fire-blackened stones remain. The debate as to the morality, and indeed the legality, of the raid on Dresden continues to this day.
Barely visible on a stone plinth in the centre of the Alt Markt, next to the pedestrian entrance to an underground car park, there is a memorial to the Dresden victims. It is deliberately very understated, and not immediately apparent. The inscription is striking and thought provoking:
“The horror of the War that went out from Germany into the world came back to our city.”
In the gaps between the cobbles just below, there is a small splash of what appears at first sight to be molten silver. Engraved upon it is a dedication to the memory of the 6865 people whose bodies were stacked and cremated upon that very spot in the days after the raid.
On my early-morning run, I snaked between churches and palaces and museums, and down to the river. A hot air balloon was gradually rising from the frost-covered grass into the crisp morning air, drifting towards a flock of geese noisily following the course of the Elbe. Looking back across the river to the rebuilt Alt Stadt, it appeared serene, untouched by war and terror; a beautiful illusion.
Despite its grandeur, there is a darker side to this lovely city. In November 2019, just a few days after my visit, the city declared a “Nazinotstand”, or “Nazi Emergency”. Dresden has had a significant problem with Neo-Nazism and the “Alt Right” for decades, and the city council has now acknowledged that, in circumstances where there is growing support for the far-right AfD political party, particularly in the old “East Germany”, action must be taken.
Within an hour’s drive of Dresden you can reach the town of Pirna, close to the Czech border. Known as the gateway to Saxon Switzerland National Park, this small, pretty town lies on the banks of the Elbe, and was subject to cataclysmic floods a decade ago. A jumble of pastel-coloured medieval houses and churches, it is dominated by the vast golden expanse of Sonnenstein Castle.
Walking through the oldest part of the town, I was struck by the number of empty shop premises, an all too familiar sight in many towns and villages throughout the old “East Germany”. There is a sense that this part of the country has been “left behind”, that the prosperity promised after reunification was either short-lived, or had failed to materialise altogether.
At the far end of the main street, you can climb the steps to the castle, should you wish to do so. This was one castle I didn’t wish to visit, or even to be anywhere near. At the bottom of the steps, almost obscured by ivy and undergrowth, there is a small silver plaque on the wall, which commemorates the 13,720 disabled and mentally ill German men, women, and mostly children, and 1031 Jewish citizens, who were killed in Sonnenstein Castle by being poisoned or gassed, between 1940 and 1941, by the Aktion T4 Unit. Murder, on an industrial scale.
A few miles away, where the Elbe bends and twists down towards the Czech border, is Saxon Switzerland National Park. Ancient forests open out onto spectacular gorges and rock formations; even on a bitterly cold late Autumn day, Bastei was busy with tourists keen to visit the famous Bastei Bridge, the site of a Tolkein-esque medieval fortress built precariously on towering rocks overhanging the river. It is well worth seeing, as long as you don’t have a fear of heights, and was the perfect way to end what had been a thought-provoking and at times very moving trip.
I fell in love with the old East Germany; the history, the architecture, the food, the stunning natural beauty. Go there – you won’t be disappointed. And I’d definitely sell my soul to the devil for another of those hot chocolates laced with rum…
You can read the fruits of my research trip in my forthcoming book, Above Us The Stars:10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story here www.justcuriousjane.com/above-us-the-stars
I’ve listed below the places we visited, with links to accommodation, just in case you’re tempted to make the trip yourself.
For more information about Colditz, and details of guided tours https://www.schloss-colditz.de/en/home/
Berlin Flak Tower https://www.berliner-unterwelten.de/en/guided-tours/public-tours/from-flak-towers-to-mountains-of-debris.html ( They also do visits under the Berlin Wall and to Second World War bunkers)
We also did a guided walking tour of Second World Historical sites in Berlin, which was superb : https://www.berlinwalks.de/public/index/publictour/id/HitlersGermany
Berlin Accommodation: https://www.adinahotels.com/en/apartments/berlin-mitte/
(Ask for a room in the Judenhof Building overlooking the Frauenkirche)
Saxon Switzerland National Park: https://www.saechsische-schweiz.de/en/region/national-park.html
Accommodation: https://www.pension-donatus.de/The-Pension/Homepage/42l1/ ( this was really lovely – a 15th century house in the heart of the old town).