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Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle

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It was quite obvious at first that the flaw of Colditz was not in the architecture but in the humans that occupied it.

The only conceivable benefit to the war effort from a successful escape that I can see would be through morale boosting propaganda. I'm not saying that this would be a negligible benefit, but another thing which Reid doesn't mention is what the escapees did on returning home. First British escapee, Airey Neave, went on to work for MI9, the British secret service in charge of aiding resistance movements in occupied Europe, but he was by a long way the most distinguished of the escapees (and probably the best known British inmate with the exception of Douglas Bader). Reid himself was unable to return to Britain until after the war. Others were killed in action, or their escape remained the major event of their war service. Nothing I can see in Wikipedia entries (not necessarily the most authoritative source, but easily accessible) suggests that the British used escapees for propaganda purposes. Compared to the work of SOE, the activities of Schindler, or the dedication of the Bletchley code breakers, POW escapes were extremely unimportant in the history of the War. If it does not serve the overall aim of winning the war in any particular way, it is surely not a duty bound on every prisoner of war. Through an astonishing range of material, Macintyre reveals a remarkable cast of characters, wider than previously seen and hitherto hidden from history, taking in prisoners and captors who were living cheek-by-jowl in a thrilling game of cat and mouse. Colditz, a forbidding German castle fortress, was the destination for Allied officer POWs, and some other high-profile prisoners. It’s important to know that Colditz was different from POW Stalags for enlisted men run by the often brutal Gestapo and SS guards. Colditz was staffed by Wehrmacht (regular army) personnel who generally complied with the Geneva Convention. According to the Geneva Convention, captors were allowed to set their enlisted prisoners to work—but not officers. As a result, most of the prisoners at Colditz were at the leisure to go stir crazy, unless they thought of other ways to keep their minds busy—like dreaming up escape plans. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that author Pat Reid eventually escapes Colditz, but this retelling is a fascinating look into life at the prison, and the many failed escape plans that fell through before his success in 1942. It's jovially told; it almost sounds like boys on a bizarre camping trip, with how much mischief they get up to and how many privileges they seem to be privy to considering their prisoner status. Though it does sober up when the task of actual escape is at hand. They were in real danger and they knew it, but otherwise the cast seem like a merry band of regular folk in a strange set of circumstances.You can see the [White House] rhetoric begin to ratchet down [after reading Gordievsky’s reports]. Now, he’s not the only player in this scenario, and I wouldn’t give him singular credit, but the Cold War began to get warmer from that point onwards.” Much of the material comes from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s by every surviving Colditz prisoner, which are held in the Imperial War Museum but hadn’t been listened to by researchers or historians. It’s through these archives that Macintyre learnt of Ross’s anguish and other prisoners’ private fears, including a chaplain’s anxiety over the men acting on homosexual urges. The book reveals a culture of homosexuality among the prisoners, including one who was openly bisexual. “No one has really written about that before,” says Macintyre. I tend to prefer to read a book before listening to the audiobook but in this case, I think I would have preferred to listen to the audiobook from the outset. The audio sample sounds good and I may return to it some day.

A few years earlier, while Gordievsky was head of the KGB rezidentura (spy hub) in the Soviet embassy in London, Macintyre recalls, there was the “extraordinary moment when Mikhail Gorbachev, the great new kind of grand hope of the Politburo, arrives in London, and Oleg is briefing both sides. The KGB resident designate is writing a memo for Gorbachev about what he should say to Thatcher but the memo has been dictated by MI6, and you’ve also got him advising MI6 how Gorbachev responds.” Ben Macintyre is well known for his books on spies and espionage, like Agent Zigzag, Double Cross, and Philby. Earlier this year, one of his other works, Operation Mincemeat, was adapted into a hugely successful movie (see MHM June/July 2022). At the top were the Prominente, prisoners whom the Germans thought were supremely important, such as Churchill’s nephew Giles Romilly, members of the aristocracy, and cousins of the royal family. They were kept under special guard and ate and socialised separately from everyone else. But why were the Germans keeping such men? For some sort of barter after the war? To parade in Berlin on final victory? It was a mystery that remained right until the end.A remarkable cast of characters, previously hidden and lost in history emerges - prisoners and captors who lived in a thrilling and horrific game of cat and mouse. Many of the emotions felt by the men incarcerated in the medieval castle were the same as those felt by all prisoners of war. There was a sense of guilt. They had joined up to fight but had ended up in captivity. Many felt it was their duty to try to escape. One British lieutenant, Michael Sinclair, felt this so strongly that he attempted seven breakouts, more than any other individual. Some of them nearly succeeded but not one came off. The astonishing inside story, revealed for the first time by bestselling historian Ben Macintyre, is a tale of the indomitable human spirit, but also one of class conflict, homosexuality, espionage, insanity and farce. Ben MacIntyre has had a successful and lucrative career as a writer mostly of war stories, predominantly set during the second World War. Operation Mincemeat, the story of the cadaver that helped to divert German forces towards Greece and away from Sicily where the Allies intended to land in 1943, was made into a Hollywood film with an all-star cast last year.

Of the 35,000 Allied troops who made their way to safety from captivity or after being shot down about half were carrying one of Hutton's maps." I don't know if non-fiction thriller is a legitimate genre but if it is, Ben MacIntyre would be the Stephen King of it. In this book MacIntyre takes on the iconic nazi-castle of Colditz, where high ranking Allied prisoners or prisoners that tried repeatedly to escape, were guarded by the Wehrmacht, which mostly abided by the rules of the Geneva Conventions. In one instance, after succesfully escaping to France, the Germans dutifully sent his suitcase after him. This is an exciting, entertaining read and a first hand historical account of a fascinating and concentrated event in history, hence five stars. The story of the ingenious escape attempts from Colditz are almost as famous as that of The Great Escape, and the book was immensely successful, not just becoming a TV series (which this edition was released to tie in with) but a board game which I remember playing in the seventies. The book used to be in just about every library (including school libraries) in the UK. (I don't know if it is this popular today, but it is noticeable that the public libraries I use still have a Second World War section which is much larger than the rest of history put together, so similar tales continue to hold the imagination of the British public.) This means that it will have been read by any voracious male (it almost certainly appeals more to boys) reader of my age or older, and many more will have seen the TV show (I was a few years too young to see it myself.) The story told by Reid is very memorable, and I found myself remembering details I hadn't read for thirty years.War stories are usually about what happened. The story of Colditz, by contrast, is largely a tale of inactivity, a long procession of duplicate days when little of note occurred, punctuated by moments of intense excitement. During Covid times this book seemed to speak to my spirit and mind to find new and resourceful ways to escape boredom and complacency, as well as creatively love my family and friends. It made me was to stretch resources and encourage others. Christopher Clayton Hutton's bizarre achievements prove that war is not solely a matter of bombs, bullets and battlefield bravery. They also serve who work out how to hide a compass inside a walnut."

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