If one is interested in spy craft and traitors during World War II and the Cold War there are few authors that have produced more satisfying works than Ben Macintyre. Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times (U.K.) and has written monographs whose narratives include the history of the British SAS; deceptions that encompass plans to misinform the Nazis in the lead up to the invasions of Sicily and D-Day; well-known spies such as Kim Philby, Oleg Gordievsky, the woman known as Agent Sonya, Eddie Chapman; and his latest the escapees from the Nazi fortress, Colditz. Whether describing and analyzing the actions of double agents loyal to the United States, Britain, or Russia or other topics Macintyre’s approach to conveying espionage history is clear, concise, entertaining, and remarkably well written. All books are based on sound research and his readers will welcome his latest effort PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE: AN EPIC STORY OF SURVIVAL AND ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ, THE NAZIS FORTRESS PRISON.
As in all of his books. PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE tackles subject matter with gusto and goes beyond the conventional story that may have been told before. In his latest effort he breathes new life into one of the greatest war stories ever told as over a period of four years allied prisoners tried to escape the impregnable Nazi fortress. Macintyre traces the evolution of World War II from within the prison to the point of liberation when inmates feared their rescue would not come quickly enough to save them. As described by the author, the prisoners were an amalgam of self-identified “communists, scientists, homosexuals, women, aesthetes and philistines, aristocrats, spies, workers, poets, and traitors” who created their own replica of pre-war society and culture within the prison as a means of survival.
There are two components that dominate Macintyre’s monograph; the replica of the British social class structure that dominated prison life, and the integration of an eclectic and diverse group of prisoners whether British, Dutch, French, Polish, or American. There are other themes that the author introduces that include the Nazi leadership that ran Colditz, the ebbs and flows of the war which prisoners were able to keep up with by building a surreptitious radio, the planning of escapes and what happened to the escapees, the plight of Prominente – a group of influential and famous prisoners whom the Nazis sought to maximize a return, and how Berlin reacted to what was occurring in the prison.
Running through the heart of Colditz ran a wide and almost unbridgeable social class divide. This was a camp for captured officers, but it also consisted of a fluctuating population of orderlies, and prisoners of other ranks who performed menial tasks for the Germans, but also served as personal servants for officers. Only officers were allowed to take part in escape attempts and orderlies were not expected to assist them. No orderly tried to escape because if caught the consequences could be devastating. If an officer was caught he was returned to the prison usually unharmed. There was a working class of soldiers and orderlies, and an upper class of officers, reflecting the class structure of the time.
The officers had a British “boarding school mentality.” They tried to recreate the traditions of Eton and other private schools coopting behaviors such as bullying, enslaving individuals on the lower rung of society, “goon-baiting” of Germans, and diverse types of entertainment. Those who did not attend a boarding school were rarely included.
Macintyre describes the prison infrastructure that the prisoners studied assiduously to determine weak points and when they might escape. For most prisoners escaping became their life’s work and interestingly the different nationalities kept a score card highlighting successful escapes. The food was abysmal, but edible and it was offset by Red Cross packages of food, clothing, toiletries and other important items. Many packages contained objects hidden in food and other articles that might assist an escape. Prisoners cooperated in digging tunnels, one of which was known as Le Metro dug mostly by the French, performing logistics, obtaining and making tools, and often attempted an escape that involved substantial number of men. On the other hand, there were prisoners who worked alone and wanted no part of being in a group. The prisoners created numerous committees to regulate prisoner life and tried to produce a sense of normality. One in particular was most important – if a prisoner wanted to try to escape he needed the approval of an Escape Committee headed by the highest ranking officers.
Macintyre’s attention to detail is a strength of the book. He delves into strategies developed and objects needed, i.e.; the “arse keeper,” a cylinder to hide money, small tools and other objects in one’s anatomy was most creative. The prisoners were geniuses in developing tactics to confuse their captors, and instruments that were used to make their escape attempts possible, a including a glider that was completely built, but never used.. The author also includes how prisoners tried to keep themselves sane by developing their own entertainment. They set up theater performances, choirs, concerts, bands, jazz ensembles, plays etc. Sanity was a major issue and for those who remained at Colditz for years PTSD was definitely an issue.
The characters Macintyre describes are a diverse and fascinating group. The following stand out. Alain Le Ray, a French Lieutenant in an elite mountain infantry force, and a self-contained individual who planned and tried to execute numerous escapes. Captain Pat Reid, a gregarious member of the British Royal Service Corps who shared his plans and was involved in many escape attempts. Joseph Ellison Platt, a self-righteous Methodist preacher tried, and usually failed to keep prisoners on the straight and narrow. Airey Neave, wounded at Calais used planning escapes as a tool to ease his depression. He would finally escape and work for MI9 to assist other prisoners. Birendranath Mazumdar, an Indian doctor and an officer who was treated poorly by his British “allies” reflecting the racist attitudes of British officers. He turned down working for the Germans but was still a victim of his compatriots. Giles Romilly, a nephew by marriage of Winston Churchill, was journalist and communist captured in Norway. Christopher Layton Hutton designed and developed numerous escape kits and other inventions for prisoners. Michael Sinclair escaped from Poland who was obsessed with escaping and reuniting with the Anglo-Polish Society, a secret resistance network – he would make seven escape attempts dying on the last one.. Julius Green, a Jewish dentist from Glasgow developed the most prolific code-letter system and treated Nazi patients who disclosed valuable information that he was able to forward to the right authorities. Checko Chalovpka, a Czech pilot whose affair with Irmgard Wernicke, a dental assistant in town who a spy who fed information provoked awe. Walter Purdy, a British supporter of Oswald Mosley turned against his fellow prisoners and made radio speeches condemning the allies – his fellow prisoners wanted to lynch him. Wing Commander Douglas Bader, a double amputee fighter pilot who was held in high esteem by most prisoners. Lee Carson, a beautiful and fearless journalist who traveled with American troops, who was known as the “Rhine Maiden.” There are also important Nazi figures highlighted by Lt. Reinhold Eggers, the Supreme Security Chief at Colditz who tried to be fair to the prisoners and was often overruled. Eggers is extremely important in that he maintained a written history of the camp that Macintyre had access to. Eggers appears almost as a background narrator of the story presenting his battle with prisoners and the thinking of the German occupiers.
The turning point for prisoners came after D-Day. As long as the German Army was in charge of the camp treatment was palatable. However, as the war turned after D-Day and the July 1944 Plot that failed to assassinate Hitler more and more the SS and the Gestapo under Heinrich Himmler took over the camp. Escapees were warned, if you were captured you would be shot, not just returned to the barracks as before.
I agree with Andrea Pitzer’s September 29, 2022, Washington Post review as she writes, “Macintyre tells the story of the POW camp that had more escape attempts than any other during World War II. He parades a brigade of officers, some of whom have since been lionized or found postwar fame through film, television and multiple books. Ultimately, Macintyre offers a more complete and complex account than is typical in popular histories from the Nazi era. Read in that light, this is less a fairy tale than an honest account of heroic but fallible men in captivity, made more compelling through the acknowledgment of their flaws and failures.”
The strength of the book lies with Macintyre’s unique ability to weave a story involving so many different characters, not allowing individuals to get in the way of his material. Macintyre writes as if he is aware that his story is not a literary one, but a recounting the stories of many important men and stitching together their experiences from the disparate historical record.