A tale of World War II that dares to charm and that reveals the humanity of its heroes

In 1943, French prisoners of war released a rat wearing a small umbrella from a fourth-floor window in Colditz, an old castle towering over the Molde River in Germany. The liberation of the miniature paratrooper reflects the boredom of the men in captivity – but also their aspirations. Many of those held in the castle were obsessed with planning their flights to freedom, planning and executing escape attempts that ranged from the inspired to the impossible.

“Only in fairy tales do people escape from prison,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his novel “A Call to Beheading.” and portions of Ben McIntyre’s latest book, “Castle Prisoners: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazi Castle PrisonAnd theRead like a fairy tale.

MacIntyre tells the story of a prisoner of war camp that experienced more escapes than any other camp during World War II. It reviews a battalion of officers, some of whom have since been honored or found post-war fame through films, television, and numerous books. In the end, Macintyre provides a more complete and complex account than is usual in popular history from the Nazi era. Read in this light, this is not so much a fictional story as it is an honest account of fallible heroic men in captivity, made more persuasive by admitting their flaws and failures.

For six years, Colditz served as an officer’s camp deutschfeindlich, a word that provokes deep hostility against Germany. In the case of the Colditz prisoners, deutschfeindlich They referred to officers who did not openly respect their captors or were inclined to run away. Despite these tendencies, during the years when the Wehrmacht jailers at Colditz still respected the Geneva Conventions, the men were largely insulated from the brutal treatment that was inflicted elsewhere by the Gestapo or the SS. They put ballet in tow and gave concerts. But all along, many of them remained fervent in their desire to leave Colditz and return to the battlefield. Dozens tried to escape.

These stories of escape form the heart of McIntyre’s tale, as are the consequences of each attempt. The British were disappointed to learn that the French battalion had defeated them at the gates to score the first success, and felt compelled to hone their game. The prisoners were trying to dig more than 20 tunnels in total, and at times, competing projects interfered with each other. An international prisoner committee emerged to determine who would be allowed to escape, as well as how and when.

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But MacIntyre also dwells on the details of the lives of those who have remained confined to the walls of Colditz. In a small room below the attic sat a radio room complete with desks, where the detainees watched the BBC at night. Britain’s MI9 succeeded in providing German maps, compasses, money, and fabric for fake Wehrmacht uniforms, all smuggled via parcels of blankets, gramophone drums, chess pieces or food tins. The locks were picked up, the guards (whom the prisoners called “fools”) were bribed – not always with success.

Much of MacIntyre’s timeline is revealed through records kept by a German officer present throughout Colditz’s tenure as a camp. This warden appears almost as a storyteller in the background, observing and sometimes outsmarting the prisoners, while documenting the history of escape attempts in a physical museum he created in the castle that grew after the discovery of each new scheme.

castle prisonersIt sometimes reads like “One Thousand and One Nights” Meets Groundhog Day, with perpetual baroque attempts to break out of the same boring trap. But Colditz’s nearby whim has taken more than a somber turn, and in recounting those darker developments, Prisoners of the Castle works to undo some of the conventions of World War II escape stories.

The book’s introduction begins with a gentle irony of the Colditz legend, which locates “the mustaches of all the detainees clenched tightly to the lips of a shriveled Alia.” In what follows, McIntyre occasionally catches them in moments of pain, loss, and even decline. A Belgian’s deliberate failure to salute a German officer led to a court-martial and a death sentence that was later commuted. The recaptured prisoners gained time in solitary confinement for their attempts to escape, which sometimes destroyed their sanity.

Later in the war, the dangers became more existential. As Germany’s military fortunes declined, other elements of the Third Reich took an interest in Colditz’s most prominent detainees. The castle turned from an officers’ club into a stable for hostages that the worst Nazis hoped to use to extort clemency for themselves or to avenge their losses.

With so many escaped prisoners to cover, McIntyre keeps things moving and doesn’t get in the way of his materials. He seems aware that this is not a story of literary flourishing, but a story whose power lies in piecing together voices from disparate historical records.

We have a lot of action, from the little Scotsman sneaking inside an old mattress to the glider built entirely inside the castle attic with a plan to launch it from the roof. But we also hear directly from the rank-and-file, who survived on foot to the then-neutral US Consulate in Vienna in May 1941, where an official refused to help in any way, saying, “They’ll take you at the end. They always do.”

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McIntyre has already made a name for himself with WWII history such as “Operation Mincemeat” and “Double Cross”, as well as BBC documentaries. He knows how to put together sensational detail and isn’t shy about sharing the worst things his imprisoned heroes have done, including the degree to which the Colditz prisoners have replicated the most horrific aspects of their communities – from exclusionary and classist social clubs to virulent racism.

Even the most famous detainees are presented as complex people. Wing commander Douglas Bader was ranked as the greatest prison war hero and upon his arrival he was greeted by German guards. He was a double amputee, who had tin legs and a tendency to make the lives of his subordinates (and the lives of others) miserable.

Mickey Byrne, another combat hero with a completely different personality, was a bisexual who veered from an early love affair with the Nazis to converting to communism. His luxurious background earned him admission to the Colditz Bullingdon Club, an elite dining club-style organization at Oxford University. But he quickly stirred up the nerves of its members with his enthusiastic lectures on Marxism. In a letter to his parents from captivity, Byrne wrote, “I now live in a castle, as most of the best people do at this time of year.”

Some pictures are particularly moving. We learn about the camp’s dentist, a Scotsman who hid his Jewish identity and worked as an intelligence agent, sending encrypted secrets from Colditz to London. We witness an Indian doctor – cruelly ostracized by his British peers – plot his radical escape from Colditz.

With dozens of characters, Prisoners of the Castle risks turning into a small bag of vignettes. However, each take is memorable enough that readers are not likely to get lost. There is a treasure trove of detail matrix on the page. Macintyre integrates so many different narratives so seamlessly that their assembly creates something more profound than simple escape threads: an autobiography of the prison itself and the world in which the detainees are built.

An epic story of survival and escape from Colditz, the Nazi castle prison

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