In 1939, the German military authorities designated Colditz Castle, near Leipzig, as a prisoner-of-war camp for “special prisoners,” meaning, in particular, Allied officers who had escaped from other camps. Ironically, Colditz now owes its fame primarily to the frequency and apparent ease with which hundreds of men escaped during the five years it functioned as a prison. The author, who has written two previous books on the subject, himself made his way to freedom in 1942. Apparently, though, escaping was one thing; staying free was another. An appendix cataloguing “successful” and “unsuccessful” escapes by the prisoners, usefully broken down into national categories, indicates that only a few dozen stayed free while hundreds were recaptured.
If not quite a game--the prisoners’ escapades and the guards’ ineptitude sound more like HOGAN’S HEROES than like STALAG 17--the escapes seem nevertheless to have followed a pattern of established rules and precedents. One harried commandant is said to have greeted a group of recaptured prisoners upon their return with the complaint that he was not running a hotel, where guests could arrive and leave at their convenience.
In Japanese POW camps, torture and execution were the normal consequence of failed escape attempts. Why were the Germans relatively lenient? In part, the answer lies in the assumption shared by the Allies and the Germans that it was an officer’s duty to attempt to escape. Also significant was the separation of officers from enlisted men. At other POW camps, soldiers were used as common laborers by the Germans. Most were too tired, too young, and too inexperienced to be very successful in escape attempts. By the terms of the Geneva Convention, which the Germans did observe, officers at Colditz and elsewhere were not permitted to be used as laborers. Separated from their men, with nothing but time on their hands, and sworn to try to escape, they did their considerable best. The personalities of those involved, their ingenuity, and their daring remain vivid through this account.