Ben Macintyre is Back with a Monumental War Tale
The star of his story is Colditz Castle, the Nazis’ 500-year-old fortress prison
Ben Macintyre, one of the great contemporary chroniclers of World War II spydom, has now turned his focus to the heroic days of escape and evasion at Colditz Castle, the imposing but surprisingly penetrable fortress that became one of the most folkloric Nazi prisons during World War II.
Macintyre specializes in revisiting and recasting stories once told, employing exhaustive research and impartial analysis, breathing new life and reality into his stories. His splendid work in the espionage sphere has drawn raves for years. One recent book, Operation Mincemeat, for example, updated and corrected the story of The Man Who Never Was, a successful British ploy that floated fake intel documents into the hands of the Nazis on a corpse dressed as a British officer.
In Macintyre’s hands, fact is limned from fiction. So, too, with Prisoners of the Castle. Readers may already have heard or read about Colditz. Escapes from it have been featured in books, movies and TV series for decades. There are many accounts from survivors of Colditz, as well as taped oral histories, along with several memoirs written by former Nazi guards. As always, McIntyre culls and sorts the varied versions and compares them with recently declassified material at the British National Archives. The result is a fine synthesis of the most complete renderings of what happened at Colditz through those war years.
Above all, Prisoners of the Castle is a tribute to the spirit of the men who lived and survived in Colditz, so many of whom never gave up their attempts to escape. As Macintyre points out, escaping was neither a duty nor expected of prisoners of war. But many of the men were fixated on getting back into battle and felt a compulsion to break out.
They clawed at walls, fashioned improbable tools, dropped from clock towers, dug a tunnel out dubbed “Le Métro,” disguised themselves as German officers by creating meticulously faked uniforms, phony mustaches and forged documents. They were smuggled out in sacks, hurled themselves into the river, went missing when they were allowed to walk beyond the gates. The prisoners of Colditz were even working on a full-scale glider in which they thought they could float away from the ramparts. It’s exhausting just to survey all their schemes.
Surprisingly, the German officer tasked with preventing escapes, Leutnant Reinhold Eggers, treated the prisoners with respect, even good humor, at the notion that they could manage to get away, even when his cat-and-mouse techniques led them to be recaptured.
Escaping the confines of Colditz (a “home run,” the prisoners called it) by no means guaranteed safety once outside the castle walls. Colditz was relatively close to the borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia, but both had been absorbed into Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Escape meant a 400-mile trip south to Switzerland under threat of capture, mortal exhaustion, and death.
Yet some did make it.
One of the most famous was Airey Neave, an Eton- and Oxford-educated soldier who barely survived after being wounded during the battle of Calais in May 1940. Captured and recovered from a chest wound, Neave was transferred to Colditz after he was caught trying to escape a prison in Poland.
Neave wasn’t daunted. He fashioned a German army uniform “with green collars made from baize, badges, buttons painted gray, buckles from melted lead piping, epaulettes fashioned from linoleum cut out of the bathroom floor, and belts and pistol holsters of polished cardboard.” After that he broke into an interrogation room and used a typewriter and scraps to manufacture a passport and travel papers that identified him as a Dutch immigrant worker authorized to cross borders.
That was marvelous enough, but Neave then made his escape by slipping through floorboards in the Colditz prison theater after a performance. Neave and a fellow prisoner took trains to Leipzig and beyond, skirted suspicious Germans, and made it to Switzerland in less than four days, exhausted but actually dancing their way through the snow. Once back in England, the well born Neave became a prominent leader at MI9, the secretive branch that helped thousands of Allied military personnel escape and evade capture behind enemy lines. Alas, his own luck ran out in 1979, when, serving as Margaret Thatcher’s Shadow Secretary of State, Neave was assassinated in a car bomb attack by the Irish Republican Army.
If Neave’s story sounds worthy of a separate book, it is—and it’s been done. Many others who appear in Prisoners of the Castle also deserve extensive treatment. Macintyre, however, has set out to write an encyclopedic reference of all things Colditz Castle during World War II. The author describes the ancient prison’s social environment, music, art, writing, and the strange reality that captured officers were allowed to have orderlies—enlisted men who were hardly more than indentured servants. Macintyre also digs down into the human nature of both captors and captives with skill. He makes a point of facing the reality of homosexuality among men confined to themselves for so long, and he does so respectfully.
Each of the stories is a jewel unto itself, but so many are piled into this single volume that a reader’s eyes can be taxed. No one character rises to the level of the protagonist in a discreet storyline from beginning to end. At one moment it’s British Captain Pat Reid, an early internee voted chief escapee officer, who went onto a career at MI6 and wrote his own book about Colditz. Then there’s Lt. Michael Sinclair of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who appears at the opening of the book in an excellent disguise as a German officer. Perhaps even Lieutenant Eggers, the German chief of security, could carry the story (but of course that would not do).
No, Macintyre appears to have decided to make Colditz Castle itself the star of the story, in which the narrative thread is the chronology of myriad escape attempts. His attempt is exhaustive and, like many an escape plan, does not always work. Still, we revel in the victories and the survival of so many. And in the end, Macintyre strengthens our faith in the human spirit to survive, even in the darkest of times.
Former award winning Washington Post, Newsday and A.P. reporter and editor Peter Eisner is the author of a series of nonfiction World War Two books, most recently MacArthur’s Spies, The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II.
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A building can be the star of a complex tale -- why not? It seems that Colditz in its inimitable ways deserves the billing in this book, and also in this excellent review!
From Michael J. Birkner, Professor of History, Gettysburg College:
Reading this post from SpyTalk reminds me of a moment in time going back 27 years. It was the fall of 1995 and I was teaching that term at the University of Essex in Wivenhoe, England. I used to troll the stacks in the university library, and one day when rather aimlessly looking at titles I came across Airey Neave’s book, They Have Their Exits. I sat down expecting to read a page or two but simply could not put it down. It is one of the most gripping books I have ever read – rather in the vein of your work on The Freedom Line and MacArthur’s Spies. Neave managed, as Macintyre notes, to escape Colditz after several abortive tries. How he did it and how he told the story is just remarkable.
The great irony, if you will, of Neave’s life is that after WWII he became active in Tory politics, was an MP and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who named him her representative in Northern Ireland. The IRA assassinated him in the early 1980s. What the Nazis failed to do, the IRA accomplished.