Colditz


We walk up to the castle to take the official tour. We walk through those famous gates, pay our 16 and join the group of about 6-8 others for the English speaking tour. This tour is conducted by a pleasant looking woman who either spent the night before doing some hard weeping or was recovering from a nasty bout of conjunctivitis, judging from her red, sore looking eyes. Her manner suggested the latter as she was both professional and pleasant.

The tour was illuminating and interesting, but a bit odd. The guide began by taking us into the outer courtyard, the old German quarters. Now there's the thing. Despite hundreds of years of history, Colditz castle is now always defined by what happened there between 1939 and 1945 - a definition not just for the English like us but it seems also for the Germans now. This is something that crops up again and again on the tour.

Anyhow, there we are in the courtyard and its a riot of noise and scaffolding. Smack in the middle of the yard is a 1960s brick built single storey block and round it are piles of building materials. The old Officer's quarters are being turned into flats. It seems that the castle has been taken over by the regional cultural commission type thing. That's fine and dandy except that this organisation has no money to look after the place and so these flats are being created and sold (or rented out) to cover the costs of maintaining the rest. There's quite an active local preservation society, of which our guide is effectively a representative, and I couldn't quite gauge her feelings on the matter. Resigned pragmatism was my impression but that might be just the German way. I'm not sure.

Given that local Government is undoubtedly strapped for cash, I think its an inventive way to raise the cash to preserve the rest of the place. A bit too intrusive on the building, but a lot better than letting it moulder. The only concern I have is that the rewards of this might go to the general coffers and not end up being spent on preserving the rest of the building. Anyhow, regardless of that, looking only at the desirability of the flats, I'd have one. Great area to live and not too hard to get to for weekends and so on. If only I could afford to retire...!

And so we walk into the second part of the castle, going towards the area where the prisoners used to be, up the walled road that is so familiar from 1970s TV to the entrance to the main castle. This is where the tour takes its turn toward the 1940s. The guide says something like "this castle was built in 1543 and that window was where Pat Reid..."

Its very interesting stuff and, of course, a major reason for coming here but in this case I'd rather like to know about the period between the castle being built and Douglas Bader dropping in, Did you know this place was the centre of regional government when a Bavarian prince lived here? Did you know it was a psychiatric hospital from around the end of the 19th Century until it became a prison camp? But we didn't get much more about that history. Mind you, the WWII stuff is fascinating in its own right.

The guide chatted us through things like the whispering gate (its fluted and if you put your ear to one channel you can perfectly hear Jerry whispering 'bog off' on the other side) and talked briefly about the old Prisoner's entrance - which is to the left and the original way in for, obviously, the prisoners.

We then entered the courtyard, the exercise yard as it was then. There were 400 prisoners here, most of whom were neither English nor American but were instead Polish and French. It a small space for 400 people, very small.

We go down into the cellars to look at part of a tunnel made by French prisoners that the Germans found just before it was finished. The tunnel was mainly dug through solid rock, amazing enough in itself, but there are diagrams showing the route it took and it winds all over the place!

For me the part of the tour that affected me most was the tiny chapel. Despite the grand entrance, this is a curiously claustrophobic place with a now semi-derelict 3 storey gallery running round three walls and a very obvious pulpit. All along the back wall the wooden floor has been taken up showing where the well lit French tunnel entered the underfloor space in one corner, the crawlway cut through the joists across to the far corner where the tunnel began again. This was how their tunnel was discovered, as they cut too much away from the joists and the chapel floor collapsed.

There are other interesting, and moving, things in the chapel. On the galley to the rear of the room is a painted panel. This is the war memorial painted in 1919 by the patients here, in memory of the staff that had fallen in the Great War. I found that very moving and the guide explained that it was one of the reasons the restoration of the very unusual but very damaged gallery system is still being considered. On the other side of the room is a little roped off area containing a can and two searchlights. One is a real searchlight used at Colditz during the war; the other is a nearly but not quite identical fake left here by a British TV company, presumably the BBC, after filming took place here in the early 60s. The can contains 60 year old marmite. I idly wonder if the taste has changed over the years. The can's open, I could just take a quick dab and see... but no, not even I am that crass. Its a historical wossname after all.

We take a walk through other parts of the ground floor of the main castle and some outside balconies. One terrace allowed us to see where the famous glider would have flown from and landed (if they were damn lucky). Another area, ground floor prisoner accommodation, has been converted into a display area talking about the history of the Polish in particular that were imprisoned there. It didn't make easy reading in places. More accommodation had been set up with original (or copies of original) furniture to show the Special Prisoners conditions. These were people like Churchill's nephew, who was here for some years. Their quarters were spartan to say the least. For ordinary prisoners things must have been very cramped. I can't be sure because the tour didn't include any general prisoner accommodation, or indeed any other floors. Perhaps those floors aren't safe - or are in other use?

As we walked round, Jerry remembers having had a Colditz board game when he was a lad. The last stop on the tour is a museum and there on display is a copy of the very game!

The museum isn't large but it is most interesting, including a scale model of the famous glider (the original having been dismantled by the prisoners when they decided not to use it) and a section of the roof of all things. In 1993, part of the roof had needed repairs and when the workmen removed some tiles they found a secret radio installation, complete with light, chair and desk, although the radio set itself was missing. It is believed that one of the prisoners was allowed to return to visit after the war (as some were) and they retrieved the radio set then - no doubt as a souvenir.The fact that this hiding place was really quite sophisticated and that it remained hidden for so very long is a testament to the ingenuity of the captives.

And so we leave the castle, take some last pictures and go back into the village for lunch.

Index