Back in the good old days, it was usual practice at the end of a documentary series to throw all the painstakingly gathered source material into a skip and say goodbye. Keeping reams of interviews was bulky, expensive, and frankly who cared? All that mattered was the final film. That might have happened to the Escape From Colditz series had not some of the interviewees died before the programmes even came out, impressing on everyone that they had some historical importance. Also, the series made a big splash when it aired and went on to be shown around the world. Evidently there was an appetite for tales of derring-do involving ingenious low-fi technology. All this convinced Hodder Headline that the Colditz material could become a book, but as the series had already been broadcast they wanted something more substantial than a book of the series. A proper history book, in other words. Something definitive. With footnotes.
Luckily, I knew I could easily expand on what I already had. Because of the way tv works, a series of interviews had been gathered ten years earlier when the project was with the BBC before they pulled the plug on it. Also, there were more interviews with veterans speaking German, French, Polish and Russian that had never made the final cut, mainly because they spoke their mother tongue and not English. Channel Four believed their viewers didn’t have much tolerance for that sort of thing. And finally, to be blunt, some of the greatest escapers were then in the twilight of their lives and did not make for great television. On paper however, their words were more than enough.
So with all this material I felt able to paint as complete a picture of the place, warts and all. And I felt it incumbent upon me to do so, as I was also the first person to write a book about Colditz without direct personal experience of it. Even so, I knew that with nothing more than oral testimony I’d inevitably miss something. I added this caveat to my prologue, and when the book was published I took some flak for that. Why call it definitive if it isn’t? Perhaps I was overly deferential to the Colditz experts who had spent their lives studying the escapes from the castle. Were it published again today I’m sure I wouldn’t bother to make the qualification. Time has passed, the castle is not an archaeological site, the veterans have gone, taking their secrets with them. For the general reader, this book is as definitive as it gets.
At the time we made this series (1998–9), Colditz Castle was still a gloomy and forbidding place. Most of its 700 rooms were empty and decrepit. After the war the castle had been used as a gulag for the local bourgeoise and that dark shadow hung over it still. Nevertheless, there was enough there for the old boys to get excited about when they returned for the first time.
“I spent twenty eight days in that cell!”
“This is the cellar where I changed into my homemade German uniform... ”
“I picked this lock with the skeleton key behind my back, like this…’’
The gleeful delight in their eyes as they relived their escapes expressed what I think is the enduring appeal of Colditz. It’s not yet another Second World War story: ultimately, its about escaping from a medieval castle, with nothing more than your wits and ingenuity. These men had both in bucketloads. They really did build a glider in secret in the attics. They really dug a ninety meter tunnel into the fabric of the castle then out beyond the rock foundations, with little more than spoons and forks. They had a clandestine escape industry that could fake almost anything- from a passport to a German uniform to a pile of leaves...the list is endless. Add to this the real and present danger of several hundred guards, rings of barbed wire, machine gun towers, then four hundred miles of hostile country to cross to the nearest safe border... If you’re caught you might be sent back. If you’re unlucky you could be executed. The high stakes only make the Colditz story even more interesting. And the fact is, its true.