Since I was a kid, The Great Escape featuring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, and Richard Attenborough (in the role of the legendary Roger Bartlett – the legendary Roger Bushell in real life) has been one of my favorite movies. In 2015, when I lived in Poland, I visited the Stalag Luft III Prisoner Camp Museum in Zagan – 5 hours west of Warsaw. That memorable visit was a real pilgrimage in the footsteps of those gallant men who refused to remain behind German barbed wired.
I was therefore overjoyed to read bestselling author Ben Macintyre’s book Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison (Signal).
I often say that Ben Macintyre would find a way of making the history of the can of Coke enthralling. His book Rogue Heroes features among my very favorites. I, therefore, did not doubt that I was in for quite a treat when I opened Prisoners of the Castle. Even those high expectations were surpassed because the author brings the reader to a new understanding of the war experience.
Regarding the men sent to the infamous castle because of their indocility towards Germany, he writes that “laying down their lives for King and Country was one thing; risking, and losing, their liberty was quite another, and most were entirely unprepared for captivity.”
Unprepared as they were for that predicament, the prisoners were nevertheless determined to remain unbowed, refusing to grant the respect Germans were expecting. To that end, “the high windows above the courtyard offered opportunities for throwing things at the guards and then ducking back inside without being spotted: water bombs, snowballs, burning newspapers, and occasionally packets of excrement.” You can easily imagine the ambiance.
Despite the “indomitable human spirit” shown by many – mainly those who tried to escape, some of whom died along the way, while others succeeded – one can only sympathize with the tremendous psychological toll taken by years of captivity, lack of purpose, class divisions which were a carbon copy of British prejudices at the time and sometimes blatant intolerance.
About the latter, the case of distinguished surgeon Birendranath Mazumdar who served in the British Army, was scandalous. Because of his Indian origin, he was scorned by most of the British prisoners, some even accusing him of being a spy. Mazumdar refused an offer to serve “radical nationalist” Subhas Chandra Bose, who was aligned with the Nazis. Had he done so, the shackles of imprisonment would have been gone. “No other prisoner had made a choice to remain locked in Colditz” but loyalty to the Union Jack was to be repaid with further isolation, distance, and hostility towards him. Birendranath Mazumdar was shamefully treated and reading about it is simply revolting. Fortunately, we can rely on Ben Macintyre’s book to make us aware that, even as POWs, not everyone was equal.
The other prisoner that grabbed my attention was Julius Green, a Jewish dentist from Glasgow. Bon vivant, he was “extremely fond” of food and one of the funniest passages of the book is when the author precises that “at night he dreamed of bread-and-butter pudding with custard.” Amusing as it can be for the reader, the quote nevertheless evokes the reality that food was also a challenge for the prisoners, even more so as German fortunes declined in the last months of the war. Green “extracted teeth and information”, the latter being advantageous to the MI9 – whose mission was to assist POWs and help Allied military personnel evade capture behind enemy lines. The fact that he was Jewish was either unknown or ignored by the authorities of the camp.
Many other characters in the book would deserve a special mention here. I notably think about the legendary Airey Neave, who escaped and joined the MI9, before entering politics and being one of the architects of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to the Premiership in 1979 – a little more than a month after the IRA assassinated him in the House of Commons parking lot. And who could forget the incomparable Czech fighter pilot Čeněk Chaloupka who “deliberately chipped a tooth” to ensure he could see the pretty assistant of the town dentist with whom he fell in love? And the memorable Pierre Marie Jean-Baptiste Mairesse-Lebrun, the French cavalry officer who “had made his civilian suit out of an expensive pair of flannel pajamas sent from Paris. His cravat was Givenchy.”
But I’ll stop there because I believe you should read this captivating book.
Despite the notable exception of a young British naval officer who became a German spy among the Colditz prisoners, all the characters brought to life under the author’s pen embody the indomitable will that kept most of them sane during these fateful years behind the walls. Their worst enemy was no longer on the battlefield but in the absence of the possibility of being engaged there. If I could talk with the author, I would like to know if he thinks the predicament of the POWs was worse than the one reserved to those who were bearing arms. But that’s another story.
I remember reading somewhere that the war was over for those who became POWs. That was not the case, and Prisoners of the Castle is an excellent antidote to that fallacy. These men won the war by being indomitable. Their actions are no less memorable than those executed during legendary battles and operations that come to mind when one thinks about World War II.
We can only be grateful to Ben Macintyre for bringing their story to life in a book destined to become an absolute classic like The Great Escape. One of the best books I’ve read in the last year.
Ben Macintyre, Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison, Toronto, Signal (Penguin Random House Canada), 2022, 368 pages.
I want to thank Megan Costa of Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of the book and Christine Johnston of Penguin Random House for her precious and much-appreciated assistance.