The “Colditz Cock” and the World War II Prisoners…..

In the early part of WWII, the Germans were able to identify prisoner of war captives that were high security or escape risks and devised for them a fortified prison. They used an 11th century castle built in a small town named Colditz. Colditz was situated in Eastern Germany 12 miles from Leipzig near the Czechoslovakian border.

In 1046 Henry III, of the Holy Roman Empire gave the burghers permission to build a documented settlement. By 1083 Henry the IV gave Margrave Wiprecht of Groitzsch the encouragement to build the castle. (1) The castle sat high above the River Mulde on a rocky hillside so the Germans believed it would be hard to escape from, making it a secure prison.  It was known as Oflag IV-C, but most called it Colditz Prison.

From 1939 it housed captured Polish officers, and by 1940 it has some 500 soldiers; Polish, French, Dutch and British.  The castle itself was formidable. It had high outer walls that dropped 30 feet to a terrace garden that sat on another wall. The rocks below and the swift moving river meant it was virtually inescapable. If that were not enough, they were guarded by 300 guards. The castle had 18 towers equipped with machine guns, sentries that walked between the towers, men in the yard, and intelligence officers amongst the men they called “feds”. At night the prison was flooded with light enabling the guards to see any attempt at escape.

The POW’s were challenged by the fact the castle seemed so intimidating. There was actually a committee that plotted ways of escaping, it provided them with enthusiasm and hope. They planned strategy, first it was how to escape. Then they would need to blend in with the German population so they could make their way out. This was made more difficult as you needed documentation in the form of “papers” to travel anywhere in Germany. They bribed guards and newly captured prisoners for more information to strengthen their chances. They became so adept at forging the documents, they looked like the real thing. The prisoners also attempted to tunnel out with the iron from their bed frames, so the guards replaced them with wooden framed beds.

Prisoners Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch found a book in the prison library called “Aircraft Designs”.  They headed up a project and in the attic of Colditz castle they built a glider. They mathematically calculated would glide across the river to freedom. Best and Goldfinch also created a false wall in the attic to hide the glider. There were lookouts and an electric alarm system to warn the builders when the guards were near.  The glider was called the “Colditz Cock”. It was made from bed sheets and wooden bed frames, even the tools were handmade.

Colditzglider

Before it was ever to be used, a prisoner of war camp called Stalag Luft III in Poland was the site of “The Great Escape”.  British Squadron leader Roger Bushell RAF organized a plan in 1943 that would get many prisoners out.  The POW’s plan was one of mass escape, grandiose to say the least.  They dug multiple tunnels 9 feet underground.  They were to exit through the tunnels, 200 of them. 600 POW’s participated in the project, though they all could not go. They figured if the Germans found one tunnel it would not occur to them there were more, so they considered that their fail safe. With a lot of difficulties only 76 were able to escape, and only 3 stayed on the outside, the rest were re-captured. To make an example of them the Germans shot 50 of the prisoners recaptured, including Bushell.

After the failure of “The Great Escape”, the Colditz Cock idea was shelved. The allies were making their way through Europe, liberating towns as they went. They were slowly moving toward Colditz. The last bit of the war was more frightening for the prisoners. After it was clear Germany was collapsing other fanatic SS groups came in. The prisoners refused to March east, and the SS soldiers threatened to kill them.

April 1945, US troops finally liberated the City of Colditz. They were about to demolish the castle when they saw a Union Jack flag waving in a window. The US commander asked a child, “Who is in the castle?” He told the commander it was prison for British and French officers.  The American troops freed the Colditz castle prisoners and the “Colditz Cock” was never utilized. After the war, Colditz was part of East Germany behind the Berlin wall. It was 50 years before the prisoners of Colditz Castle would be able to see the formidable prison again. In 1989, the Berlin wall came down with that famous statement of President Ronald Reagan, “Mister Gorbachev tear down that wall.” The rest is as you say history….

As a footnote to the story, in 1963 Hollywood made a movie of “The Great Escape” starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough. Also in 2000, British Public Service channel 4 made a life size replica of the Colditz Cock, it was flown successfully with Best, Goldfinch and about a dozen others that worked on the glider looking on. Jack Best died later that year.

  1. Baybutt, Ron; Lange, Johannes (1982).Colditz: The Great Escapes. Little, Brown. p. 8. ISBN 0316083941
  1. Baybutt, Ron, and Johannes Lange. Colditz: The Great Escapes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982. ISBN 0316083941
  1. World War II Home Run from Colditz 4, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGUonHvlPJY
  1. Reid, Patrick. Colditz: The Full Story. New York: St. Martin’s, 1984. ISBN 0-312-00578-4 pp. 124, 259–263
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