It is rare that one gets the chance to write a light-hearted piece on WWII, doubly so when the subject involves prison camps. That is, however, precisely what I am able to do here.
The setting is the 11th century Colditz Castle located near the town of Leipzig, Dresden. Between 1940 and its liberation in 1945, it was used by the Nazis to keep thousands of troublesome, incorrigible prisoners of war who had often escaped from other camps previously under lock and key. They were placed in this formidable and imposing building because it was believed to be ‘unescapable’ due to it being situated high above the River Mulde on treacherously rocky terrain.
Not your typical setting for our light-hearted read then, but that makes this story all the more sweeter.
The winter of 1940 saw 30 British soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Airey Neave, imprisoned within the castle walls. After attempting to escape on numerous occasions, specialist Colditz historian Michael Booker, writes that they decided their best chance of absconding was by digging a tunnel.
It took a huge amount of effort – nine months of digging away – but they did it. Or so they thought… Instead of the tunnel finishing outside of the castle walls like they had planned, it turns out they read the compass incorrectly and ended up in the castle’s wine cellar which belonged to the then presiding commander, colonel Gerhard Prawitt.
Fairly obvious what happens next, isn’t it? Yep, the thirty soldiers got royally drunk. According to Booker, 137 bottles of wine were drank, meaning each soldier drank four and a half bottles each! But now for the best bit… Us Brits are known for our sense of humour, which is usually an acquired taste. This story is literally proof of this because the soldiers then proceeded to urinate in all of the empty bottles and place them back on the racks before escaping blame and suspicion by returning to their cells .
Making the story even better is the fact that Lt. Neave actually became one of the few people to escape Colditz on January 5th, 1942. He did this by stealing a German uniform and climbing through a secret attic passageway that the prisoners had found. He simply walked confidently across the grounds of the castle, and made his way to the Swiss border in civilian clothes. He became the first British officer to successfully escape the infamous Colditz Castle.
*This story was confirmed by Gerhard Prawitt’s widow Elisabeth Prawitt in 1974.
Booker, Michael: Collecting Colditz and Its Secrets.