With his waxed ginger handlebar moustache and mutton-chop beard, hardened veteran Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Gustav Rothenberger was an unmistakable figure at Colditz Castle, the grim, towering, medieval fortress in Nazi Germany that had been turned into a supposedly escape-proof prisoner-of-war camp.
A stickler for routine, every evening this martinet personally inspected the castle perimeter. The last stop on his rounds was always a narrow terrace carved out of the rock, the mighty castle wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other.
Guards with machine guns were posted every 30 ft along the walkway, which led to a barbed wire gate. On the other side lay parkland and woods. Two more sentries guarded the gate itself, one patrolling a raised metal catwalk with a clear line of fire across the terrace.
Shortly before midnight on a warm September night in 1943, Rothenberger, whiskers brushed, clipped and waxed to points, appeared on the terrace, accompanied by two soldiers with slung rifles. It was unusually late for him. The prisoners had been locked into their quarters two hours earlier, and Colditz was quiet.
He marched up smartly to the guards on the terrace and barked: ‘There is an attempted escape on the west side. Report to the guardhouse immediately.’ They saluted, clicked their heels and took off.
The two sentries manning the gate were equally surprised to see him. They were not due to go off duty for another two hours. ‘You’re relieved early,’ snapped the sergeant major, appearing to be particularly irritable tonight.
Some inmates read books or sought to improve or entertain themselves in other ways, including theatrical productions and concerts
But appearances can be deceptive. Because this was a fake Rothenberger. A close inspection of his facial hair would have revealed that it was made from dismantled shaving brushes, coloured ginger-grey with watercolour paints from the prison shop and attached with glue.
His uniform, like those of his escorts, was stitched out of prison blankets and dyed the correct shade of German field grey; the Iron Cross on his breast was made from zinc stripped off the castle roof and moulded into shape with a hot kitchen knife.
His headgear had been fashioned out of a peaked RAF cap using felt and string; his pistol holster was cardboard, shined up with brown boot polish, from which poked a piece of wood painted to look like the butt of a Walther P38 pistol.
The two soldiers in greatcoats carried dummy rifles with wooden barrels polished with pencil lead, bolts fashioned from bits of a steel bedstead and tin triggers formed from metal cutlery.
The impersonator’s name was Michael Sinclair, a 25-year-old British lieutenant. Fluent in German and a talented amateur actor, for four months he had studied the real Rothenberger’s gait, posture and accent, his routine, his mannerisms, the way he swore when angry.
As he stood talking to the sentries at the gate, high above the terrace, 35 more British officers in handmade civilian clothes waited in the darkness on the sixth floor of the castle, where the bars on the windows had already been sawn through.
Each carried a counterfeit travel pass, forged using a typewriter of wood and wire, a photograph taken with a camera made from a cigar box and spectacles, and authorised with the official German eagle stamp carved out of a shoe heel using a razor blade.
As they saw the first guard hurry off, one of them whispered: ‘It’s going to work!’ If it did, it would be the first mass breakout in Colditz history.
The plan was that, with the sentries out of the way, a first group of 20 would climb down on knotted bedsheets, Sinclair would unlock the gate to the park and they would all scramble down the slope into the nearby woods.
While some of those on stage were obviously men dressed as implausible women, others had gone to considerable lengths to achieve a simulacrum of femininity
Once in the trees, they would split into pairs and spread out into the countryside, before making for the Swiss border by a variety of prearranged routes. If the first batch got away, the rest would follow a few minutes later.
But at the gate, the one remaining sentry was hesitant. The fake Rothenberger was cursing him. ‘Are you daft? Don’t you know your own sergeant-major?’ But an order had recently been issued that everyone entering or leaving the castle, without exception, must produce an exit pass, with a different colour for each day.
The guard insisted on being shown a pass, which the reluctant ‘Rothenberg’ eventually produced. Dated, signed and stamped, this was a copy of a real pass obtained from a bribed German guard. It was a perfect duplicate. Except it was the wrong colour. It was supposed to be yellow and it was grey. The sentry stared at it for a moment, then back at the red-faced, moustachioed figure berating him. Then he slowly raised his rifle and sounded the alarm.
Another escape had been foiled but it had been a particularly brilliant, imaginative attempt, adding to the legend of Colditz that has stood unchanged and unchallenged for more than 70 years — heroic British officers in a Gothic castle on a German hilltop, tunnelling through the walls, hiding in the sewers, clinging to the undersides of lorries, ruse after ruse to defy the Nazis and escape.
Yet that tale contains only a part of the truth. Yes, the story of Colditz is one of the indomitable human spirit, but it is also one of bullying, boredom, insanity, tragedy and farce.
After the war, former inmates tended to portray the Colditz prisoner community as a classless, cohesive band of brothers whose shared determination to escape somehow flattened out the distinctions and dissonances that divided the world outside. Exactly the reverse was true.
Prisoner Michael Sinclair (left) impersonated Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Gustav Rothenberger (right) in a daring escape attempt from Colditz
‘The class structure in Colditz was like the class structure of the time,’ said one new arrival. ‘There was a working class, who were the soldiers, the orderlies who had to work. There was the middle class — officers from minor or major public schools — and then there was an upper class, which included Lords of the Realm.’
The ‘old school tie’ mentality not only persisted but was exacerbated in captivity, as the inmates sought to build a replica of the lives they had known before the war.
Beyond class, there were also divisions of military rank, service, nationality, seniority and the different ways a man might choose to pass the time.
Informal clubs such as the ‘House of Lords’ and the ‘Kindergarten’ began to form in the mess hall as men found their ‘tribe’ and stuck together. Eventually, Colditz even had its own ‘Bullingdon Club’, modelled on the all-male Oxford University private dining club that has since become a byword for elitist philistinism.
It was ‘mostly Old Etonians with the necessary “old school” and horsey characteristics,’ one member recalled. ‘We got on wonderfully well.’
One of the nastier traditions of the British public school was the ritual humiliation of ‘new bugs’ by older boys, and this too had its counterpart in Colditz.
On their first day, 16 naval officers were summoned to a bogus medical examination where an officer dressed in fake German uniform and posing as the camp doctor, complete with stethoscope, ordered them to drop their trousers before loudly declaring, in German, that they were all infested with venereal crabs.
A ‘medical assistant’ in a lab coat was barely able to contain his mirth as he daubed their testicles with a blue ‘woad’ made up of scenery paint and ‘high-smelling lavatory disinfectant’.
The story of Colditz is one of the indomitable human spirit, but it is also one of bullying, boredom, insanity, tragedy and farce
It was regarded as just having fun at the new boys’ expense — but it was straightforward bullying, a brutal assertion of power of the sort that English public schoolboys have always inflicted on one another.
That ethos was also present in the common Colditz practice of ‘goon-baiting’ — goading the German guards to a point just short of explosion.
The aim was to chalk up a moral victory over the enemy by making the guards look foolish — by, for example, staring at a German’s fly buttons until he became self-conscious and felt obliged to check them. A small victory could then be chalked up.
Another technique was simply to behave oddly: playing imaginary snooker, for example, or walking a non-existent dog.
Most senior British officers tolerated goon-baiting as high jinks and good for morale. But some, including the camp’s Methodist padre, Jock Platt, saw it as demeaning, infantile behaviour that reinforced the German sense of superiority and gave them an easy excuse to impose collective punishments, such as suspending exercise privileges.
He was right that the lampooning of the guards was tremendously silly. But it served as a psychological prop, enabling powerless men to get back at their captors.
What troubled the padre most of all, though, was sex — or rather, the lack of it and what deprived men would resort to. His concerns began in 1941 when the actors and entertainers in the Colditz community decided to put on a Christmas show of off-colour jokes, puns, lavatorial humour, slapstick, satire and farce.
For most, their time in Colditz was soul-crushingly and sometimes almost unbearably boring. If you weren’t one of the elite who spent every waking hour formulating and refining escape plans, there was nothing to do, which meant that most did very little
They called it ‘Ballet Nonsense’ and the highlight was a choreographed display by a corps de ballet consisting of the toughest-looking, heaviest-moustached officers available, who performed miracles of energetic grace and unsophisticated elegance attired in frilly crepe paper ballet skirts and brassieres.
It ran for two nights, to universal acclaim — but Padre Platt was appalled. He detected the illicit flutter of sexuality on stage, backstage and in the audience. Men dressed up as women could only incite sexual thoughts, which in turn would encourage masturbation or, worse, homosexuality.
While some of those on stage were obviously men dressed as implausible women, others had gone to considerable lengths to achieve a simulacrum of femininity. ‘The leading ladies were incredibly convincing,’ Platt noted. As the ukulele player in the band admitted: ‘It was very hard to keep your hands off them.’
In Colditz, British attitudes to sex, never straightforward in the first place, achieved a uniquely torturous complexity as the prisoners’ repressed sexual urges were coped with in ways both obvious and innovative.
One frustrated inventor came up with the ‘lecherscope’, a home-made telescope that could be used to ogle young women down in the town, some of whom obligingly, and perhaps knowingly, undressed in front of their windows or sunbathed in the open.
The prisoners tried to make light of their sexual frustrations, mocking them or pretending they did not exist. Yet enforced celibacy was an additional cruelty, the more burdensome for being a taboo subject.
Peter Storie-Pugh, a medical student before the war, worked in the sick bay and noted how many men were suffering the prolonged effects of sexual repression. One frustrated officer even tried to castrate himself.
For some, the answer was other men, though homosexuality was a subject the British dealt with by the time-honoured method of not talking about it.
During the daytime, such relations were virtually impossible anyway, with the prison courtyard and the exercise yard so crammed with milling prisoners that, as one observed, ‘it would be easier to have a homosexual relationship on a Tube train’.
But night-time, when the castle’s hidden corners were accessible, was a different matter.
For Padre Platt, sexual deviancy (as he saw it) was a problem not merely of discipline but of eternal damnation. He grew alarmed that ‘homosexualism has occupied an increasingly large place in contemporary prison humour’ and that books by Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris were being surreptitiously passed around.
He then heard rumours that ‘a small mutual masturbation group hold what they hope are secret sessions’, followed by the arrival of a young officer he believed was liable to turn the heads of those ‘susceptible to homosexual inclination’.
He decided it was his religious duty to intervene. Telling grown men to keep their hands off themselves and each other was, he admitted, ‘as difficult a task as has yet come my way’. He fully expected that the group would ‘tell me to mind my own business! But this happens to be my business!’
Whether Padre Platt ever intruded into this delicate matter remains a mystery. But he never again alluded to the mutual masturbation group in his diary, leading some people to imagine that it had miraculously ceased following the intervention of God’s representative.
On the other hand, it may simply have been easier to pretend that same-sex relationships did not happen, or at most to concede, as did one senior officer, that ‘there was probably an element of homosexual feeling at times but never practising’.
This is, of course, nonsense. The men of Colditz probably practised exactly as much, if not more, than one would expect, but as in the wider world where homosexuality was still illegal, they did so in secrecy, in closets and in perpetual fear of being caught.
Another subject seldom openly discussed was depression, although its spectre stalked Colditz. Morale ebbed and flowed. Spirits might rise with the arrival of a Red Cross parcel, then plunge again when the hot water stopped or an escape failed.
For many, there was also the anxiety of wondering what was happening to wives and lovers back at home and the worry of a ‘Dear John’ letter dumping them.
For most, their time in Colditz was soul-crushingly and sometimes almost unbearably boring. If you weren’t one of the elite who spent every waking hour formulating and refining escape plans, there was nothing to do, which meant that most did very little.
Some read books or sought to improve or entertain themselves in other ways, including theatrical productions and concerts, while others played cards, wrote letters, dreamed of home and surreptitiously masturbated. As one inmate put it, the hours between meals and roll calls were worn away in a cycle of ‘smoking, sleeping and self-abuse’.
Anything out of the ordinary was exciting. One day a guard wrote in his diary: ‘The French have caught a mouse and are letting it drift down on a parachute from the fourth floor.’
But such diversions were short-lived. There was seldom anything new to talk about, so even the most interesting individuals became crashing bores. Lights out, at 9.30pm, came as ‘a blessed relief, for it meant the end of another wasted and useless day’.
Some men were undoubtedly experiencing what would today be diagnosed as PTSD.
Yet the captives, including the doctors and priests, tended to regard depression in much the same way that homesickness was treated in all-male boarding schools: a sign of weakness which was best ignored, since ‘mollycoddling’, it was believed, would only make the unhappiness worse. ‘The stiff upper lip is a great thing to hide behind,’ one inmate remarked.
Most wore their sadness in secrecy, or vigorously repressed it. ‘I suddenly realised I was going round the bend,’ wrote one officer. ‘I took myself, metaphorically, off into the corner of the room, and gave myself a good dressing down.’
But even the most optimistic felt their spirits start to sag as the months and years passed.
Desperation set in for some — such as Mike Sinclair, whose escape plan by impersonating Stabsfeldwebel Rothenberger was frustrated at the very last obstacle. His need to escape was not simply urgent and all-consuming but pathological.
He had escaped twice from Colditz before being caught and brought back. Now he spent hours staring furiously over the castle ramparts, smoking his pipe, monitoring and memorising the guards’ movements, searching for gaps in the walls.
‘Poor Mike absolutely loathed every minute of this life and had no other interest except in trying to escape,’ wrote a fellow inmate. ‘He would never admit defeat.’
In autumn 1944, he joined a group of prisoners as they shuffled to the exercise enclosure. The guards took up their positions around the wire fence, 8 ft high and topped with barbed wire.
A game of football started. Men relaxed in the sunshine or chatted in groups, while others strolled around the path just inside the perimeter.
Sinclair walked alone for half an hour, up and down the wire. No one noticed when he put on a pair of thick gloves, then jumped over the first tripwire and began climbing the perimeter fence.
For a moment he seemed to be spreadeagled in mid-air before he seized the uppermost strand of barbed wire and hauled himself up. He reached the top, balancing astride the swaying wires before the guards grasped what was happening and unslung their rifles.
The German NCO on duty that day was one who knew Sinclair and greatly admired him for his heroics. He ran to the other side of the wire, where Sinclair had now dropped to the ground. ‘It’s no use, Herr Sinclair,’ the guard said, not unkindly, but Sinclair knocked aside the man’s pistol and sprinted up the slope, jinking as he ran.
He was already halfway to the outer wall when the first shot echoed around the park. Then two more, followed by a ragged volley from a dozen guards at different positions on the perimeter. A machine gun opened up from an emplacement.
Sinclair was still 10 ft from the outer wall when he staggered and dropped to his knees. Then, slowly, he crumpled forward. Among the British, there were few recriminations against the Germans. The guards had fired reluctantly, after due warning, and certainly without intent to kill. Which left the grim but unspoken possibility that Sinclair had meant to get himself killed.
Some ascribed his actions to a ‘spontaneous breakdown in reason’. But Sinclair was perfectly sane when he died; he knew the most likely outcome of a ‘dive at the wire’. It seems that after four years, he just couldn’t stand captivity any more.
Adapted from Colditz: Prisoners Of The Castle, by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking at £25.