Chilling out at Colditz

9-11 August 2017

We left lovely Lienz and headed towards Germany, destination Colditz.  We drove through the Alps wanting the scenery to go on forever, passing through the famous ski-resort of Kitzbuhel (Lienz is much nicer) and on into Germany. We had loved the Alpine part of Austria – pretty villages & beautiful mountains. We’ll be back.

Change of country, change in feel and look. All too soon we left the Alps and were into the rolling lowlands of Bavaria. Huge fields of sweetcorn interspersed with broad rows of asparagus and smaller fields of sunflowers. At Rosenheim we visited the Swarovski service centre for new eye-pieces for Kate’s binoculars then headed off, blissfully unaware how close we were to the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s mountain retreat, which we would have loved to visit. Maybe next time.

Then we were driving through massive fields of hops, energetically twining their way up tall wires – we were in the Hallertau, the largest continuous hop-growing area in the world. Germany produces a third of the world’s hops and over 80% of these are grown here in the Hallertau. Fascinating to drive through such unfamiliar agriculture, interspersed with small, neat, red-roofed villages. If only we had time to stop for a beer!

IMG_2529

Halfway to our destinationwe identified a suitable Stellplatz at a place called Kelheim. On the outskirts of town was a huge carpark alongside the river Danube, and at the far end a number of motorhomes. Over a raised flood defence with a walkway on top was the Stellplatz – and the fairground and beer festival that had been erected on it. It was after 6pm so we parked up – the car-park was free between 6pm and 8am –  and were told the festival didn’t start till next day so we would have a quiet night.

Kelheim has a nice Altstadt (old town), small but with character and a nice town square. A dander took us to our first real, German beer-garden attached to a real German brewery with waitresses in Barvarian costume. The beer-garden & hall was busy with locals – including a large group of men in straw boaters?? – and doing a roaring trade on food as well.

Another long day’s drive to reach Colditz. Not as pretty and progress was slow as we stayed off the autobahn. We took a dip into the Czech Republic, going through the rather unattractive town of Cheb, and it was immediately obvious that the Czech Republic was less wealthy. Back in Germany – Saxony – and a quick stop for lunch in Bad Elster, a spa town in wooded hills with a very grand Royal Spa building, a large opera theatre & the largest open-air theatre in Saxony. The town had a prosperous feel in sharp contrast to Cheb, only 25km away.

We drove on through thick fog, frustrated at the delays caused by the frequent diversions, until late afternoon when we finally arrived at the town of Colditz, the castle rising high above the town, dominant and imposing.

Camping Waldbad was just outside town, wooded and surprisingly empty for the time of year. Like many German campsites you had to pay for ‘extras’ such as a hot shower and wi-fi (extortionate – we declined) but had the weather not been cold and wet it would have been a nice peaceful spot.

Next day we took the footpath through the woods, past some old, neglected, rectangular fish ponds and down into the town, reaching Colditz Castle in plenty of time for our 10.30 extended tour. Kate was delighted to see a Colditz board-game on display, just like her family used to play, and if there had been one for sale would have bought it in a second.

IMG_2586

We had a hot coffee while we waited and were engaged in conversation by a guy with an unfamiliar accent which turned out to be French-Canadian. He had shipped out his motorbike and was spending 5 months touring Europe on it, camping in his tent along the way. He had served in the Canadian army then in the US marines as he has dual-citizenship through his parents. He was visiting WW2 sites as his father had fought at Normandy aged 18 and he showed us an old photo of his father at Normandy and a new one of himself standing in the same spot. Interesting guy.

Our tour guide, Steffi, had excellent english and a sense of humour. We started with the outside – over 1000 years old, the original which has been added to over the years. When the owners lost their money and the castle was sold and in 1800 became a poorhouse for the Leipzig area, then in 1829 a sanatorium. From 1914-18 it was used for psychiatric and TB patients and the treatment of them was appalling – in that period 912 died from neglect and malnutrition, something which is commemorated by a poignant art installation in the cellars of the castle – a concrete representation of a rolled mattress, one for each death, stacked in piles on the cold floors. Then from 1933, the Nazi’s used it as a political prison, only using it as a POW camp for allied officers from 1939 onwards. And yet this short period is what people visit for. After the war it was used as a general hospital, right up until 1996. In 2006/7 Saxony paid for an extensive restoration and today it is a youth hostel, music academy & cultural centre as well as a museum.

IMG_2572

Whilst touring the outside we saw an elderly gentleman on the balcony of a house opposite and Steffi told us that he was a child during the war and would have stood in that spot observing the guards and potentially some of the escape attempts. He gave us a cheerful wave.

IMG_2601

The castle was Germany’s most secure POW facility for officers considered to be a high escape risk – often having escaped from other camps – and for high profile prisoners such as relatives of royalty, Churchill, & Field Marshall Haig. Other notable prisoners were Douglas Bader (legless RAF ace), Desmond Llewellyn who later played Q in the Bond movies, Charles Upham who received 2 VC’s, David Stirling, founder of the SAS, Pat Reid who wrote The Colditz Story, and Airey Neave who became a prominent MP and was later murdered by the INLA.

Steffi was very good at explaining to us how the camp worked and how some of the escapes, both attempts and successes, were undertaken. Many of the tunnelling and other escapes were based on plans of the castle copied from a book in the castle library!

IMG_2607
One of the tunnels in Colditz Castle

We saw some of the solitary confinement rooms failed escapees were put in and their guard room, and escape route, the cellar and it’s small ventilation hole that Pat Reid and 3 other POW’s escaped through:

IMG_2599

She also showed us how Airey Neave achieved his freedom – the first successful British escapee, he went on to work for MI9 and amongst other things helped get useful items in to prisoners to assist with further escapes. As a qualified lawyer and fluent german speaker he also served at the Nuremberg Trials and later read the indictments to the Nazi leaders on trial which must have been very satisfying indeed.

We went up to the attic where the British prisoners had built a glider, planning to launch it at night from the roof and land on the meadow opposite, over the river. They used wood foraged from the castle and covered the structure with the blue & white check bedsheets stiffening them with porridge. There is one original picture still in existence of the glider in the attic room, and the original notes of one of the builders (Tom Goldfinch) which he kept, but most bizarre was the fact that they were able to work out how to build it and do all the calculations because the castle library had 2 books on aeronautical engineering! In 1999 Channel 4 made a programme about this and a full-sized replica of the glider was built and flew in a test flight. They later launched it from the castle and it got there but they did change some things and it is unlikely to have made it in reality.

IMG_2621

There was only one allied POW killed there and that was accidental – a bullet ricochet during an escape attempt. And there were a lot of attempts – the statistics are interesting:

  • France                    12 successful   12 unsuccessful
  • Great Britain         11 successful   109 unsuccessful
  • The Netherlands   7 successful    17 unsuccessful
  • Poland                     1 successful
  • Belgium                   1 successful

You can’t say we didn’t try,  but we do wonder how our escape committee felt at being beaten by the French!

IMG_2627

The tour lasted 2½hrs and finished with Steffi telling us “For you the tour is over”. Get it?  Despite being hungry and thirsty we spent a further 30 minutes in the fascinating small museum, then bought the new Colditz movie to watch in the van.

On Colditz’ small town square we had a bad toastie and a nice beer for lunch in the shadow of the castle, and reflected on an excellent tour.

We wandered  back up the hill and through the woods and were almost home when, by one of the fish ponds, we saw an amazing and unexpected thing – 2 beaver by the edge of the water, motionless, just a few feet away. We stopped and watched as first one, then the other slipped into the water and disappeared. Wow – we have never seen beaver before, let alone in the wild, and were absolutely delighted. What a great end to the day- better than the new Colditz movie anyway!