Colditz - The Definitive History :
The Untold Story of World War II's Great Escapes
, by Henry Chancellor
Book Review

Book Description : Nonfiction - 20th Century History - World War II - Military History - Prisoners of War

Colditz by Henry Chancellor
The current price of the book at amazon.com is indicated to the right ...
The BUY button will add this book to your amazon.com shopping cart
If the price and BUY button are not shown, please click here
Paperback - 496 pages - January 2003
Published by Harperperennial Library
ISBN 0-06-001286-2 / ISBN 0060012862



Book review by Paul L. Whalen

Paul L. Whalen is an attorney and professor of law at the Defense Acquisition University at WPAFB, Ohio.
He lives in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

© 2003 Paul L. Whalen

Reprinted with permission by crimsonbird.com


The legend of Colditz, Nazi Germany's supermax prison has been the subject of more than 40 books, two movies including the 1963 classic, The Great Escape and even video games. Author and British television documentary producer Henry Chancellor has accomplished his goal of writing "The Definitive History" of the infamous German POW camp Colditz or Oflag 4C. Chancellor's work is based upon fourteen years of research which includes interviews with both guards and prisoners.

Prior to America's entry into the Second World War, the Germans had established a high security prison camp in a medieval castle in Saxony in eastern Germany to house its "problem" prisoners of war. Prisoners who escaped from other camps who were caught were taken to Colditz. The castle at Colditz had been a prisoner of war camp during World War I. The camp guards bragged that it had served as an "escape proof" camp during that war. It was the one German POW camp where guards outnumbered the prisoners. While it looked impregnable from the outside, after the war one of the German guards, Reinhold Eggers wrote, "But apart from putting bars on the windows, it had never been built for the purpose of keeping people in. A more unsuitable place to hold prisoners will probably never again be chosen."

Buy the book Colditz - The Definitive History : The Untold Story of World War II's Great Escapes by Henry Chancellor

These prisoners, primarily English, French, Polish, Dutch and some Canadian POWs were imprisoned in this fortress for a period of five years. Most had unsuccessfully escaped from other prisoner of war camps. There were no Americans as the United States entered the war late after the fall of Poland, France and the allied retreat from Dunkirk.

Colditz while about the war is not about the war. It is about a POW camp. Henry Chancellor has written a fast paced epic about life inside the castle-medieval fortress turned prison camp. Though the prisoners had to deal with extreme tedium, the focus of the book concerns not only life inside the castle but on the schemes resulting in 316 escapes. The majority of the escapes were very well planned. There was an "escape" officer who approved all escapes. German money and clothes were collected and hidden in order to assist with the escapes. Prisoners made and stole papers. Guards were bribed. Escapes were as simple as walking away or jumping off a roof. They were as complicated as digging through castle walls and sewers Allied Officers were involved in 174 escape attempts of which only 32 were successful. The author interviewed over 50 individuals including former prisoners and German guards.

Despite the fact Colditz was inescapable; escaping was a topic of every day life. Prisoners took advantage of the fact the Germans often looked down at the ground for tunnels. Many of the early tunnels were through the multitude of attics and walls of the 700 room castle.

Unlike many other POW camps the German Wehrmacht at Colditz ran its camp by the book. This "book" being the Geneva Convention of 1929. (Russia and Germany were not signatories.) By following the Geneva Convention, allied prisoners did not experience the brutality found in other camps. Prisoners found escaping in German uniforms were put in solitary rather than shot. Prisoners in solitary received exercise time outside of the cell. While it was not a good place to be, Colditz was one of the better German POW camps in regards to treatment of prisoners. This was reflected in the fact the British went out of their way to protect their favorite guards when Colditz was liberated by the Americans. In fact the Kommandent surrendered to the prisoners prior to the Americans taking the town of Colditz below.

Book review based on the paperback edition published by Harperperennial Library, an imprint of HarperCollins.

List of Illustrations ix-xi; Preface xii-xvii; Prologue 1-5 and nineteen chapters 7-391; Two Appendixes 393-407; Bibliography 409-411, Notes 413-433 and Index 435-446.

The most amazing and famous escape attempt involved the construction of the Colditz Glider. In the attic above the chapel, a quarter of the British officers during the winter of 1944-45 built a full scale glider. While the movies and video game concern the glider or focus on a specific escape attempt, Henry Chancellor's Colditz - The Definitive History is a comprehensive history of most of escapes from this medieval fortress and the attempts to record the tedium everyday life of allied prisoners of war from the summer of 1940 through their liberation in the spring of 1945.

Colditz by Henry Chancellor
The current price of the book at amazon.com is indicated to the right ...
The BUY button will add this book to your amazon.com shopping cart
If the price and BUY button are not shown, please click here
Paperback - 496 pages - January 2003
Published by Harperperennial Library
ISBN 0-06-001286-2 / ISBN 0060012862

Book Description from the Publisher

Breathtaking and mesmerizing, Colditz is a gripping tale of perseverance, heroism, and adventure. Filled with the thrilling never-before-told personal stories of the prisoners of war held within the walls of this medieval fortress turned German high-security prison camp, Colditz offers endlessly intriguing stories of consummate survivors who proved the human spirit to be indomitable.

In more than fifty original interviews, the English, French, Dutch, and Polish officers and their guards describe their experiences in the notorious castle. They reveal their boredom and frustrations, as well as the challenges inherent in making maps out of jelly or constructing tunnels with mere cutlery knives. The stories are by turns comic and tragic, as much of their labor and invention ended in failure. But what emerges is a story of breathtaking ingenuity and an intriguing portrait of the fascinating game of wits between captives and captors, who were bound together by mutual respect and extraordinary tolerance.

About the Author

Henry Chancellor was born in London in 1968. He grew up in East Anglia and went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Colditz grew out of his remarkable British television series, Escape from Colditz,was twelve years in the making and has won sweeping critical praise and has been shown all over the world. His other documentaries for television include The Great Belzoni, Pirates, and Millennium. He lives in Suffolk with his wife and two sons.

Book review by Amazon.com reprinted with permission

Colditz , based on author Henry Chancellor's television documentary series, tells the story of the German high security prison camp (a 700-room castle), which during World War II housed the most dangerous (i.e. escape-prone) Allied POWs. The men, officers all, were mandated by the Geneva Convention to escape. There were, over the course of the war, 310 such attempts, 32 of them successful. Colditz is a comprehensive overview. While not neglecting daily prison existence (a world replete with boredom, privation, and occasional acts of treachery), it is strongest recounting the prisoners' many efforts to outwit their captors, occasions of astonishing energy and guile. The prisoners not only dug, climbed, and vaulted their way to freedom, but concocted elaborate disguises, false documents, and on one occasion built a working glider. Chancellor's is an accessible, reliable tale of invention, bravery, and determination.

-- H. O'Billovitch

Colditz by Henry Chancellor
The current price of the book at amazon.com is indicated to the right ...
The BUY button will add this book to your amazon.com shopping cart
If the price and BUY button are not shown, please click here
Paperback - 496 pages - January 2003
Published by Harperperennial Library
ISBN 0-06-001286-2 / ISBN 0060012862