Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival
Every evening, Sergeant Major Gustav Rothenberger carried out an inspection of the castle perimeter, checking that the sentries were alert at their posts and hoping to catch one napping. Rothenberger was a stickler for routine, and the last stop on his rounds was always the east side of the building, where a narrow walkway, with a sheer drop on one side and the mighty castle wall rising on the other, led to a barbed wire gate. Beyond that lay the park and the woods. Guards with machine guns were posted at intervals of thirty feet along the length of the terrace. Two more sentries guarded the gate itself, one patrolling a raised metal catwalk with a clear line of fire down the terrace.
Shortly before midnight on a warm September night in 1943, the Sergeant Major (or Stabsfeldwebel in German) appeared on the terrace as usual, accompanied by two soldiers with slung rifles. The prisoners had been locked into their quarters two hours earlier. Colditz was quiet. Powerful floodlights threw the guards’ distorted silhouettes against the granite face of the castle.
Rothenberger cut an unmistakable figure. A native of Saxony, he had won the Iron Cross during the First World War and was said to wear his campaign medals in bed. He was feared and admired by the men under his command in Number 3 platoon of the guard company. The prisoners took every opportunity to mock their captors, but treated this bristling martinet with cautious respect, as a soldier from an earlier age: battle-scarred, disciplined, and extravagantly hairy. The most distinctive thing about Rothenberger was his facial plumage, a spectacular mustache and mutton-chop combination. The old soldier was immensely proud of his huge gingery whiskers, brushing, clipping, and waxing them to points, as if grooming an exotic pet. The British POWs called him “Franz Josef” [sic], after the Austro-Hungarian emperor with the handlebar mustache, but never, ever to his face.
Rothenberger marched up smartly to the first guard on the terrace and barked: “There is an attempted escape on the west side. Report to the guardhouse immediately.” The startled sentry saluted, clicked his heels, and took off; the officer dismissed the second guard, and then the third. The two sentries manning the gate were surprised to see Rothenberger rounding the corner of the terrace with two replacement guards in tow. They were not due to go off duty for another two hours. “You’re relieved early,” snapped the mustachioed sergeant major. “Give me the key.” Rothenberger appeared to be particularly irritable tonight; but appearances can be deceptive.
A close inspection of Rothenberger’s facial hair would have revealed that it was made from dismantled shaving brushes, colored ginger-gray with watercolor paints from the prison shop and attached with glue; his uniform, like those of his escorts, was stitched with precision out of prison blankets, and dyed the correct shade of German field gray; the Iron Cross on his breast was made from zinc stripped off the castle roof and molded 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 9mm Walther P38 pistol; the two soldiers in greatcoats carried dummy rifles with wooden barrels polished with pencil lead, bolts fashioned from bits of steel bedstead, and tin triggers formed from metal cutlery.
The sergeant major was a replica Rothenberger, a fake Franz Josef. His name was Michael Sinclair, a twenty-five-year-old British lieutenant who had already escaped twice from Colditz before being caught and brought back. Sinclair was fluent in German, a talented amateur actor, and an obsessive. He thought only of escaping, and talked about nothing else. “I’m getting out of here,” he insisted, repeatedly. This was not an expression of hope, but a statement of belief. Some of the other prisoners found his single-mindedness off-putting: There was something desperate in Sinclair’s determination. For four months, he had studied Rothenberger’s gait, posture, and accent, his routine, his mannerisms, and the way he swore when angry, which was often.
High above the terrace, thirty-five more British officers waited in the darkness. The bars on the windows of the sixth floor had already been sawn through. The men wore handmade civilian clothes. 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 authorized with the official German eagle stamp carved out of a shoe heel using a razor blade. “It’s going to work,” someone whispered, as the first guard hurried off. “It’s really going to work.”
The plan was simple: with the sentries out of the way, a first group of twenty would climb down the outside of the building on ropes made from knotted bedsheets, Sinclair would unlock the gate to the park, and they would all scramble down the slope into the nearby woods. If they got away, the rest would follow a few minutes later. Once in the trees, they would split into pairs and spread out into the countryside, before making for Germany’s borders by a variety of prearranged routes. The “Franz Josef plan” depended on ingrained German habits of military obedience, preparation, timing, luck, and the credibility of Sinclair’s false whiskers. The escapers calculated it would take four and a half minutes before the dismissed guards reached the guardhouse and found the real Rothenberger. At which point all hell would break loose. Many of the prisoners crouching in the dark had been captives for almost three years. During that time numerous escapes had been attempted with only a small handful of successes. In the escalating internal war between the guarded and the guards, a major victory beckoned. If it worked, this would be the first mass breakout in Colditz history.
The Kommandant of Colditz had recently issued orders that everyone, without exception, entering or leaving the castle must produce a pass, with a different color for each day. The sentry at the gate was sticking to the rules. Later, he would claim that the mustache before him “did not quite curl properly”; in truth he was merely obeying orders, even though Rothenberger had issued those orders and was now apparently telling him to disobey them. The sentry’s voice floated up to the windows above: “Nein, Herr Stabsfeldwebel. Nein!” Sinclair cursed him for his insolence. “Are you daft? Don’t you know your own sergeant?” But finally, he reached into his pocket and handed over an exit pass, or Ausweis, dated, signed, and stamped.
This was a copy of a real pass obtained from a bribed German guard. It was a perfect duplicate in every respect. Except it was the wrong color. The fake pass was gray. It was supposed to be yellow.
The sentry stared at it for a moment, and back at “Franz Josef” Rothenberger. Then he slowly raised his rifle.
List of Illustrations
Prologue: Franz Josef
Chapter 1: The Originals
Chapter 2: Le Ray’s Run
Chapter 3: The Bad Boys’ Camp
Chapter 4: Goon-Baiting
Chapter 5: Ballet Nonsense
Chapter 6: Le Métro
Chapter 7: Clutty of Mi9
Chapter 8: Seeking for a Path
Chapter 9: Dogsbody
Chapter 10: The Prominente Club
Chapter 11: Shabash
Chapter 12: The Dentist Spies
Chapter 13: Madness
Chapter 14: The Sparrows
Chapter 15: The Red Fox
Chapter 16: The Rhine Maiden
Chapter 17: Besieged
Chapter 18: Endgame
Appendix: The 5-6-0 Code
A Note on Sources
By Ben Macintyre
About the Author
A Reader’s Guide
|September 14, 2022
How to Read and Open File Type for PC ?