Book Review: Colditz: The Full Story

14 Apr
From Zenith Press: Colditz: The Full Story by P.R. Reid

From Zenith Press: Colditz: The Full Story by P.R. Reid

Reid, P. R. Colditz: The Full Story. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2015. Pp.344. $18.99 (paper).

If 1963’s classic The Great Escape is among your favorite movies, you’ll want to add P.R. Reid’s definitive book on the POW experience, Colditz: The Full Story, to your library. First published in 1984, this new Zenith Press edition includes appended material not included in earlier editions. Just like The Great Escape’s co-writer, Paul Brickhill (RAF pilot, POW at Stalag Luft III), Reid (British Army officer) was also a prisoner of war held by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Colditz castle was conceived by the Nazis as an escape-proof POW camp to hold those prisoners who had repeatedly escaped from other stalags throughout Germany. Reid and a few other prisoners managed to escape the 12th century castle beginning in 1941 until the camp’s liberation in 1945. These richly-detailed escape attempts are the core of Reid’s Colditz.

Imprisoning so many bright and ingenious men in this atypical setting provided Reid with a wealth of stories to draw upon. His narrative suggests that the castle offered more avenues of escape compared to conventional stalags and POW camps in Germany. Castle walls, attics, floors all gave the determined prisoners of Colditz additional means of escape from what we’ve learned in Brickhill’s The Great Escape (also in book format). And yes, tunnels were dug at Colditz.

Reid’s chronological narrative illustrates that despite the continuous escape attempts, there was much civility shown the Allied prisoners by their captors. This was surprising and unexpected in light of the horrors and murder that had taken place in the concentration death camps.

New to this new edition is Appendix 5, “Prisoners of War in the Western Theaters of the Second World War.” Here Reid writes why officers were compelled to escape as compared to “troops”—enlisted men—held in their own POW camps. The Geneva Convention mandated that prisoners of war were separated into these two categories. Furthermore, troops could work “in factory or field”[1] for the enemy without repercussion of aiding the enemy.

In Reid’s view, troops were allowed these freedoms of work, in many cases outdoors, giving them the feeling of freedom, if only during the day. Officers did not have this option. Officer prisoners were entitled different treatment through the Geneva Convention. Most importantly, Reid adds “Further, it was clearly understood by the signatories of the Convention that an Officer would and should consider it a matter of honor to attempt to regain his liberty and return to his fighting unit—in other words to escape.”[2]

By separating officers from men as prisoners of war whenever possible, Nazi Germany effectively removed the leadership component of escape throughout the stalag system. At Colditz Castle, designated Oflag IV-C during the war, housing a prisoner population dominated by officers highly motivated to escape was a never-ending challenge for the German captors.

In “Appendix 2,” Reid lists “Escapes” by name and rank—successful and not successful—and their contingent country: British, Polish, Dutch, French and Belgian. I won’t list those numbers here however. That would spoil the reading experience of this important work.

This book is highly recommended. Like re-watching a great movie, you’ll want to read Colditz a second time to ‘pick up’ what you’d missed on the first pass.

[1] P.R. Reid, Colditz: The Full Story. (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2015) 330.
[2] Ibid.

Reid, P.R. Colditz: The Full Story. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2015.

Scott Lyons


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