Trip to Colditz Castle

In late July I was fortunate enough to travel Germany, taking in many of its cultural and historical sites. It is fair to say Germany did have plenty to offer in the famous cities and towns of Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Erfurt to name just a few. This post however will be about my recent visit to Colditz Castle, a place I was very keen on visiting upon my arrival to Germany. This post will mainly address the events of what happened during the Second World War but I will provide a basis of what occurred at Colditz Castle beforehand.

The castle is nestled on the outskirts in the small town of Colditz, approximately a fifty minute drive from Leipzig in the state of Saxony. Colditz Castle is mainly known as the German military prison Oflag IVC that held Allied soldiers. The original constructed castle was granted by Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor in 1046 and in 1083 the site was developed further by Wieprecht of Groitzsch. During the Middle Ages the castle appeared to be an important look out site for German Emperors as the location was close to Slavic territory. Eventually the old castle was destroyed by the Hussites, a Christian reformer group from Bohemia that sought for Czech national awareness and Protestantism.

Over time the castle design changed with the times as did the premise of the site. The site received a complete overhaul by the Elector Augustus of Saxony and it became a Renaissance style castle. The premise of the site too changed drastically in the 1600s the site was used as a hunting lodge, in the nineteenth century the area was completely transformed again to become a workhouse for the poor, a mental hospital and eventually a place where the Nazis sent those who they considered “undesirable” to the Third Reich; Jews, Gypsies and Homosexuals. As discussed the castle has a vast history and now it is time to address the events that took place at Colditz Castle during WW2.

Many readers will of course be aware of the events surrounding Colditz Castle during WW2 due to the BBC television series that first aired in 1972 and the Escape from Colditz board game that followed in 1973. Other popular means that depicted the basis of what happened at Colditz Castle during WW2 include a later television series that first aired in 2005 and a computer game that was released in 1991. Furthermore it is very possible that many readers have come across the events that took place at Colditz Castle through their own right. Although it should be noted that these mediums portray a basis on the events that occurred there.

Colditz Castle in spite of its large history, is often associated with the twentieth century, chiefly during the Nazi occupation of Germany from 1933 to 1945. The castle was converted into a Prisoner of War camp in 1939 for captured Allied men. These men came from many countries including; Britain, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Belgium, India (1), America and Canada. Given the fact that I toured Colditz Castle in a small group the ambiance seemed rather quiet and solemn. However life at Colditz for the captured was quite far from that. In actual fact the prisoners were permitted to make their own entertainment when imprisoned. Often they would play sports, produce moonshine alcohol, sing, draw, study, write and act in plays. Our guide told us that in August 1941 the Polish prisoners instigated their own Olympic games at Colditz these events included many pastimes such as; football, boxing and chess. The prisoners also invented a sport that they played in their designated courtyard. The game was a variant of rugby, it was called stoolball. The aim of the game was to score on the opposing teams stool. This sport was said to have drowned out the noise of other prisoners who were attempting to tunnel out of the castle. This leads me to explaining some extraordinary circumstances that happened at Colditz. In spite of Colditz being declared ‘escape proof’ by Hermann Göring, many famously attempted to escape and in some cases these were successful. Here are a list of some of them:

 

The French Tunnel-

The tunnels at Colditz was an incredible sight to behold. The French tunnel, although strictly speaking it was not a successful operation, it did however address the lengths prisoners would go in order to escape. A group of French prisoners hatched a plan to dig a tunnel out of the fortress in a bid to freedom. The tunnel was constructed in 1941 and was discovered by German guards in 1942. However having said that the tunnel was untraceable for the German guards for eight months and was nearly completed with only three metres left. The operation began at the clock tower of the castle and a tunnel was dug connecting this area through to the wine cellar, chapel and close to the exterior of the castle. Particularly, when digging occurred around the chapel more men were seen to be in choir practice. This was an attempt by many men to blur out the noise coming from the digging.   Remarkably the tunnel was dug out by none other than kitchen knives and bulbs lined the tunnel offering light, due to prisoners re-wiring the electrical system to the tunnel. With all the excess rubble from digging, the men managed to place it all in any spare pockets and put it underneath floorboards. This plan seemed to go well until the floor gave way due to the extra weight placed under the floorboards from the rubble. Today there is a display in the castle documenting the items that were used for this particular tunnel. The other tunnel I saw was dug by Dutch prisoners and it was a tunnel that did not go as far as the French tunnel, but it was still impressive to see what they did with the limited resources on offer.

 

The Glider-

The Glider was another exceptional plan that was hatched to escape from Colditz. Again as with the French tunnel this plan was not successful but it was arguably one of the most ambitious escape plans. This attempted escape plan proved to be popular in time and the concept of it was inspired by true events. It was made into a Television film, The Birdmen in 1971, whereby it depicted a success. The Glider was the brainchild of two British pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch. Through much encouragement by two other prisoners they started construction in 1944 and was designed to sit two persons. It was assembled in an attic and was built with bits of wood and out of makeshift tools like metal in window bars attached to beech wood as a handle. Most tools were taken from the castle but one in particular was acquired from bribery, a drill. This was a rather remarkable feat considering Best and Goldfinch obtained a lot of information regarding the mechanics and physics from a book housed in a library onsite to ensure the Glider would be successful.

It was of course a tricky operation to maintain and the previous tunnelling systems appeared to make a lot of the Germans suspicious of similar activity to escape underground. Security was nonetheless prevalent amongst the prisoners. An alarm system was set up for them in case a German guard came close. Another way to cover up the construction was to ensure a false wall would protect those who were building the Glider. Unfortunately the Glider did not fly as it was completed in 1945 by this time an Allied victory appeared to be eminent and the Americans were close to liberating Colditz Castle. Although I did not see the Gilder as it was uncertain what exactly happened to it, I did however hear information about the history of it from 1944-45 by a tour guide.

 

The Undercover-

On the grounds of Colditz Castle there were large cut out pictures of those who attempted to escape Colditz by going undercover. In addition we were also told about other attempts of escape by a tour guide onsite that did not have cut outs of themselves. This I felt was a very interesting start to the day as it introduced to the men who spent time at Colditz. Here are three attempts that I thought were particularly clever-

 

The Lady-

In 1941 a Frenchman by the name of Lieutenant Chasseur Alpin Bouley dressed up as a highly respectable woman. It was unfortunate for him that he was caught after he had dropped his watch and a German guard went after “her” for Bouley’s plan to be foiled upon inspection.

 

German officers-

In 1941 Dutch prisoners Capt. E. Steenhouwer and Lt. J. van Lynden managed to dress up as German officers however they were detected and therefore did not escape. In 1942 Lt. van der Falk Bouman and in 1943 Capt. Dufour Flt. Lt. van Rood did the same thing and were also detected.

 

A handyman-

In 1942 a Frenchman by the name of Lt. A. Perodeau had a resemblance to a handyman that worked at Colditz Castle. His name was Willi Pöhnert. Unfortunately Perodeau was also detected and sent back to Colditz Castle. A lot of the time detection occurred as it was noticeable that some men could not speak German well.

 

It was not always an attempt-

Needless to say it was not always an attempt and I felt at times it was those who attempted the escape were better remembered, perhaps it was the heroism attached to it and the daring sense of adventure? Not to confuse anyone that I am profoundly putting that statement out there as a true representation, on the contrary it is an opinion.

It should be stated that some men in actual fact did escape a seemingly impossible fortress. These men came from different areas and countries from Britain, Poland, Belgium, France and the Netherlands but one stood out for me. This man was the only Indian to be captured by the German troops and sent to Colditz. His name was Capt. B. Mazumdar. Mazumdar’s way of escape was not like the above attempts but this is in no way less daring. He went on hunger strike in order to receive a transfer to another camp, he escapes from the new camp and beforehand Colditz to get to the new camp.

All in all it was an interesting place to visit and I would recommend to go there, particularly if you are thinking of visiting Leipzig or Dresden as it is in close driving distance. It has a gallery and small museum on site and you are shown around by an informative guide. It is recommended to book in advance prior to visiting.

 

Icons of Danish Heritage (pt. 1) – Kronborg Castle

Right, I know, I have gone down the rabbit hole, I’m never getting out of Wonderland now, but…Denmark was truly excellent and full of amazing things to see and visit!! Therefore, I have decided to do this blog post about two of the most emblematic places in Zealand that I visited. I think both of them hold great historical value, because both sites are internationally renown, but also because they represent the importance of this country within Europe. In addition, I believe they also symbolise important moments in the history of the area. Kronborg and Trelleborg reflect strong places of power for Denmark. Therefore, let me give you a quick tour of these amazing locations.

Kronborg Castle: Royal Palace, Hamlet’s Home and Site of Legend:

Kronborg Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Copenhagen. The town where it is located, Helsingør, is small but cosy. Right by the coast, this is an important stop for many ferries, and the spot has always been important for shipping but also for international relations – from here you can easily get to the Swedish post of Helsingborg…The names are not that similar as a coincidence…There seems to have been a strong connection between the inhabitants of both places, and in fact toponymy science suggests that the Danish port became a way for the to control the strait between the two countries. Anyway, Helsingør is lovely, but the castle is even better.

Covering an area of 16000 squared metres (including attics and basements), the bastion appears like an arrow piercing the sea. The fortress has been dated back to the 1420s, when Eric of Pomerania ordered for it to be erected. Back then, Denmark owned portions of the south of Sweden. So it was very important to keep these key locations secure. Ever since, the Danish kings took care of the castle: King Christian III supplemented the wall with bastions in 1558-1559. However, the castle could have not become the astonishing site that it is nowadays without the imput of Frederick II (1574-1585). He was the one who rebuilt the medieval fortress, and got it to evolve into the diamond-shaped bastion that it is nowadays (I’ll tell you all about these fortresses some other time…got an upcoming blog post about this soon!). But in essence, you may be aware of the military revolution taking place in Europe during this period and the prowess of the Swedish army back then…Frederick knew he had to step up his game if he wanted to keep his coastal assets safe. So he hired Hans Hendrik van Paesschen for this pursuit. And it is due to this shape developed in the Renaissance that the castle took the name of Kronborg, meaning Crown Castle. Now you know a bit more of the history, let’s get to know the building.

The tour of the castle takes you through ten different areas of the castle that are open to visit. I’ll talk you through them.  You go in through the Dark Gate: from here you can see a long dark tunnel that used to lead to the original entrance of the castle located at the Four-Gate Courtyard. Then, you enter the courtyard, where the statues of Neptune and Mercury guard the entrance. This is an allegory to the nature of the edification of the palace, as these were regarded as the gods of the sea and trade respectively.

The Four-Gate Courtyard Entrance
The Four-Gate Courtyard Entrance

Finally we get to the Castle Courtyard, where the work of Frederick shines, and where one can admire the fantastic architectonic features of the Northern European Renaissance, which is fairly different from the examples in mainland Europe  and the Mediterranean.Charming, nonetheless. In the middle of the courtyard there is a modern fountain that was put there to replace the original one from 1583. Unfortunately the 16th century creation was spoiled in 1658 when the Swedes seized the castle. From the courtyard you get access to the inside of the palace. Ahead await now the Telegraph Tower, the Chapel, the Royal Apartments, the Ballroom, the Little Hall and the Trumpeter’s Tower.

The Telegraph Tower is a flat-roofed, squared building on the side of the castle that used to serve as a cannon tower. It seems once it had a dome and a spire, much more fitting of the style and taste of Frederick II, however this seems to have been destroyed and then reconstructed during the siege of Kronborg (1658). Kronborg has been victim of many incidents – not only war, but also fire. In 1629 a fire damaged the vast majority of the interior of the castle. One of the few survivors was the Chapel, consecrated just a few years earlier in 1582. The Royal Apartments suffered greatly. They were first built by Frederick II, but the fire ruined them. However king Christian IV has them recreated for the inhabitation fo the palace as a royal residence.

Royal Appartments
Royal Apartments

The Ballroom, is now decorated with paintings made originally for the Great Hall of Rosenborg Castle (Copenhagen 1618-1831). Yet I think they suit well what used to be the largest royal hall in all northern Europe! Its dimensions are 62 x 12 meters.

The Ballroom
The Ballroom

Then we move on to the Little Hall, were the 7 surviving tapestries with the portraits of a hundred of the Danish kings survive. These were commission in 1580, and only handful more remain our of the original 40 commended by the king, currently exposed at the Nationalmuseet. And finally, we reach the highest point at Kronborg – the Trumpeter’s Tower. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but in case there was any doubt, the 62 meter tall tower was used for the announcement or warning of fanfares by trumpeters. Impressively enough, the spire has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice.

Telegraph and Trumpeter's Tower
Telegraph and Trumpeter’s Tower

Of course, one can then understand that such an impressive building would have captivated the imagination of any artist, and this is in fact what inspired Shakespeare to set Hamlet in Denmark, at Kronborg, or better known to the English folk as Elsinore. Currently, the castle holds a couple of spare rooms with small exhibitions of Hamlet and its performance at the castle, as well as holding a portrait of the British author. But, hold that broody moment of to be or not to be… just until we get outside, and start wandering the Casemates…These used to be the soldiers’ quarters while at war. The dark and damp vaults could hold up to 1000 men, capable of holding a siege for 6 weeks. But if you thought this could not get more atmospheric…You were wrong. As you walk through the gloomy corridors, full of spiderwebs, dust and barely illuminated by oil lamps (yes, still functioning), we find the statue of the legendary Holger Danske. The epic statue in commemoration of the mythical hero, is located in the very same spot where legend has it he rested after walking all the way from France, where he had aided the French to keep the country safe by might only known to Arthurian knights.  According to legend, Holger is taken to Avalon by Morgan le Fay herself, and after his return from the mist, he rests at Kronborg, awaiting the day when his country will desperately need a hero of old. Holger, king under the mountain – almost in the same fashion custom to the dwarves of Erebor in Tolkien’s mythology…See a theme of English literature involving Kronborg? Interesting fact is that, during the Second World War, the largest resistance group in Denmark against the Nazis took their name after this legendary figure.

Holger Dansk
Holger Dansk

So if after this quick tour of the place the might and glory of Kronborg is not apparent to yourselves, then, I can only say, Go And See It For Yourself. Nevertheless, and in case you thought I went up to Kronborg just to see the castle…As it happens, during my visit a Renaissance fair was taking place in the ground of the palace. And of course, I took pictures. So with my photographs, I say farewell for now, but nor forever…Our next stop is Trelleborg where we will visit the roots of the power capable of erecting Kronborg, the Crown of the Baltic Sea.

Renaissance Fair Cavalry
Renaissance Fair Cavalry

 

Basing House- Is it One of the Most Underrated Symbols of Early Modern British History?

As a man who has spent most of his life on Old Basing, the relevance of Basing House has been something often slipped by under my nose, even though I often saw memories of it on a daily basis. Yet on a recent trip to the ruins, unlike through previous visits during childhood, I was gripped by just how much history there was around the house. Of course as a child I knew that this was no ordinary ruins, but as I have grown older the significance blew me away. Basing House was perhaps one of the most underrated symbols of Early Modern British history, with every brick having its own unique history.

Basing House Gateway

For many of the residents of Old Basing, I’m sure they fail to realise on a day-to-day basis the significance of the land they step. For Basing House was a hub of activity, through the Tudor and the Stuart age. The house itself dates back to Medieval age, with the huge circular bank and defensive ditches of the castle still visible, following the famous Motte and Bailey castle layout. These were put in place by the de Port family, who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, and in the 1100’s made Basing House their home. But it wasn’t until the Paulet family, with Sir William Paulet, the first Marquess of Winchester and Lord Treasurer of England, who decided to build what was the more recent picture of the Basing House that we all know in 1535.

Image of one of the many defensive ditches around the castle

It was this settlement in Basing which welcomed big names throughout British History, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I after her marriage in Winchester on her honeymoon and Elizabeth I on many occasions. It was such an important hub of activity in the Tudor era, with it being labelled as the biggest Private House at the time. The house played what we can imagine as such an important part within the village, having the canal run through with a link to Woking, allowing for good link ups to London, as well as providing trade to the area. It is weird to believe that the people of Old Basing will most probably be walking in the footsteps of some of the biggest names in English history.

The Tudor Family

Yet it was the when the English Civil War broke out in 1642, with a divide between the Royalist and catholic supporters of King Charles I, and the protestants who favoured a stronger parliament, when the greatness of Basing House played out in such a bloody battle. John Paulet, the fifth Marquess of Winchester was the resident of Basing House at the time, and very much kept to his family motto of: “Aymez Loyaulte” (Love Loyalty). As you can imagine, being close to the monarchy at a tender time like this did come at a cost, and led to Basing House being attacked by Parliamentary troops, something that happened on 3 occasions. However the house did not fall easily, and it took 3 years for the parliamentary forces to finally break the walls, with the final assault in August 1645 seeing 800 men take up positions on the walls. It wasn’t until Cromwell himself turned up with heavy artillery that the house had been breached in October 1645.

Image of Cromwell as the Storming if Basing House by Croft

In the last few days of Basing House as a real symbol of excellence saw a bloody battle break out in the Basing barn, and saw between 40 and a hundred people killed. Though this may not seem much now, back then it was a huge loss to the village, with the parliamentary troops taking pillage to the house, and soon a fire destroyed the building. Parliament called for the demolition of the building, with villagers allowed to take materials for their own building. Paulet was stripped of his estate, and sent to the Tower of London on a charge of high treason, yet this charge was later dropped and Basing House later returned to him by the restoration of Charles II. Later, Charles Paulet, son of John pulled down the house and moved his own family home to Hackwood, leading to the end of the importance of Basing House in this period.

Image of the Cannon at Basing House, with a range of hitting the AA building in the background of that photo

Unknown to many, the importance of Basing House has been something overlooked by people, and had been such an important symbol of the Civil war conflict in Britain. I myself had completely been naïve on just how much history Basing House had, and how it is still evident in modern-day. For years I had walked on the Old Basing Common, not realising that these were the old hunting fields of the house, and the battlefield where Cromwell led his army to take the castle. History was quite literally on my door step and had such an important role in the Tudor and Stuart periods, and was an important battlefield in the Civil War, without me ever knowing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and if you can, go visit Basing House!

Artist Impression of the storming

World War One: Fortresses, with a focus on Przemyśl

It can be hard to imagine that during an age of artillery, tanks, machine guns and aircraft that fortresses were still being used.  In fact the fortresses of the 20th century were deadly, Verdun, a line of fortifications that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to take, or Przemyśl, a fortress town being attacked by the Russians who used to old method of starving the defenders.  So this blog post will focus on these two examples, to give a flavour of the impact of fortresses and their importance in WW1.  The majority of the post does focus on Przemyśl, I hope you enjoy the read!

So let’s start with Przemyśl, owned by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, however when sieged it was in enemy territory.  When the Russians won the battle of Galacia in 1914, the Austrians were pushed back, with only Przemyśl standing, defiant in the face of the Russian foe.  There were around thirty miles of trenches, which surrounded the fortress town, including the famous barbed wire, which would entangle a man and kill him.  The garrison of this fortress was an incredible 127,000.  May I hasten to remind you that Winchester’s population is less than 40,000, so that’s three times the city where I study!  The foe, however, were the Russians, who strangely did not outnumber the defenders (this is quite unexpected, it is often thought the attacker needs to outnumber a defender 3:1, which probably explains the Russian generals decision to starve out, rather than to directly attack).

The town was to be sieged twice, the first time, the Russians launching an assault and loosing around 40,000 men, that is an incredible number, however the attack was repulsed and a relief force sent by the Germans managed to puncture through and escort the civilians out, leaving the Austrian army, mixed of different nationalities, left to defend to the town.

The Second siege would start in October 31, 1914, with the German army being pushed pack after the defeat at the battle of the Vistula River.  The Second siege was to be one of starvation and waiting for the defenders.  The relief efforts made by the Germans and Austrians were all to fail.  With heavy artillery, the defenses of the fortress were destroyed and the trenches overran, the Austrian army destroyed anything that would have been useful to the Russians and once an attempted breakout had been stopped, they surrendered on March 22 1915.  They had little choice.

There was once instance of when, a force of 30,000 Hungarian troops, starving, perhaps emboldened by hunger, marched out from the forts which they were garrison in a desperate attempt to raid the Russian food base at Mosciska, 20 miles away.  Their route led them past the strongest of all the Russian artillery positions.  The 30,000 men were annihilated by a bombardment of shells, machine-gun fire and rifle bullets.  It is hard to imagine that out of 30,000 troops, only 4,000 would return, with the rest killed or captured, it was a suicidal mission, nonetheless, people were desperate.

So let us move on to the fortresses at Verdun.  The area immediately around Verdun contained twenty major forts and forty smaller ones that had historically protected the eastern border of France.  They were upgraded in the early part of the 20th century.  The assault was part of the German strategy to bleed France White.  It was believed that the French would not surrender at Verdun, they could not allow these forts to fall. It was a matter of national prestige and dignity, losing them would have led to great humiliation.  The Germans believed that the French would fight to the last man at Verdun, which in turn would mean that the French would lose so many men that the battle would change the course of the war.

In the attempt to control Verdun and its fortresses, over a quarter of a million men lost their lives.  It proved to be unbreakable, the French held.  The figures at the start of the battle were one million German troops against 200,000 defenders.  Again this would seem normal, as the attacker has to outnumber the defender if assaulting directly.  However by the end, Of the 330 infantry regiments of the French army, 259 eventually fought at Verdun.  Did you know the Battle of the Somme was an attempt to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun.  That was its main purpose.

In the end Verdun was to be a bloodbath, with neither side making many gains, and the body count just rising.  The German army did manage to take a few forts, however, as soon as the Somme commenced, it was impractical for the Germans to continue, they couldn’t afford to just through men at forts.

Therefore fortresses were important in WW1 .  They were of course modernized, with the original 19th century fortresses inadequate for the task, with technology, deep tunnels and trenches being added.  They could withstand a certain amount of artillery fire and in some cases appeared impregnable.  The only way to defeat them appeared to be either starve them out or just hope they run out of men before you do.  Like most of WWI, it was attrition that won you the battle.